Dee Draw Denies Hearts Five in a Row
The nagging fear that last weekend’s international break could upset our momentum was realised yesterday as a 1–1 draw with Dundee brought the recent winning run to an end. Despite starting brightly, the game eventually evolved into one of the poorest Hearts performances for a while, from which few positives can be taken other than the fact it extends our unbeaten league run to seven. Nevertheless, it still felt like a missed opportunity in the circumstances, with Celtic and Aberdeen also dropping points in their respective fixtures.
The main bit of team news to emerge in the build-up to this game was the return to fitness of Juwon Oshaniwa, which left question marks over how Robbie Neilson would reshuffle a back line that has performed so well recently, if indeed he felt compelled to reshuffle them at all. A lot has been made of the stark turnaround in Hearts’ defensive fortunes recently and Blazej Augustyn, Igor Rossi, Callum Paterson and Jordan McGhee have merited much of that praise. However, McGhee was always the player most likely to be sacrificed to accommodate Oshaniwa, and so it proved when the teams were announced at 2pm yesterday; an unfortunate turn of events for the youngster and a decision received with little warmth by supporters, particularly after witnessing a rather unconvincing performance from the Nigerian.
With the benefit of hindsight at our disposal, it is easier for fans to criticise and say Neilson should have stuck with McGhee, but it can be argued either way. On one hand, it seemed like a fairly straight-forward, logical swap. Earlier in the season, when he chose to play Juanma and Gavin Reilly out wide against Aberdeen while natural wingers like King and Nicholson occupied the bench, Neilson was criticised heavily by supporters.
Oshaniwa is the club’s only natural left back and to persist with McGhee in that position at the Nigerian’s expense would have been another example of the much-maligned “square pegs in round holes” approach with which supporters would inevitably arm themselves in the possible event of McGhee playing badly. As capably as McGhee has deputised in the position, he isn’t a natural full back and clearly harbours ambitions to cement his place in the centre of defence at some stage. From the supporters’ point of view as well, there would be a certain hint of hypocrisy in calling for McGhee to retain his starting place, out of position, after having accused Neilson of cluelessness the last time he utilised his players in such a way.
On the other hand, there is certainly a case to be made for McGhee. First of all, he hasplayed well and despite being out of position has not looked entirely out of place. His consistency in the last few weeks even led some to suggest that the youngster should persist in learning his trade as a full back instead of trying to break through the supposed glass ceiling at centre back. Physically, he does not seem ready for a centre back berth just now and with Alim Ozturk on the verge of a return to the first team, McGhee is arguably back to being fourth choice in his preferred position. Oshaniwa has also still to convince a lot of punters of his own worth: while he clearly has ability, he has the tendency to improvise when least appropriate and there’s always a sense that a critical mistake is only one ill-advised Cruyff turn away.
Bringing him back in straight away also risks sending the wrong message to a young player who has been vocal about taking his chances and has therefore worked hard to justify keeping hold of his place. I’m certainly not alone in arguing that he has done so with aplomb. When a non-Hearts supporting mate — with basic knowledge of the squad and who accompanied me to both yesterday’s game and the Hamilton match — asked where “the guy who played left back against Hamilton” was, his surprise that McGhee had been dropped was telling.
The defence, however, was not at the root of our problems yesterday (even if Rory Loy’s equaliser was gifted to him after a poorly synchronised attempt to play the offside trap). For the greater part of the opening half, Hearts had Dundee on the ropes and after Arnaud Djoum’s header opened the scoring, it looked as though another comfortable home win was very much on the cards. The second goal needed to kill the game, however, proved increasingly elusive. The longer we went without scoring, the stronger Dundee’s resolve grew and when Loy scored, the widespread feeling of déjà vu from the draw with Kilmarnock in October was palpable.
The team’s inability to convert dominance into meaningful scoring opportunities has been frustrating to watch at times this season, and while there were certainly elements of that creeping into our game yesterday, the injury-induced withdrawal of Billy King in the first half had a particularly adverse effect on the team’s attacking strength. Given how badly we needed a second goal in order to settle the nerves, Neilson’s decision to replace King with Morgaro Gomis was a strange one, especially with Miguel Pallardo already on the pitch. It has been noted in the past that Gomis and Pallardo are too similar to operate effectively together and yesterday was more of the same, with both taking up similarly defensive positions but neither providing the necessary incisiveness going forward.
Gavin Reilly and Danny Swanson were thrown on in a last-ditch attempt to grab a winner and, like the good little scapegoats they have become, were ceremoniously ripped to shreds by some supporters for not making the desired impact. What a lot of the boo-boys conveniently forget is that by the time both players were introduced, the game plan had already turned to desperate, aimless long balls that even a more physically-imposing player like Osman Sow had no hope of dealing with (let alone players as small as Reilly, Swanson or Nicholson). Focusing on the usual suspects also detracts from the reality that most of the players had a bad day at the office in a fixture that any team harbouring title ambitions would be expected to win routinely. That in itself is an indication of how unrealistic some supporters have been in their expectations of the current side. As Neilson stated after the game:
“Look, people have been saying we are going to challenge and this and that — if you want to win the league you need to win games like this. Simple as. We’re not ready to go and win these games, not ready to win them consistently and that’s what you have to do. Hopefully we can build a team that can go and do that. You have to win against Dundee at home, you have to win against Motherwell away.”
Much of Neilson’s post-match disappointment seemed to stem from the fact that it provided Aberdeen with a chance to overtake us in second place. As it happens, the Dons failed to capitalise on that opportunity and could only muster a draw against Hamilton, resulting in somewhat of a stalemate between the top three. While the result was disappointing, it’s hardly catastrophic given the circumstances. No ground gained, but none lost either.
Of course, we can’t rely on Celtic and Aberdeen slipping up every week, and with St Johnstone slowly making up ground in fourth, the focus for Neilson and co will be returning to winning ways against Motherwell next week. The Steelmen are having a bad season so far and this has all the makings of a winnable game, but with Hearts’ recent record at Fir Park as miserable as it is, it is by no means a foregone conclusion.
Until next time!
Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on November 22, 2015.