Sunday in Gorgie was noticeably a tale of two sides. In the victorious blue half was a clinical Rangers, striking two killer blows in the first quarter of the match to hurt the Jambos, who despite this early setback, delivered one of their better performances against the Glasgow side.
Robbie Neilson bemoaned the finishing quality of his side, stating “We almost dominated the game but didn’t have that final moment.” It was a fair view of the game, albeit through maroon tinted specs, as Rangers also had glaring chances in the second half to extinguish Hearts’ comeback hopes. It prompted a moment of contemplation for Hearts fans after the game. Most pressing is the lack of killer instinct that is creeping into Hearts’ attacking players.
Neilson described the Rangers game as arguably the best performance of the season, and despite defeat it’s hard to dispute that. A quick look at the statistics against the champions shows that Liam Boyce attempted the most shots during the game, with a very busy looking five; his expected goals sat at 1.16, also the highest during the match. With 15 shots overall for Hearts and an expected goals of 1.74 on Sunday, it was maddening to have not witnessed the ball ripple the back of the net at Tynecastle.
These statistics throw up all sorts of quarrels, such as claims that Liam Boyce is off the boil. Livingston aside, Boyce’s goals have somewhat dried up in recent weeks, however it is important to look at his overall contribution. Boyce constantly harries defenders, holds up the ball, brings others into play and plays key passes. Watching him is like watching an overworked waiter on a Saturday night after his colleagues have called in sick. Put simply, he does the job of two or three players.
As the lone striker in a 3-4-3 or a 4-2-3-1, Boyce is often marked out of the game by imposing centre backs. Unfortunately for him and his legs, he is at his best when he has small pockets of space to play in. Arguably his strike play would have thrived in the early 2000s 4-4-2 era of De Vries and Kirk, where he would have had a partner to occupy defenders, creating more space in which he could flourish.
Despite recent struggles, Boyce may have even over-performed this campaign. According to the stats above, he has managed 11 goals in 20 games, averaging 0.62 goals per 90 minutes across all competitions. Boyce’s goal conversion sits at 29% of 38 shots taken, which is admirable, sitting just under one goal for every three shots. There are arguments against Boyce for sure, such as his tendency to take too long to get a shot away and his goals tally being skewed somewhat by penalties. What is clear is that it is tough at the top – quite literally for Boyce, as he is doing everything possible to link up a cohesive attack for Hearts.
So, what of the contributions behind the Hearts striker? The reading is not great. Looking at Hearts’ main alternative attacking threats of Barrie McKay, Josh Ginnelly, Gary Mackay-Steven and Ben Woodburn makes for uncomfortable home truths for at least three of those players.
It is important to take Barrie McKay first, as his current form ensures he is plucked from the rest and gently placed on a fans favourite shelf. According to Craig Fowler of the Evening News, McKay has managed 14 shot assists in Hearts’ last five games. He is also currently averaging 2.27 chances a game. Without doubt, McKay is the most creative player at the club. His ability to weave in and out of the wing must be a nightmare for defenders and his link up with Liam Boyce is beginning to flourish, as his deft flick for the Northern Irishman’s goal in Livingston proved.
In November’s match against St Mirren, watching McKay was a football education, as his eye of the needle passes resulted in several chances for Hearts to seal the win. It was intriguing to watch McKay start in the number ten role against Rangers in a 4-2-3-1 formation, where he was Hearts’ second most creative threat (behind John Souttar in first). If Neilson decides to regularly use 4-2-3-1, McKay is surely the standout candidate in the ten role.
Josh Ginnelly is another intriguing one. With his blistering pace and direct running, the Englishman is unique to the other wingers at Hearts. He has shown regularly that he can glide past a man on the outside with ease – before his hot-headed exit against Rangers on Sunday, he recorded the highest number of dribbles with eight. However, it can often be too predictable, and he can struggle to provide an end product. An on-form Ginnelly is truly electrifying, as Dundee United have found to their detriment, but these performances have been few and far between this season.
Is it fair to put the majority of criticism on Ginnelly? Gino is currently averaging the best goals and assists of his career, with five goals and six assists in 29 appearances overall at Hearts. Age is certainly on his side, as he has plenty of time to build on these statistics and shortcomings whilst settled in Gorgie. Immediate improvements would see Gino attempting to shoot more regularly, as he is certainly capable of rifling strikes from outside of the box, as Dundee and Queen of the South have witnessed.
Then there’s Gary Mackay-Steven. With four goals and four assists, it could be argued GMS is generally delivering more than others this season. On the pitch it’s slightly different, as exasperated sighs buzz around Tynecastle when GMS is brushed off the ball for the fifth time in a match.
Throughout his career he has produced real magic moments and can be clinical in the box during moments of frenzy. Despite this, it’s not clicked for GMS at Tynecastle since he joined Hearts back in January. When you consider the highlight reels of his tricks and flicks, it’s almost as though he looks uncomfortable performing these in Gorgie for fear of the angry buzz of fans if possession is lost. It doesn’t help that defenders crowd into an already tight pitch to frustrate Hearts at Tynecastle, stifling Mackay-Steven in the process.
Now on the wrong side of 30, Mackay-Steven should be looking to flourish as an elder member of a youthful squad and chase consistency in maroon. He could be another that might thrive in a ten role if Neilson changes to the 4-2-3-1. He shone at the tail end of last season in a role close to Boyce, linking up more effectively than when out on the wing. Against Rangers he offered the second highest number of dribbles (6) and found himself enjoying more space than usual, whilst he was a bright spark in the 1-0 defeat to Celtic, despite falling over his own feet at a crucial goal-scoring opportunity.
Ben Woodburn is the final of the four who must add to his goals and assists whilst playing behind Liam Boyce. Woodburn finally managed to break his Hearts duck against Dundee Utd in November but since then his form has dropped alarmingly, underpinned by his ignominious first-half substitution at the Tony Macaroni. Indeed, despite a strong early showing, he has largely flattered to deceive in a Hearts shirt.
Another who could fit the number ten role behind Boyce, he is unique to the other three in that he has appeared desperate to shoot from outside the box. Despite the high hopes around Woodburn’s potential when he first arrived on loan from Liverpool, he now finds himself arguably furthest down the pecking order and will need to play himself back into contention – with Ginnelly set to miss out against Dundee this weekend, he may get that chance.
When Liam Boyce is not on form, Hearts are relying too much on set pieces to win games. Hearts’ goal difference still dwarfs the sides below them, but if there is room for improvement, then it is laid out in the above tweet by the This Is My Story podcast. The league is the most competitive it has been in years (once again outside the top two) and the side who can vary their goals from a diverse range of attackers will be the side finishing the minimum of third place. With the attacking talent at his disposal, Robbie Neilson needs to find a way to ensure that it’s Hearts.