There’s little doubt Hearts have missed Osman Sow. Even over the three games prior to Saturday’s win at Dundee, all matches where Hearts emerged victorious, there wasn’t the same fluidity or potency in attack as there once was. Such issues can always arise after the sale of an important first-team player mid-season. Hearts were hoping Abiola Dauda, with his top pedigree, would immediately come in and fill the void. However, that’s not been the case. Dauda has shown glimpses of real ability, but he needs time to settle in, and with the Nigerian likely heading back to the Netherlands in the summer, Hearts are already looking at alternatives to sort out their attacking issue.
The good news is that they may have already found the solution. A 1-0 win over Dundee may suggest another slog, ground-it-out victory, but this was far from the case. Hearts, particularly in the first half, were crisp in their passing and elusive in their movement. They missed two sitters, had another couple of decent half-chances and had a goal disallowed in the first half. They rode their luck a little at the start of the second when Dundee came out energised, though few could complain when they took the lead. The improvement was achieved by Robbie Neilson trialling a new system as he decided to partner Jamie Walker with Arnaud Djoum in the centre of a 4-1-4-1 formation. Prince Buaben sat in front of the back four, Don Cowie started on the right, and Juanma took up residence in attack. In addition to the play of Walker and Djoum, who combined for the game’s only goal, those three all had great games, suggesting longevity in this new system by way of improving the entire team, rather than just surprising Dundee through the use of the attacking midfield duo.
The two great first half chances highlight how Hearts were able to cause Dundee’s back three all sorts of problems.
Image One is a graphic representation of how Walker was able to break through the defence unimpeded after Djoum back-heeled into his path following Liam Smith’s clipped ball forward. Encouraged by their position as hosts, Dundee had their wing-backs pushing on against the Hearts full-backs rather than covering the wide-midfielders. With Gary Harkins playing as the classic, mercurial attacking midfielder, it meant the hosts lacked a spoiler in front of the defence, which would have added extra protection against the away attack. In this example, Paul McGowan dropped deep to help after Kostadin Gadzhalov rushed out of position to cover Cowie. However, Nick Ross was too slow to do the same, and he was left chasing Walker’s heels as the Hearts man accelerated past McGowan, who’d taken a wrong angle of approach.
You should also note Darren O’Dea being pulled over to the left, as the centre back was unsure whether to hold his position to close down Djoum. They escaped on this occasion when Walker dragged his shot badly wide.
Image Two follows a similar formula. This time Smith’s clipped ball forward finds Juanma. While Walker sits this one out, both Djoum and Cowie race forward to provide options. Juanma delivers a pass over the defence and down the right. Once again a marker from midfield, this time McGowan, can’t do enough to get back and cover and it ends with Cowie crossing for Djoum who completely mishits his effort wide.
From this example it’s worth noting the gap between O’Dea and McGinn on the left of the screen, who’s keeping an eye on Sam Nicholson with the right wing-back nowhere in sight.
Image Three (below) is the goal. Juanma comes short for the ball as Walker and Buaben (who’s swapped with Cowie) race ahead of him. O’Dea follows and fouls the Hearts striker near the halfway line. Fair play to referee Willie Collum (yes, really!) for playing advantage in this situation as Djoum picks up the loose ball while, further upfield, Walker and Buaben make their move. McGowan drops back into the centre back position to cover for O’Dea but just as in Image One above, he shows that a player being back in defence is not the same as a defender being there. He never really gets to grips with Walker’s movement and is left fruitlessly claiming for offside as Djoum’s pass sends Walker through to round Scott Bain and score. The Hearts midfielder is played onside by Gadzhalov, who’s retreating too deep, in an attempt to cover the threat of Buaben.
The other thing to note from this graphic is Kerr eventually playing goal-side of Nicholson, a move Dundee made at half-time that enabled them to get to grips with Hearts better. Kerr’s presence means McGinn should be closer to McGowan, and it’s the gap between the two where Djoum sends it through.
It remains to be seen if Hearts will continue to use the system for their next game. They should at least try it against other opponents, but Dundee’s 3-4-1-2, with only one fully fit first-choice centre back was the perfect formation to try it against. Therefore, don’t be surprised, or two enraged, if Neilson tinkers with the team again this weekend.
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