Without their main attacking influence, it hasn’t rained for Hearts this month, it’s poured.
International breaks: who needs them? Well, as it happens, it’s become increasingly apparent that Hearts do.
While international football is usually regarded as an unwelcome interruption to club business, these occasions have come around at rather opportune moments this season, whether it’s a well-deserved breather after an impressive early-season run of seven straight victories or a chance to regroup after the first taste of defeat.
The latest recess, meanwhile, could not have been timed any better, with Hearts at the lowest ebb of their season after a particularly testing (i.e. winless) month and Craig Levein searching for a way to stop the rot.
This is a Hearts side that has already shown on a number of occasions this season that it can cope with a setback or two. When I last wrote on here, we’d just dropped points at home to Livingston and the team found itself being booed off the Tynecastle pitch by pockets of supporters within ground. At the time, two dropped points was treated as a mini-crisis in the context of what was a surprisingly good start to the campaign. Still, the players bounced back immediately and put any notion of a slump to bed with two convincing home wins over Motherwell and St Johnstone.
Then came the first defeat of the season away to Rangers, an entirely self-inflicted result brought about by catastrophic defending in the opening half hour. Instead of feeling sorry for themselves or letting the malaise of defeat hang over them, the players responded positively once again, this time with a home win against Aberdeen and a fourth away win of the season in Dundee.
The vast majority of this was conducted amidst one of the most freakish injury crises many of us will have ever witnessed, with Christophe Berra, John Souttar and Uche Ikpeazu all picking up long-term injuries during the first round of fixtures. Throughout that period, many of a non-maroon persuasion were waiting for the bubble to burst.
The above circumstances would have derailed a lot of teams long before now, particularly some Hearts sides of recent years, but this version of Hearts is different. If anything, the injuries to key players served to demonstrate not only the depth in this squad, but also its wealth of strong characters and leaders.
The starkest representation of that is Berra. Last season, he was the key Jenga piece that steadied the overall structure; this season, his absence has been mitigated by the strength of the pieces around him, particularly his replacements. Just as Berra’s injury brought out the best in Souttar (in terms of both performance and leadership qualities) Souttar’s injury has brought out similar positives in Jimmy Dunne, arguably Hearts’ strongest and most consistent performer over the past couple of months. With Clevid Dikamona also proving to be a reliable acquisition, the absence of our two first choice centre backs hasn’t been as keenly felt as we originally thought it might.
There were similar concerns when we lost Uche, especially after the Livingston stalemate offered little cause to be optimistic about life without him. Those fears were quickly alleviated after we scored 11 goals in four games against Motherwell, St Johnstone, Aberdeen and Dundee. Clearly we had adapted our style to find a way of winning without the need for his physical presence and a large chunk of that was down to Steven Naismith, which brings us to the most recent setback.
It was evident from the moment Naismith left the pitch only eight minutes into the Murrayfield semi-final that the belief drained from players and fans alike. Aside from the fact that we lost another vocal on-pitch leader, it is also hard to ignore the more tangible fact that we haven’t scored a goal since.
Whereas we’ve had the quality to deal with the defensive setbacks pretty well so far, as well maintaining an attacking threat without Uche rag-dolling defenders, this is the first setback that seems to be taking us a little longer to address.
With Naismith in the side, Hearts averaged 17.5 shots, 6.1 on target and 2.05 expected goals per league game. Without him, and this includes the League Cup semi-final largely because he was off the pitch for most of it, those figures take a significant dip — an average of 9.25 shots, only 2.25 on target and 0.61 expected goals per game.
Of the team’s 61 shots on target in that time, Naismith was responsible for nearly a quarter (14) and with seven of those finding the net at an expected conversion rate of 6.8, he was (and remains) Hearts’ most prudent attacking threat, scoring the chances he ought to.
In the interim, Steven MacLean has been relied upon as the main focal point of Hearts’ attack, a role that doesn’t appear to suit the 36-year old, whose effectiveness to date has stemmed predominantly from his off-the-ball movement and link-up play with those around him. He also doesn’t have the predatory instinct of Naismith, who has taken fewer shots than MacLean but managed to get nearly twice as many on target, despite having been deployed as a designated striker less often.
Although the quality of MacLean’s chances has been lower in comparison (as reflected in the two league goals he has to his name) he has been notably more productive with Naismith in the team than without him: since Naismith’s injury, MacLean hasn’t registered a single shot on target.
Of course, it’s hard to be too critical of MacLean in such freak circumstances, particularly when the post-Naismith sample size is only four games, two of which were against Celtic and one of which he was suspended for. Although the lack of end product in the home defeat to Kilmarnock was a little more frustrating, it’s also fair to say that how effectively we deal with Naismith’s absence won’t necessarily be judged on those games, which would have been tough contests even with him in the team.
However, it will certainly come under increased scrutiny this afternoon in Paisley, where greater scoring opportunities will be expected against a St Mirren team that has shipped a total of 10 goals in seven home games this season.
Craig Levein has previously backed his remaining healthy attackers to fill the gaping Naismith and Ikpeazu-shaped holes in the team and (although he’s not had the luxury of choice in the matter) looks set to keep that faith by handing Sean Clare an extended run in the team.
For the younger, inexperienced stand-ins like Clare and Craig Wighton, chances have been at a premium against stingier defences in what has proved to be a barren month. The prospect of facing a team that hasn’t won since the opening day of the season, therefore, not only presents an ideal opportunity to return to winning ways, it also offers our understudies a less pressured setting than a derby or semi-final in which to perform, increase their confidence and hopefully prove that they can also contribute.
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