Another week, another draw. It’s an odd creature, the draw. By their very nature, draws are completely balanced and yet our perception of them varies depending on the circumstances. There are some that inspire all the joy of a resounding victory, usually after coming back from a goal or two down (for example, the 4–4 derby or the 1–1 at Easter Road last season courtesy of Alim Ozturk’s wonder-strike) while others feel as bad as the most gut-wrenching of defeats if victory has been denied. There are also those end-to-end draws that hang on a knife-edge throughout, “perfect for the neutrals” they say, yet causing severe heart palpitations for home and away supporters alike. Most draws, however, are complete non-events that eventually slip from our memories entirely.
Last week’s 1–1 draw with Dundee, while hardly earth-shattering, was certainly leaning towards the more disappointing end of the spectrum, having had several chances to put the result beyond doubt only for the visitors to grab an equaliser. It is harder to categorise Saturday’s 2–2 result at Fir Park The weather perhaps made it more of a knife-edge affair, though in the wider context of the league, with Aberdeen winning and leapfrogging us into second, it could also be seen as two points dropped. However, based on the narrative of the game itself and the fact that we pulled back from a goal down on two occasions, not to mention our generally miserable defeat-ridden record at Fir Park in recent years, I would be inclined to rate this draw more positively.
Some may see that as a lenient view to take, which I would agree with had I also allowed myself to get sucked into the title talk generated by some of our less media-savvy players, Blazej Augustyn being the latest to wax lyrical about Hearts’ chances of challenging Celtic at the top of the league. There is a real sense of “learn to walk before you can run” about this, which is certainly a lot more succinct than “learn to beat teams who are second-bottom in the league and have only won twice at home before you start talking about challenging for the title”.
Despite their general insignificance in Europe (highlighted once again in the past week) there are a number of reasons Celtic romp to the title every year and one of those is their ability to consistently beat teams (the Motherwells, Dundees and Invernesses of this league) that Hearts regularly slip up against. While the past couple of results have extended our unbeaten run to eight games, they have also illustrated just how far we are from troubling the league leaders.
That isn’t meant as criticism of Augustyn or his ambition. However, it is no coincidence that the newest signings are finding themselves drawn into that conversation more easily than the players and coaching staff who are fully accustomed to the Scottish football media.
In the current Scottish football climate any mention of title challenges from a non-Old Firm team merely serves as ammunition for the Weegia to put those teams back in their place with an inevitably smug “I told you so” when said title challenges fail to materialise (see Andy Walker circa 2006). As far as the Hearts players are concerned, such ambition should always be encouraged internally (and only internally) but publicly, the party line should always been the same: top six then see where it takes us.
Having missed this game in order to attend a family member’s first birthday celebration, my perception of how we played has been very much shaped by news reports and the more level-headed contributions to the world of social media. By and large, it sounds like more of the same from the Dundee match, namely a lack of sharpness in front of goal despite Osman Sow and Juanma scoring their eighth and ninth goals of the season respectively (and in some style). When identifying what disappointed him most about the result during his post-match comments, Robbie Neilson seemed torn between his players’ profligacy and the elements:
“We had a one-v-one involving Osman in the first half, we had Sam Nicholson in good positions, Arnaud Djoum in good positions, Juanma as well. We had five or six really good chances to win it, but the conditions at times were just horrific. Juanma chips it over the keeper and it looks the like the ball’s going in, then the wind blows it out… It wasn’t until half an hour to go, when the wind and rain died down a bit, that we started to play. I was disappointed in the performance a bit. We want to play football and it can be difficult in those conditions.”
Neilson perhaps let his players off the hook slightly by shifting some of the blame onto the Scottish climate. By contrast, Callum Paterson was unequivocal as to where the buck stopped for this result:
“The conditions are no excuse. The pitch isn’t an excuse, the weather’s no excuse. It’s down to ourselves. You can’t blame anyone else for playing badly and that’s what I feel we did. Last year we went and won the league with games to spare and that’s the standard we set ourselves. We looked to take that into this season and we haven’t done that. We lost a goal after a minute. I don’t think we’ve ever lost a goal that quickly with this team. It’s disappointing for us.”
I’m inclined to agree with Paterson. As lousy as the weather was, both teams had to find a way of adapting to it and it sounds as though we struggled to do so for large parts of the game. It also doesn’t help going 1–0 down and having to fight your way back into the contest almost immediately after kick-off, although on a different day with a different referee, Louis Moult’s goal may not have stood. Although my personal opinion is that goalkeepers get a disproportionate amount of protection, referees need to be consistent in their judgement and considering the slightest contact with a keeper often results in a foul these days, Neil Alexander may have had a case for feeling aggrieved after Moult appeared to knock the ball from his grasp before scoring.
It was perhaps a blessing in disguise to concede so early on. When we’re up against it these days, we seem to show greater urgency than when we’re in a narrow winning position in need of another goal, which by contrast seems to inspire a more lackadaisical approach. The fact we were only behind for a combined total of about ten minutes on Saturday is testament to our resolve in the more testing situations. Yet despite clawing our way back into the game on two occasions — first through Juanma’s deft chip over the keeper and then in the second half thanks to Osman Sow’s 30-yard thunderbastard — we seemed to have lacked the ruthlessness to finish Motherwell off when we had a spell on top.
Part of that, by his own admission, was down to wastefulness from Sam Nicholson in front of goal, the 20-year old winger having missed a gilt-edged chance to win the game after Sow’s equaliser.
“Even though it’s wet and slippy, I still feel I should be finishing that chance…I think I should be hard on myself. Too many times I’ve missed chances that I should be finishing. I’m an honest player. If I’m not playing well, if I’m not finishing things off that I should, then I’m going to say.”
Nicholson’s honest assessment, while commendable, is perhaps a little too self-critical given how well he has played so far this season. What it does highlight, however, is that goals from other positions on the pitch are at a premium just now. Having seen goals come from all positions last season — with almost every outfield player registering one goal during the Championship campaign — it seems we are now relying more heavily on the goal-scoring form of our two strikers.
Of course, strikers are there primarily to get you goals, so it is by no means a negative to have both Juanma and Sow as close to double figures as they are at this stage of the season. Should both keep up their current form, there is every chance we’ll see the first 20-goal season from a Hearts striker since…since…my memory fails me.
Unfortunately there is always the potential for a dip in form or injury. Even last season, there was no spell where all our strikers were scoring frequently. Sow started the season brightly but injuries got in the way, which left James Keatings (who himself had experienced a comparatively slower start) to carry the team through a tough winter period until Genero Zeefuik was brought in on loan for the second half of the season. However, the occasional dip in our strikers’ form last year mattered less so when goals were coming from their team-mates in other areas of the pitch, particularly Nicholson, Jamie Walker, Billy King and a staggeringly prolific defence. Injury has obviously hampered some of those players this season, but with the exception of Arnaud Djoum and Callum Paterson, the goal-scoring contribution from other positions has been a bit muted.
Until we see a marked improvement on that front, it’s essential that a player of Osman Sow’s quality (in this kind of form) is kept fit and tied down on a longer term deal. There was positive news this week in the form of extended deals for Djoum and Igor Rossi, which adds considerable security to our midfield and central defence for the foreseeable future. Of the three of them, however, Sow would be the most pleasing to retain for longer and would complete what promises to be a very formidable spine of our team for the next season and a half.
Anyway, Inverness at home this weekend and the visitors will be looking to arrest a dismal run of form that has seen them win only once in their last seven games (against Motherwell at Fir Park coincidentally enough). This encounter is not only a chance to get back into that winning habit, but an opportunity for the players to atone for the Highland horror show they put on during our run of defeats earlier in the season. Having said that, if our draws against Dundee and Motherwell have taught us anything, it’s that teams in poor form are not to be treated so lightly. Until next time!
Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on December 3, 2015.