It has been almost seven months since Hearts last played their fateful match against St Mirren, before the SPFL decided to demote the club following the COVID 19 crisis. Since then, a whole host of players have left the club, as new boss Robbie Neilson began to plan for life in the Championship. Having beat Inverness Caley Thistle last Tuesday night, the club continued their winning start in the Betfred Cup on Saturday by squeezing past Cowdenbeath with a scrappy 1-0 win thanks to a Craig Halkett goal. An almost second-string side followed these results up with a 3-1 victory over Raith Rovers.
New signings have made their mark so far, with Josh Ginnelly looking like a standout on the right wing for Hearts. Others have slotted in exactly as expected, such as Craig Gordon. He has helped the club to two clean sheets, with the Caley Thistle 1-0 win exemplifying his undoubted quality with an outstanding reflex save. The building blocks are slotting into place as the club looks to bounce back from the pain of last season, so how will it look?
Craig Gordon has already relieved the beats per minute of all Hearts fans due to his commanding nature in the first two games of the Betfred Cup. Gone are the days of Joel Pereira flapping at crosses and struggling with basic shot stopping skills.
Michael Smith will slot in comfortably at right back, whilst being expected to cover at centre-half in the absence of Berra and Souttar joining the Hearts defenders injury carousel. Jamie Brandon has been an adequate back up in the first two games and will be expected to deputise a fair few times this season due to Smith being on international duty with Northern Ireland.
New signing Mihai Popescu has looked steady in the opening two games, although there were some shaky moments against Inverness between him and Craig Halkett. Halkett has a massive season ahead of him at Hearts. He split supporters last season and at times offered an alarming lack of pace, although he wasn’t helped by the lack of a consistent tactical defensive plan at the club.
Left back is the most intriguing possibility. On paper, Stephen Kingsley looks like the safest option, having joined last week after a spell in England. He offers a good pedigree down the left hand side and should be first pick ahead of Aidy White, who is likely looking at his final season in maroon.
A much more intriguing possibility. Peter Haring is still Hearts’ star midfielder, however he has been left out of the tactics board for now. His recovery from injury will see him eased in very slowly back to the Hearts line up. If handled correctly, it would be an enormous boost to see him strolling around the centre of the park again, week in week out. Even in the 10 minute spell against Cowdenbeath, there was a moment when the Austrian let the ball run round his body, bamboozling their midfield, before slotting a comfortable and penetrating forward ball into the wide areas. It highlighted what has been sorely missing in the Hearts engine room.
Olly Lee is the biggest question mark ahead of the league campaign. Does he start? Probably not, if the Cowdenbeath game is a marker for his effectiveness. Excuses can be made, such as an unfamiliar squad far from full strength, not to mention the plastic pitch at Bayview stadium, however the bottom line is Hearts struggled to break down a League Two side in the first half. Olly Lee as a deeper playmaker often took an age to shift play to the wings, giving the Cowdenbeath players time to shuffle back into shape.
The change in tempo in the second half was incidentally down to quick long balls down the channels from players outwith Lee. This resulted in a more stretched opposition compared to the methodical approach that saw a lot of the play go through Lee in the first half. Neilson may start his two Andys – Irving and Halliday – against Dundee on Friday night in the league opener. With form, injuries and fitness affecting team selection, those two will offer a greater range of balance, with Irving possessing the ability to drive and play quick one twos from midfield to create space when things get tight. Halliday will offer a combative presence in the midfield, quickly recycling the ball to wide areas or to Irving and Jamie Walker.
Everyone and their gran who followed Hearts last season knew what the club were lacking – pace in wide areas. Neilson to his credit has immediately targeted that, with Jordan Roberts, Elliot Frear and Josh Ginnelly offering what was lacking last season. Both Roberts and Frear are more likely to operate on the left, with Ginnelly on the right. It was interesting to note on Tuesday night that Neilson went with Jamie Walker instead of a recognised left winger, which enables both Walker and Steven Naismith to slot into the team.
Robbie Neilson has a nice problem to have in this regard – two SPFL Premiership quality number 10s. The form of Jamie Walker in pre-season created a bit of a buzz, as he contributed with a number of goals whilst zipping around Liam Boyce up front. Club captain Steven Naismith missed a chunk of the extended pre-season due to injury and fitness concerns, which enabled Walker to grab his chance. The biggest issue is who to start? Reputation would suggest Naismith, however Walker currently has a leg up in terms of fitness and form.
It will be interesting to see what Neilson goes with. Shoehorning both into the side against Caley Thistle on Tuesday resulted in a complete lack of width on the left hand side and ended up nullifying both Walker and Naismith’s effectiveness. The Hearts manager went with a more expected line up against Cowdenbeath, starting with 2 wingers for the width. Interestingly he put Naismith up front, which may hint at where he sees him this season if Walker builds on his promising form.
The born-again Craig Wighton offered a tantalising glimpse of what he is capable of against Raith Rovers with a hat trick. He now possesses a new Grant Mitchell style look, with additional muscle to lead the line. However, it is likely he will be a backup to Liam Boyce, who Hearts paid £150,000 for in January. Boyce is a lethal hitman in the right areas and will link play effectively with those behind him. Neilson has already stated he sees him as his target man up top, and he was expected to start against Dundee in the league opener. Whether or not the manager goes with Wighton after his Raith mauling will be interesting.
Interestingly, the number 9 shirt has been left blank by Hearts. Is there another free agent to come in and challenge Boyce, Wighton and even Steven Naismith for the front role? There will be no shortage of players looking for clubs at the moment, so it will likely be in the back of Neilson’s mind. Naismith playing as the striker against Cowdenbeath would hint that he will be the third option.
A formation change may also get the best out of the forward talent the club possess. Hearts went 4-2-4 for the last 30 minutes of the second half, with Jordan Roberts also playing alongside Wighton. There are plenty of options now at the club, and the next few weeks will be crucial in Neilson finding the perfect blend.
Possible Line up vs. Dundee on 16/10. *Haring would be in the first XI were it not for fitness.