Formation trouble has Hearts toiling once more
ONE point is always better than none, and a point was at least as much as Hearts deserved on Saturday. But the fact they had to wait until the last seconds of the match before securing it, despite creating dozens of chances, tells its own story.
Hearts 2 - 2 Ross County
Scorers: Hearts - Novikovas (40), Sutton (90); Ross County - Brittain (55), Kettlewell (77)
Referee: C Charleston
Every team has a couple of games every season which they dominate yet fail to win. These things happen when you are up against a well-drilled defence and a goalkeeper who is at his acrobatic best. But when they occur more regularly, as they are doing for Hearts, it is surely time at least to contemplate changes to the playing style.
The Tynecastle club lost several of their best players in the summer, and John McGlynn inherited a squad which is limited both in terms of numbers and quality. But he still has some room for manoeuvre, specifically in his preference for a five-man midfield and a sole striker.
The defence is settled: no issue there. Of the midfield five, the two wide men have well-defined roles, and if Andrew Driver lacks his old speed, Arvydas Novikovas continues to impress. But the three more central players, Mehdi Taouil, Darren Barr and Ryan Stevenson, are still not being used at their most effective.
Taouil, the playmaker, tends to lie deeper than Barr, whose strength is as a holding midfielder. Further forward again, Stevenson still seems short of match fitness, and is not linking up with the lone striker as well as he did during his first spell with Hearts.
Meanwhile, Callum Paterson, who again started on his own up front, is another who is not being used to his best. The muscular teenager won any number of balls in the air, but without support he found he was merely nodding them into space.
Given those shortcomings, a switch to a more conventional 4-4-2 is worth considering. The sacrifice of a man in midfield would mean either Taouil dropping out, or replacing Driver on a flank, albeit as a less orthodox winger.
Gordon Smith and John Sutton both came off the bench late in the game to play up front, with the latter grabbing that last-gasp winner. It is far from certain that those two would quickly form a profitable partnership, but it is surely worth trying. Without such an experiment, it is clear, now that a full round of fixtures has been played, that Hearts will continue to struggle to put a decent run of results together.
On the positive side, McGlynn’s team deserve considerable credit for the perseverance they showed in this match after going behind to Stuart Kettlewell’s well-taken strike as time was running out. At that point, the game looked like a rerun of Hearts’ 1-0 home defeat by Dundee, another contest in which an inspired goalkeeper held out against a team who created a bundle of chances.
Rab Douglas was in goal for Dundee that day, and pulled off a string of saves which were more or less equal in quality to Michael Fraser’s for Ross County. It should be added, however, that Derek Adams’ outfield players had far more to offer than Dundee did, showing yet again that they have the quality to keep afloat in the top flight.
Fraser was required to perform heroics from very early on as Hearts took the game to Ross County, but just as the visitors looked like making it to half-time with a clean sheet Novikovas made the breakthrough. Having begun the game on the left, he had just switched wings with Driver when Marius Zaliukas played him in with a perceptive pass inside the full-back. Fraser got a touch as the Lithuanian nipped in to redirect the ball goalwards, but the spin carried it over the line.
Hearts had a couple of chances early in the second half to kill the game off, but after failing to take them found themselves back on level terms after Andy Webster needlessly conceded a penalty. Kettlewell was closing in at the far post on a cross from the left, but did not look like making contact, so the centre-half’s decision to push him was baffling. Captain Richard Brittain struck the spot-kick well to give Jamie MacDonald no chance.
Forced to push forward, Hearts left themselves exposed to counter-attacks from increasingly confident opponents, and they paid the price at the end of a five-man break when Kettlewell, with a team-mate outside him on a decoy run, drove a low shot into the far corner. Sutton had already come on for Novikovas by that point, and with seven minutes left Smith replaced Paterson. With more men in advanced positions Hearts began pumping long balls into the box, and the ploy paid off in the third and final minute of stoppage time.
When a ball was cleared only as far as Zaliukas, he drove it back into the box. It broke kindly for Sutton, who shot home on the turn for his first goal of the season from open play.
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Friday 24 May 2013
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