In a fixture that demanded a positive performance, the players duly delivered as Hearts recorded their first league win since mid-October over a hapless Motherwell side. For the first time in many a week, the team looked balanced, organised and settled, with the standout performances coming largely from our attacking players.
For too long, Tony Watt’s habit of dropping deep had not only been negating his own attacking threat, it was also having a disruptive effect on his team-mates, whose space he was occupying like an unwelcome squatter. It was no coincidence, therefore, that with Watt relegated to the position of unused sub, we witnessed a markedly improved fluency in midfield between Djoum, Walker, Muirhead and Cowie.
The main beneficiary of that fluency was Bjorn Johnsen, who opened the scoring after latching onto a sublime through ball from Djoum. Despite having shown significant skill and composure to finish the move, coolly rounding Craig Samson and stroking the ball into the empty net, Johnsen appeared more determined to direct the plaudits towards his Cameroonian team-mate during the ensuing celebrations, such is the Norwegian-American’s affable modesty.
Djoum, however, will have been just as grateful to have a team-mate leading the line in a way that facilitated his incisive passing. In Johnsen, Hearts appear to have found a striker who not only uses his speed and height to make a nuisance of himself around opposing defenders, but who (unlike his fellow strikers to date) can also back it up with an end product. Speaking after the game, John Souttar was full of praise for his team-mate:
“Bjorn is a handful. I wouldn’t want to play against him with the qualities he’s got. He’s a big boy, he’s got an eye for goal, he’s a runner, he works hard and he’s still young.”
That Johnsen went into the half-time break without a second goal to his name is a mystery only the linesman holds the key to, having incorrectly flagged for offside as the 25-year old sent a smart looping header into the far corner after 35 minutes.
Another player who enjoyed arguably his best game in maroon was Robbie Muirhead, whose impressive performance on the left offered reassurance that we have suitable cover in Sam Nicholson’s absence. Already this season we have seen glimpses of what Muirhead can offer out wide in terms of his pace, power and crossing, all of which caused Motherwell’s Richard Tait problems. However, it was his accuracy from dead ball situations that eventually led to Hearts’ (and Johnsen’s) second goal, the striker rising to meet Muirhead’s corner with a downward header five minutes into the second half.
Djoum and Walker, meanwhile, seemed to have re-discovered a certain freedom in midfield that had been stifled somewhat in previous weeks and were looking back to their threatening best. On 66 minutes, the pair combined well on the counter attack after a moment of hesitancy in the Motherwell defence, Walker adding the finishing touch with a low shot into Samson’s far corner.
As has been characteristic of recent performances, however, Hearts weren’t without their own defensive blips and had Faycal Rherras to thank for three separate goal line clearances when Motherwell’s attackers were able to connect too easily with Lionel Ainsworth’s corners. Such was the acrobatic nature of his second and third clearances that Rherras was allocated the goalkeeping position in this week’s SPFL team of the week, the novelty of which is a fitting acknowledgement of the Moroccan’s last-ditch efforts to preserve his team’s clean sheet, but one that doesn’t exactly reflect brilliantly on his colleagues’ defending of set pieces.
Having said that, in previous weeks we may have been unlucky enough to see a couple of those headers hit the back of the net, so we can’t have too many complaints. Likewise, as abject as Motherwell were over the course of the game, we’ve already dropped a considerable number of points to equally poor teams. After a four-game winless run in which we conceded ten goals, a comfortable win coupled with a clean sheet can certainly be considered progress in the circumstances.
Attention now turns to tonight and the visit of Mark Warburton’s Rangers, a fixture that has taken on added significance since news of Robbie Neilson’s imminent departure to MK Dons broke on Monday night.
Although Neilson has not yet put pen to paper on a move to Milton Keynes, the general feeling is that this evening’s game will be the last of his Hearts tenure. Whether or not he is missed will be the subject of much supporter debate on social media for the foreseeable future, but will also depend on the quality of his replacement: for the first time in this post-administration era at Tynecastle, Ann Budge and Craig Levein will be tasked with recruiting a head coach who not only buys into the club’s ethos, but who can also build on the solid foundations laid by Neilson during his two and a half years in charge.
On Sunday 10thAugust 2014, Neilson’s first league game in charge ended in a 2–1 win against Rangers, setting the ball rolling for a record-breaking Championship title-winning campaign. It is fitting, therefore, that he has the opportunity tonight to bookend the first chapter of his managerial career with a win against the same opposition; a win that could lift Hearts into that coveted second spot.
That’s all from me for the time being. Have a nice day and if you’re going to the game tonight, enjoy!
Originally published at maroonspecs.wordpress.com on November 30, 2016.