Return of the Fresh Prince as Djoum Shakes the (Engine) Room
A bit later than usual with my thoughts on the latest encounter, which saw Hearts deal with Hamilton in efficient — albeit muted — fashion on a hugely significant weekend in the club’s calendar, where the football itself is of secondary importance as supporters pay their respects to those who lost their lives in the First World War, among them members of the great Hearts team of 1914. It is always a small but fitting tribute, therefore, when the current Tynecastle charges can mark the occasion with a win.
“Revenge” is perhaps too strong a word to describe Saturday’s result but there was definitely a satisfying vindication in sending Hamilton home empty-handed. The defeat at New Douglas Park in August had been a particularly bitter pill to swallow for a number of reasons. Not only did it provide another exhibition of that refereeing incompetence more commonly known as Collumism, it ended our glorious unbeaten start to the season when (prior to Callum Paterson’s red card) we looked certain to extend it. This of course sparked the dip in form that lasted for the majority of September and fully reacquainted us with the feeling of defeat that had become so alien the year before. That bitter taste has since been washed away and the poor form arrested in impressive fashion, however only on Saturday did it feel like the universe had fully corrected itself.
In some respects, however, we also have to thank Hamilton for that early-season wake-up call, as it also set our players, most notably the defenders, on a path to self-improvement from which they have now gleaned four clean sheets in a row. Having benefited considerably from cheap defensive errors in the first league meeting, Hamilton found the Hearts backline in a far less charitable mood this time round and (aside from a couple of first half headers) struggled to threaten Neil Alexander’s goal in any meaningful way. Their frustration was telling and they seemed intent on generating the same needle that marred the previous encounter, employing hatchet-man tactics very early on in an attempt to noise up some of the more volatile personalities in the Hearts team.
Fortunately, only Juanma took the bait and reacted by offering Bobby Madden assistance in identifying which Hamilton players to caution, ending up with a yellow card of his own instead. Unfortunately, this means the Spaniard will now miss the Dundee game in just under a fortnight, having accumulated the requisite number of disciplinary points, which I was surprised hadn’t actually happened sooner given how many bookings he’s picked up for dissent this season. It’s a frustrating aspect of Juanma’s game (albeit an unsurprising one given the footballing culture he’s been brought up in) but it’s hopefully something Neilson addresses in the coming weeks. With only Gavin Reilly in reserve, our striking options are thin on the ground at the best of times, and needless suspensions certainly don’t help matters.
By contrast, one area where our options are looking increasingly plentiful is central midfield. Registering clean sheets and scoring freely has become a weekly habit for Hearts these days and while the defence and attack have deservedly taken the plaudits in recent weeks, the players in the middle of the park have made a comparatively unsung contribution. In Saturday’s encounter with Hamilton, however, two of those players were hard to ignore.
Arnaud Djoum continued to demonstrate exactly why Robbie Neilson is so keen to tie him down on a longer-term contract. Not only is the Belgian proving to be a composed influence in the middle, he also has a determination to get in amongst the goals and (having started the move himself further down the park) showed all the instinct of a “fox in the box” striker to convert Osman Sow’s selfless assist for the second goal. That he failed to double his goal tally was purely down to a matter of inches and milliseconds, which prevented him from connecting with Sam Nicholson’s ball across the face of goal in the second half.
As promising as Djoum’s form has been, perhaps more pleasing was the performance of his midfield colleague Prince Buaben, who had earlier opened the scoring with a fine opportunistic 30-yard strike into the bottom corner, sparking arguably his best performance in a season that has so far seen his place in the starting line-up come under growing supporter scrutiny.
There are many who believe the Ghanaian simply isn’t cut out for this league, his previous underwhelming spell at Partick Thistle often being used to support that assessment. Granted, there is a certain casual nature to Buaben’s play which frustrates fans. While he would often be allowed to spend a little longer on the ball last season, for example, Premiership players are not nearly as generous as their Championship counterparts and on several occasions this season he has been caught dithering in possession.
It would be unfair, however, to attribute this solely to a lack of ability given the early-season fitness problems he endured. In fact, had it not been for near-concurrent injuries to Miguel Pallardo, Jamie Walker and Morgaro Gomis, Buaben may have been afforded more time on the sidelines to play catch up, yet in less-than-ideal circumstances, found himself the least injured, most consistently-available central midfield option. Even as recently as two weeks ago after the Ross County game, Buaben by his own admission felt he was still some way off, having spent the entire second half working hard to compensate for Blazej Augustyn’s dismissal.
“I’ve always been behind in pre-season. It’s happened the last couple or three years. It’s obviously something I’d never wish for but it happened and I just have to get on with it and keep training hard every day…the gaffer keeps pushing me. I push myself as well, trying to get back to my best; I just need to keep trying.”
The hard work appears to be paying off and it was clear on Saturday that his match sharpness is increasing each week. With Djoum performing so consistently and the likes of Gomis, Swanson and Pallardo gradually reaching full match fitness themselves, our central midfield is beginning to take on a more formidable look than it has at any other point this season. With that strength in depth comes scope for greater squad rotation, which in turn may lift the burden from Buaben’s shoulders and afford him time to recharge his batteries. On the other hand, it may spur him on to ensure he keeps hold of his place. Either way, the benefits will surely manifest themselves on the pitch.
Frustratingly, we now have another interlull coming up this weekend, which has the potential to completely disrupt the team’s momentum, but also provides a good opportunity for those players still carrying niggling injuries to recuperate without the risk of playing through the pain barrier. We also have the usual five-strong contingent away on international duty with Ricky Sbragia’s Scotland U21 squad and the hope will be that they can all return free from injury, most notably Paterson, Nicholson and Jordan McGhee who have all played an important part in the last few results.
Paterson in particular will be looking to make the most of this weekend. With Gordon Strachan looking to the future and the majority of Scottish football fans desperate to see Alan Hutton imprisoned for crimes against football, there is fertile ground for Paterson to make an impression this weekend and justify recent reports linking him with a call-up to the senior squad.
In the meantime, with very little Scottish interest in the upcoming weekend, the rest of us will have to make do with other non-football-related past-times as a means of filling the Hearts-shaped void in our lives. Until next time!
Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on November 11, 2015.