Ellis Simms is unlocking space for Hearts attacks – and freeing Liam Boyce in the process

by Mar 22, 2022

He had only been officially confirmed as a Hearts player three hours before, but even during Ellis Simms’ second half debut against Celtic in January, you felt Hearts had signed a living embodiment of the word ‘handful’.

Leaping in the cold Gorgie air, Simms’ sizeable six-foot two frame was enough for Celtic’s comfortable backline to suffer sudden pangs of doubt that their night would continue in such routine fashion. For the rest of the game, Simms hustled and bustled his way around the front line, affording a previously exasperated Liam Boyce the rarest of commodities during his time in maroon so far – freedom.

With the Everton loanee now occupying Cameron Carter-Vickers and Carl Starfelt, Boyce was able to dot around and find pockets of space by dropping deeper, while anticipating flick-ons from his new colleague. It created a fascinating spectacle in the second half, as Hearts went a goalpost’s width away from drawing level on the night.

While he would undoubtedly have lost sleep over his painful penalty miss, Boyce must also have reflected on his change in role when he went to bed that night, a tactical shift which must have felt refreshing compared to his previous shifts in a Hearts jersey. The Northern Irishman’s all-round quality has arguably hindered him in the past, as he has often performed multiple jobs for the team when he would surely prefer to focus on one or two.

Boyce is more than capable of playing as a No. 10 behind Simms, who offers both physicality and an ability to run in behind defenders. Pace is one of the few qualities Boyce lacks, and the arrival of Simms looks to have provided Robbie Neilson with two selections that complement each other like bacon and eggs.

Simms’ qualities are key when Hearts surrender possession and require a direct out ball. Thinking back to the 3-2 League Cup defeat to Celtic in August, it was clear that Liam Boyce would sleep well after another thankless target man shift, although he did bag a penalty for his herculean efforts. He was frustratingly isolated and crowded out by a high Celtic line, with the ball constantly returned for yet another wave of attacks. By way of contrast, during the derby at Easter Road, Simms showcased his ability to hold play up and run in behind to good effect. Hearts had previously been crying out for a player matching Simms’ profile and Joe Savage deserves credit for identifying the Everton man and enticing him to Gorgie.

It’s hard to mention the impact of Simms without the influence of Boyce and vice versa. There is always a tinge of excitement from supporters when two forwards develop a strong connection, and the link between Boyce and Simms appears to have developed quickly.

With Hearts routinely facing deep defensive blocks at Tynecastle, this understanding has become a vital cog in Robbie Neilson’s attack. The opener against Livingston on Saturday saw Simms occupying Ayo Obileye and Boyce peeling off to the left (as the below image shows). Boyce’s slide rule pass then found a sharp burst from Simms whose cross eventually found scorer Beni Baningime. Job done, and most notably, another well-worked finish for the previously goal-shy Hearts midfield.

That’s not to say there weren’t teething problems at the start. With Robbie Neilson seemingly wedded to a 3-4-3 formation, serious doubts were cast over the two players’ capacity to work together effectively in the same eleven. Indeed, despite Simms netting from a Boyce assist against Motherwell in January, both looked far from comfortable in their respective roles.

With Motherwell in possession, Boyce played on right-hand side of midfield and endured a frustrating afternoon until the assist. Boyce may have even felt justifiably peeved to have been shunted out on the right, given his previous output during the campaign. It created an unbalanced look to the Hearts attack which, coupled with a poor dip in form, sent Neilson and his coaching staff back to the tactical drawing board.

Since Neilson’s tweaks, Boyce has been employed in a deeper central position, occupying pockets of space to draw defenders out and assume the mantle of creator rather than chief goal scorer. Against Livingston, Boyce made five passes into the opposition 18-yard box, compared to the nine made by Barrie McKay, and offered the fourth highest expected threat rate (xT) from passes, behind McKay, the impressive Nathaniel Atkinson and Craig Halkett.

As his teammates make increasing use of the extra space he helps to create, Ellis Simms stands to benefit from the opportunities that follow. Should those opportunities lead to goals, it could be the catalyst for a hugely memorable end to a campaign that threatened to go out with a whimper only a few weeks ago.