In the first of our three takeaways from the Scottish football weekend, Craig Fowler looks at how the Hearts boss made a formation change as he attempted to take control of a high octane encounter
Motherwell v Hearts was a bit of a mad affair. The rain lashed down for long periods. And when I say rain, I don’t mean the typical kind of precipitation we’ve become accustomed to as a Scottish nation. No, this was rain of biblical proportions. Heavy, horizontal and just plain minging to play in.
After the match Callum Paterson wore a glum look that suggested Hearts had just suffered relegation rather then extending an impressive unbeaten run with the 2-2 draw, while Osman Sow claimed he had been “too cold to celebrate” despite smashing in a thunderous equaliser from 30 yards.
So it’s fair to say it was not a fun experience for those in grey and maroon. For those watching, however, it was a completely different story.
The first 35 minutes, in particular, were like a football version of a Rocky flick. Both sides wailed away at each other with little regard for the defensive side of the game. Had the score been Motherwell 4 – 4 Hearts after the period, few in attendance would have been overly surprised.
The game settled down into some normality after Neilson made an adjustment to his team. He had started with Osman Sow and Juanma, the Spaniard available after suspension, up front together in a 4-4-2.
Conditions made passing difficult, so Motherwell enjoyed more of the football than Neilson would have liked, and Marvin Johnson, in particular, was allowed to get in behind the Hearts rearguard on a number of occasions.
However, the away side looked pretty menacing in attack themselves. Sow clearly had the beating of Kieran Kennedy while Juanma was also proving himself to be a nuisance. Once the change was made to a 4-2-3-1, with Sow largely taking up residence on the left (though he and Juanma swapped at times), there wasn’t quite the same threat.
When I asked Neilson about it afterwards, I’d assumed it was to give the defence more protection with central duo Arnaud Djoum and Miguel Pallardo dropping further back, minimising the space between the midfield and back four.
Instead, Neilson explained it was a case of trying to get the players to pass the ball better. He felt the team had resorted to lumping it long to Juanma and Sow.
While this was true, there was a certain chaos factor quality to the away attack through this method. Both forwards are strong enough to body defenders, have the skill required to control the ball under pressure, even in poor conditions, and are double-digit goal threats over the course of a season.
But Neilson doesn’t like chaos, even the organised kind. He’s a meticulous man who demands great tactical discipline of his players. Hitting and hoping for a piece of magic from his front two will not do.
Unfortunately, Hearts took a while to look quite so potent in attack after the change, though the dominance would eventually come following the introduction of Buaben. As the manager later stated himself, the change finally got the team to reflect his vision for how they should have been controlling the game.
With their team-mates enjoying the lion’s share of possession, the defence weren’t under as much pressure, while Sow attacking the centre from the left was a more potent threat as Buaben helped pull the strings.
Sam Nicholson should have turned that pressure into a winning goal when he blazed a great chance over in the dying minutes.