Hearts have secured the signing of 32-year-old Christophe Berra on a three-year deal. Craig Fowler gives his take on the deal
Given the perpetual state of flux the Hearts first-team has been in over the last couple of seasons, supporters would be forgiven for feeling saturated by new signings. The Gorgie Road faithful have had to endure a conveyor belt of high pedigree talent which ultimately underachieves once these players pull on a maroon jersey. Usually a time for peak optimism, they’ve been a little more cautious with regards to their expectations this summer.
That was until the club went and brought back an old favourite.
As far as Ladbrokes Premiership signings go, the acquisition of Christophe Berra is highly impressive. He’s a former Hearts captain, ex-EPL player, and owner of 35 Scotland caps - the most recent of which arrived earlier this year. And unlike guys like Alexandros Tziolis or Juwon Oshaniwa, he already knows and is comfortable playing in British football.
Furthermore, he’s exactly the type of player Hearts need right now. Compared with the rest of the crew he’ll be joining at Tynecastle he’s almost a novelty: he’s a defender who, first and foremost, does the job of defending. Those who remember him from his first spell with the club will recall a magnet-like presence in the penalty area. A high ball comes in; Christophe Berra heads it away. A low ball comes in; Christophe Berra boots it away. He’s got the physical presence to bully opposing strikers and can be completely dominant. Those too young to remember his first spell all that well, think a quicker Ash Taylor without as many heart-in-your-throat moments.
He’s already a great foil for whichever centre-back Hearts choose to partner him with next term, assuming Ian Cathro and co make no further signings at the position. Whether it be John Souttar, Aaron Hughes, Krystian Nowak or midfielder-turned-defender Prince Buaben, they can bring the ball out of defence, while Berra can concentrate on the essentials of the role.
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This could be a particularly beneficial signing for Souttar. The young defender impressed mightily in his 12 months before January’s Achilles injury, though he could still learn a thing or two about the art of defender. While he’ll be unable to match Berra’s physique and height, there are a few other tricks of the trade which the older head can pass on, such as positioning and anticipation, knowing when to foul, and exactly how much pushing and pulling you can get away with at set-pieces.
If Souttar takes a bit of time to recover from his injury then the new addition will likely form a highly experienced pairing with 37-year-old Hughes. The Northern Irish international was one of the better, if not the best, January signing, though he is a little undersized for a centre-back and not as quick-footed as he once was.
That’s going to be one of the keys for this deal, and whether it’ll still be a good one for Hearts two of three years down the line. What Berra lacks in agility, he makes up for in straight-away speed. It’s part of the reason he was able to fashion such a lengthy career at a decent level down south despite never being particularly comfortable on the football. He’s big and he’s fast.
If he’s lost that bit of pace, he may not be as effective. The same goes for his strength and aerial ability as time goes on. However, reports from Ipswich fans would suggest he’s still got those physical attributes, as they were sad to see the four-year servant depart on a free transfer.
During his first two seasons at the club, Berra was regarded among the best defenders in the English Championship, winning the club’s Player of the Year award in 2013/14. Though he struggled in his third season and parts of this past campaign, fans generally put it down to the personal issues which preceded his exit and eventual return to his former club.