Heart of Midlothian striker Bjorn Johnsen has found his feet with impressive performances in an unbeaten month for his club, writes Joel Sked
If things had turned out differently for Bjorn Maars Johnsen he may have been looking ahead to a clash with German giants Borussia Dortmund, having helped fire Benfica in to the knock-out stages of the Champions League.
Thankfully for Heart of Midlothian, stubbornness on the part of Portuguese second tier side Atletico CP cost him a dream move to the Eagles of Lisbon. Eventually he arrived at Tynecastle via a spell in Bulgaria and a transfer wrangle.
The complexities of the 25-year-old’s exit from Litex Lovech - as the club’s owner folded the club, merged with another club before renaming them - contributed to a stuttering start to his career in Gorgie.
The US-born Norwegian – an upbringing in North Carolina to a Norwegian father and American mother – had to contend himself with sporadic appearances as he built up fitness and familiarised himself with the league. It wasn’t until the third week of the season when Hearts fans witnessed him in action, and he started only one of his first eight matches.
The best way to describe his early appearances was ‘raw talent’. Off the bench against Inverness Caledonian Thistle he produced an eye-catching backheeled assist for Sam Nicholson, while displaying a leggy and daring approach to the game which screamed out OSMAN SOW MKII.
Yet, that ostentatious cameo did not lead to a starting place, Johnsen having to wait until the middle of September and a trip to St Johnstone where he, along with the team, disappointed. It wasn’t before long that he back to the bench.
Any player finds it difficult to find a rhythm to their play when they are only afforded brief substitute appearances and the odd start, more so strikers. It was clear that the 6ft 5in forward was struggling for confidence and frustrated with his spluttering introduction to Scottish football.
And such is the nature of the modern game fans are quick to make a judgement on players; Johnsen would only need to look at the views on Conor Sammon among the stands at Tynecastle. But even in games where he did not have a substantial influence or find the back of the net, there was enough for fans to hang on to and give them confidence that Hearts have found a replacement for Sow – a vital cog in Hearts’ promotion and adaptation to the top-flight.
He scored a “crummy” goal (as he described it) off the bench against Dundee. But it wasn’t until a dreadful team performance in a 2-0 defeat to Rugby Park that brought him back into the starting XI for the following match, a 3-3 draw in Inverness CT where Johnsen netted Hearts’ first, and he hasn’t looked back since.
He was involved in three goals over two draws with St Johnstone and Hamilton, but the team needed the strikers to start scoring. Eyebrows were raised further among the Hearts support when, prior to the 3-0 defeat of Motherwell in November, he said:
“I see myself as someone who supports the other striker. I like providing for other players. I would rather have two assists and a goal than two goals and an assist.”
Eyebrows were quickly lowered following his brace against the Steelmen. He displayed pace, timing of his run and composure to meet an Arnaud Djoum through ball to round Craig Samson, before heading in from a corner in the second half having had a header in the first half disallowed.
John Souttar told the press afterwards: “Bjorn is a handful. I wouldn’t want to play against him with the qualities he’s got. He’s a big boy, he’s got an eye for goal, he’s a runner, he works hard and he’s still young.”
The ideal Tynecastle striker: a reference for the team; a focal point for the midfield. He offers qualities which resonate with Hearts fans. He has a good work ethic, he wins aerial duels, brings team mates into play, offers pace in behind, is willing to run into the flanks and there is an end product whether it is goals or assists.
The change in formation has brought out the best in him; leading the line with three supporting attacking midfielders. He has developed an effective relationship with Djoum, as his movement opens up space for the classy Cameroon internationalist, while at times their relationship borders on telepathic with elegant link play around the final third.
It would be remiss not to mention Johnsen having a good touch for a big man. At the outset of his Hearts career, and still at times now, his touch can be clumsy and a bit loose. However, more often than not he can take the ball in competently, using his frame to hold off opponents. He is better, yet, at laying off the ball first time to midfield runners with panache.
Four goals in eight starts is a decent return so far, but he offers so much more than just goals. And that is why he has been awarded with the player of the month. His role within the team has been vital in defeats of Motherwell and Rangers. In the latter game he played in Robbie Muirhead for the opener and his all-round performance set the tone and tempo for a dominant Hearts performance.
With a three-year-deal in Gorgie the early signs are very promising, with expectation high for much more to be delivered.