Drawing Blanks

by Nov 26, 2016

Greetings everyone. After a lengthier-than-planned absence from writing, largely due to the combination of a flat purchase, decoration of said flat, a stag-do and a wedding (for which I had to prepare a best man speech) it’s nice to get back to penning my Hearts-related musings in more than just a sporadic tweet.

The last time I wrote, the signs were positive for the season ahead: our defence was solid, our attackers looked as though they were starting to click and the teams that lay ahead of us looked like ideal cannon fodder. Unfortunately, the recurring theme in the intervening period has been one of defensive sloppiness and missed opportunities in games we should really have been winning.

Our strikers have been particularly complicit in that regard. Conor Sammon and Tony Watt, who had been instrumental in the 5–1 mauling of Inverness and the 2–1 victory away to Partick Thistle the following week, have failed to add to their respective goal tallies since. Although their fellow striker Bjorn Johnsen has chipped in with two goals of his own in that time, Robbie Muirhead is still waiting to open his Hearts account, leaving our strike force’s combined total at four league goals for the season so far. When our right back has scored more goals than that by himself, it makes for pretty damning reading.

Although every goal counts, there is something particularly satisfying about having a striker who can find the net regularly. This time last year, I wrote about how the strike partnership between Osman Sow and Juanma Delgado was reaping sizeable benefits, with the pair notching up 13 goals between them in as many games. Both have since departed the club in somewhat different circumstances. The effect of Sow’s departure in January has been done to death on this blog and elsewhere, but it is safe to say the Swede was (and probably still is) missed. Juanma, by contrast, saw his form plummet in the Swede’s absence as he struggled to carry the mantle of the club’s main striker. The decision to farm him out on loan to UCM Murcia was generally accepted as the best move for all parties.

With our strikers struggling to find their own form, it is perhaps unsurprising that attention has turned back towards the exiled Spaniard, who scored seven times in his first 13 league appearances last season. However, suggestions that Hearts would consider recalling Juanma from his loan were rebuffed by Robbie Neilson, who stood by the frontmen at his disposal:

“Juanma is there until the end of the season so we will deal with that next summer. It is up to the club that he moved to what happens next but the situation at the moment is that I feel we have better strikers here than (bringing him back) would offer us. The guys are working hard, creating chances and working for the team. It will click in soon because they are all good players.”

The latter part of that statement is perhaps the most telling. It was well-documented last season that the head coach was unhappy with Juanma’s poor work rate and questionable attitude, which were largely to blame for his poor performances in the second half of last season and why few supporters were unhappy to see him depart in the summer. Whether or not it’s because our recent slump has accentuated the poor conversion rate from our current strikers, the fact that Juanma is even being considered as a possible solution only serves to demonstrate how a player’s absence often causes fans to over-romanticise and revise their previously low opinions of him.

While on his day, Juanma is arguably a better finisher than Sammon and Watt, I don’t believe his presence in the side would have had any significant impact on our recent form, positive or negative. What I can say with certainty, however, is that in games where there is a bit of needle or a requirement to dig deep to salvage something (any of our last three draws in other words), a player as volatile as Juanma is by no means the answer. While there are some question marks over Watt’s own commitment at present, our other strikers are arguably better-equipped mentally to cope with adversity.

It is also worth noting that, despite the lack of goals from up front, players in other positions are making up the shortfall. Our tally of 24 goals matches our count from this time last season and is bettered only by the league leaders. The problem is, where those goals were securing wins for us last year, this season they are only serving to drag us back into games we’re falling behind in, which points to frailties at the back which simply didn’t exist four games ago. When you consider we had one of the better defensive records in the league until recently, it is hard to explain how a back line made up of perfectly capable defenders can leak so many soft goals in such as short space of time.

However, as frustrating as that has been for supporters, talk of a “crisis” is typically overblown. As Don Cowie put it:

“I remember speaking after three games this season and it was a crisis then. We went on a good run and we have shown we’re willing to face the fight. I’m not going to hide the fact this has been a run of games where a club like Hearts goes in expecting and trying to win. To not win any is disappointing. On the positive side we’re showing a good togetherness. We’re going behind in matches and we’re getting back into it late. That shows a lot about our squad but it’s important we start winning. We’ve shown we can create and score goals, we just need to defend better collectively.”

Compared to this time last season, we find ourselves six points worse off, which on the face of it looks like regression. However, if that lower points tally is a cut-and-dried sign of a team “moving backwards”, the majority of teams in the league must be suffering similar crises, with only Celtic, Motherwell and Partick on more points than they were after 13 games last year (and even then Partick find themselves in the same league position).

Whether we like to admit it or not, Celtic are looking untouchable this season and the league beneath them is a much tighter affair. The presence of Rangers has added another competitive dimension to the race for second (only in Scotland could the status of runners-up be coveted so highly) but as it stands, we’re still well within touching distance of that. Of course, if we want to stay in that race, we need to start turning these draws into wins as soon as possible.

A home fixture against a team with a recent away record as poor as Motherwell’s may be the jumpstart we need ahead of a potentially season-defining December period.

Enjoy the game!

Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on November 26, 2016.