Final focus: is everything falling into place for us?

by Dec 18, 2020

With a cup final on the horizon and two incredibly poor results in the rear view mirror, there were a number of legitimate questions being asked about this Hearts squad.

Convincing wins in the intervening period, away to Greenock Morton and at home to Queen of the South, with eight goals scored and only one conceded, have gone some way to answering those.

Questions, for example, about the team’s problems in the final third. For the most part this season, teams who sit deep against us have been a bit of an Achilles heel and although we’ve overcome most of them in the end, the journey there has often been a war of attrition. Against Morton, arguably the most negative, defensive team we’ve faced so far this season, we looked more at ease with the task at hand and, had it not been for some goalkeeping heroics, we may well have won by more than Jamie Walker’s two goals.

It is no great shock that such an improvement coincided with Andy Irving’s return to the starting line-up. What is surprising – when you consider Hearts’ struggles to break teams down in the opening couple of months – is that it took Robbie Neilson this long to reinstate him. 

In that time, the 20-year old has emerged as the highest-ranked midfielder in the league for progressive pass attempts per 90 minutes1, while also topping the league outright for passes into the final third, both in terms of attempts per 90 minutes2 and accuracy3. At Cappielow, his assist for the second goal – a delicious cross-field ball from deep which landed right on Jamie Walker’s toes – encapsulated the vision and precision Irving has in his arsenal; the sort of attributes that stood out last season in a team otherwise void of ideas and which many of us expected would make him a central figure this campaign. 

Why he has been on the periphery up until now is presumably something he and Neilson have discussed behind the scenes, but the news that talks are underway to tie him down longer term will certainly allay any supporter fears that we’re in danger of letting another promising academy product slip through the net for peanuts.

Not only has the quality of our chances improved considerably in the last two games, so too has our ability to actually convert them, an issue that was arguably at its most noticeable in the defeats to Dunfermline and Alloa, where we wasted even the most clear-cut scoring opportunities. At the forefront of those concerns were Liam Boyce and Steven Naismith, whose profligacy in front of goal was causing some to question their positions in the side.

For Boyce in particular, it was starting to look as though his most reliable route to goal was via the penalty spot, having only found the net from open play once prior to Saturday’s meeting with Queen of the South. It was little wonder, therefore, that he appeared to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders when even that avenue ran into a dead-end after he missed two attempts at the same penalty in the league win over Alloa.

Though there were suggestions that he should be taken out of the firing line, the quality of that one goal from open play – a deft back-heel in the 2-1 win over Inverness – should have been enough in itself to suggest this was little more than a dry spell. Besides, we’re talking about a player who has scored consistently wherever he’s played, with a rate of roughly one goal every two games, in leagues of a higher standard than the Scottish second tier. 

There has also been enough evidence since he signed in January to dispel any notion that he is struggling with the pressure of playing for a bigger club than the likes of Ross County or Burton Albion, having stepped up for us on big occasions already, scoring the winner on his debut against Rangers and converting the winning goal from the spot in the Scottish Cup semi-final win over Hibs.

It was therefore only a matter of time before he rediscovered his scoring touch and although he missed a glaring opportunity to complete his hat-trick on Saturday, his two goals were prime examples of the predatory instinct he possesses.

The same could be said of Naismith who, for large parts of the past 18 months, has looked a shadow of his former self, that is, when he’s actually been fit enough to play. This season alone, there have been chances  squandered which the Steven Naismith of 2018 would have scored with his eyes closed, most notably a one-on-one situation at East End Park where he elected to pass to Jordan Roberts instead of burying it himself. 

“Past it” and “finished” are extreme terms to use, but such hesitation over something that would ordinarily be meat and potatoes for a player of his experience certainly raised concerns about his confidence and, given his advancing years, how much was left in the tank. However, like Boyce, the captain’s performance on Saturday suggested the Naismith of 2018 is still in there somewhere, epitomised by a spectacular opening strike that will take some beating in the Goal of the Season stakes.

It was a goal that deserved the explosive acclaim of a packed Tynecastle, not the smattering of applause it received from those on the sidelines. In fact, the same can be said of the final score itself. The season is only seven games old and already Hearts have put six past two separate opponents at home, the first time they have done so in a single season since the 1960s. If there was already a sense of injustice around our circumstances this season, being shut out as these games unfold in front of empty seats only serves to compound it.

Such a grievance will feel all the more palpable come Sunday when attention turns to our TV screens for the Scottish Cup final. Cup finals don’t come around all that often for supporters of teams like Hearts, so it’s bittersweet to be heading into this one knowing that there will be no fans in attendance. Finals are as much about the build-up, the atmosphere, the occasion and who you spend it with. The game itself is a shared experience, but memories of what you did before and after are unique to you and often what you treasure more.

It’s hard to replicate all of that in your living room, cut off from those beyond your immediate household with whom you usually share transport and pre-match beverages, isolated from the wider throng of maroon and white that you form a small part of within the stadium. Even if I knew I personally couldn’t make it, I would feel far more excited about the occasion if I knew others could.

But it’s still a cup final and it’s one we have a relatively good chance of causing an upset in. Celtic are obviously overwhelming favourites and so they should be but, as the past couple of months have demonstrated, they are far from infallible. 

A few weeks ago, given how toothless we were looking, I would have rated our own chances as slim to none, even legislating for Celtic’s own poor form. However, it feels as though some of our more recent issues (team selection, lack of width, chance creation, chance conversion) are improving at just the right time. Among a host of other factors, the presence of Irving alongside Peter Haring in the middle of the park, Boyce’s eye for goal, Naismith’s sharpness and Josh Ginnelly’s return from injury will all be key to our chances. 

We’ve all suffered our own injustices to some extent in 2020, be it in our personal or professional lives, but within the specific context of Scottish football, it certainly feels as though Hearts fans have shouldered more than their fair share. A cup win before Christmas would go some way to redressing the balance.

1 Progressive Passes (Per 90 mins) – Scottish Championship, Oct-Dec 2020

1M. SmithDefenderHeart of Midlothian18.74
2S. TaggartDefenderAlloa Athletic16.13
3A. IrvingMidfielderHeart of Midlothian14.4
4C. HamiltonDefenderArbroath13.51
5P. ReadingDefenderAyr United13.24
Data sourced from Wyscout (accurate as at 18.12.2020)

2 Passes into the final third (Per 90 mins) – Scottish Championship, Oct-Dec 2020

1A. IrvingMidfielderHeart of Midlothian15.2
2C. AdamMidfielderDundee14.35
3S. TaggartDefenderAlloa Athletic14.06
4M. SmithDefenderHeart of Midlothian13.72
5R. McCabeMidfielderQueen of the South12.99
Data sourced from Wyscout (accurate as at 18.12.2020)

3 Accurate passes into the final third (%) – Scottish Championship, Oct-Dec 2020

1A. IrvingMidfielderHeart of Midlothian84.21
2O. LeeMidfielderHeart of Midlothian81.25
3C. HalkettDefenderHeart of Midlothian78.85
4J. ChalmersMidfielderAyr United73.68
5S. KingsleyDefenderHeart of Midlothian72.34
Data sourced from Wyscout (accurate as at 18.12.2020)