Five things we learned from Motherwell 0 - 3 Heart of Midlothian

Hearts defeat Motherwell 3-0 for their first away win since September. Picture: SNS/Craig Foy
Hearts defeat Motherwell 3-0 for their first away win since September. Picture: SNS/Craig Foy
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Joel Sked looks back at Hearts’ second win in a week as Ian Cathro’s ideas come to the fore, while Mark McGhee is once again ruing a red card.

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Cathro’s revolution taking shape . . . slowly

While Hearts fans floated out of Tynecastle on a wave of optimism following the 4-1 defeat of Rangers on Wednesday there would have been many who would have still uttered the phrase “we’ll now get beat by Motherwell”. Such pessimism isn’t restricted to Hearts fans, it is the natural football fan mindset.

However, Hearts followed up that excellent midweek victory with three hard-fought but ultimately deserved points at Fir Park. It is usually an unhappy hunting ground for the Jam Tarts but they’ve now made it two consecutive victories in Motherwell. That success on a Friday night in September was Hearts’ last victory outside of EH11.

And as happens this recent away win was secured wearing last year’s away top rather than the Roseberry number which Hearts have yet to taste success in.

Questions have been asked as to what Ian Cathro has changed since taking over from Robbie Nielson with performances and results having regressed. Yet, after an active transfer window Cathro has recruited players who suit how he wants the game to be played, while the players who remain appear to be buying into his methods.

Cathro has preached control. He wants his teams to attack but also exert control, whether at Tynecastle or away from home. Hearts may have struggled to create clear openings in the first half but they controlled possession and displayed a fluidity.

Against Motherwell’s 3-5-2, Hearts three advanced midfielders and Esmael Goncalves floated behind Bjorn Johnsen with Alexandros Tziolis holding at the base of midfield. Recognising the lack of penetration Cathro introduced another new signing with Choulay coming on to make it 4-1-4-1 with Goncalves leading the line.

Work needed to be done in the January transfer window and at this nascent junction the work done by Hearts is night and day in comparison to the infamous 2006 January transfer window when 11 new players were brought.

Eight of the signings have already made an impact, giving Cathro a boost, the players a lift and exciting the fans. Positivity is flowing back into Gorgie.

Tziolis is a class act

While Esmael Goncalves netted twice and picked up BT Sport’s man of the match award it was the other goal scorer who was the key man. Alexandros Tziolis controlled the game from the base of the Hearts midfield with little sign of perspiration or even having to break into anything more than a trot.

Fans are quite rightly asking ‘how? How did Hearts sign him?’. It is quite obvious why he has earned 62 caps for Greece and played at two World Cups. He made an impressive cameo in the win over Rangers before taking his place in the starting line-up for their trip to Fir Park.

As mentioned Cathro wants control from his team. He, with the aid of assistant Austin McPhee, has recruited the ideal midfielder to transfer his ideas onto the pitch. Tziolis plays the game at his own pace, he is never rushed, always in control.

The 31-year-old is like a lighthouse, team-mates, who are under pressure, can look up and see the dominant midfielder to help them out and receive a pass. Some players with big reputations can struggle with the pace and physicality of Scottish football. Not Tziolis. He is a robust figure, tall and strong. The midfield battle doesn’t faze him and he adds a midfield presence when winning headers in the centre of the pitch.

He may have scored the opener, but perhaps the moment which epitomised what he brings to the side is the second goal. Perry Kitchen won the ball on the edge of the box but Tziolis shouted to his captain and soon took conrol. Emerging from defence with the ball he calmly laid it into the path of Choulay who raced up the pitch and assisted Goncalves.

To sign the midfieler until the end of the season was quite the coup. If they can sign him on a longer contract it would be quite the statement.

Hamilton is a target

There were many positives for Ian Cathro and the Hearts fans to take from the victory, but there is perhaps one area of worry: Jack Hamilton.

Hamilton is a very promising goalkeeper. He has earned the number one spot at Tynecastle and played his way into the Scotland squad. However, there are facets to his game which need improving. it is something which can be said about all young goalkeepers but Hamilton keeps making the same errors each week.

He is becoming to resemble a recent Hearts goalkeeper who was released: Jamie MacDonald. Both are excellent at keeping shots out. Hamilton, like MacDonald, has kept his side in a number of games with impressive stops. Recent evidence of that was on Wednesday when his reflex stopped denied Emerson Hyndman putting Rangers ahead.

The two areas of his game which cause concern are kicking and coming for crosses, especially at corners.

Motherwell had clearly pinpointed Hamilton’s weakness at corners. They loaded the six yard box to put pressure on the young stopper. The first time they did this Hamilton flapped at the ball and it took the intervention of Tasos Avlonitis to prevent the ball from crossing the line when Lionel Ainsworth fired the loose ball goalwards.

On Wednesday, after a weak punch led to Rangers’ goal, Hamilton opted to punch a second half cross. It was met by disgruntlement among the Hearts fans who wanted him to catch.

As for his kicking it is rarely clean and very rarely finds the correct man. It is a pertinent to ask whether his struggles with the ball at his feet will see him fall foul of how Cathro wants his side to play.

He is not confident with the ball at his feet and neither are the fans which is only making it worse.

His nervousness spreads into the team and into the stands. He will plead patience as he works on these areas. This is a possible Scotland goalkeeper in the making after all.

Players need to show more vigilance

“Never a red card in a millions years. It’s an embarrassment. it’s cost us the game.” It is clear where Mark McGhee stood in regards to the Carl McHugh red card.

Motherwell surprised many when they appealed Scott McDonald’s red card, picked up in the league defeat to Rangers. The appeal was turned down. But it looks like that has not put the Steelmen off as they are set to do similar with McHugh’s challenge.

It is difficult seeing McHugh’s challenge being reduced to a yellow card. Winning the ball becomes redundant if the players has used excessive force and endangers the opposition player. McHugh did win the ball but his foot left the ground, studs were showing and his momentum took him into Don Cowie’s ankle.

Going to ground on slick surfaces is always a dangerous move and McHugh was lunging. It was quite similar to McDonald’s challenge, but McGhee may try and compare it to Rob Kiernan’s in the same game. The Rangers defender saw yellow but could quite easily, and perhaps should, have been shown red.

Scottish football fans love the game being played at pace, full throttle, with aggression and physicality. However, they will soon witness players thinking twice about going into challenges, especially on the ground, such is the risk to their team of going a man down.

Scott McDonald’s importance

There was a late transfer saga in Lanarkshire as the January transfer window was set to slam shut. Scott McDonald had substantial interest from his native Australia which appealed to the player, one of the reasons the player was left out the starting XI in the club’s defeat to Rangers in the Scottish Cup.

Motherwell were keen on signing Nadir Ciftci on loan from Celtic as a replacement. But as the end of the window approached it became increasingly clear the deal would not be able to be completed meaning McDonald would be staying at the Steelmen.

That same night he opened the scoring in his side’s 2-1 win at Ross County. However, the Aussie striker was suspended for this afternoon’s clash. His absence was clearly felt, showing how big a miss he is and would have been if he had left.

Mark McGhee changed system by bring Zak Jules into a three-man defence, while Lionel Ainsworth supported Louis Moult in attack. Other than a header off the bar, albeit when he was called offside, Moult struggled to trouble the Hearts back line and Ainsworth was ineffectual.

McDonald is so important in allowing Moult to play high up the pitch on the shoulder of the opposition defence, while he links the play and becomes a fifth midfielder out of possession.

He may be advancing in age but, like Kenny Miller, his experience and football intelligence is so important to the team as a whole and in partnership with Moult. The Steelmen are not nearly as effective without the diminutive forward.