As much talk and speculation surrounds the dynamic between Ian Cathro and Craig Levein, more important matters are ignored, writes Joel Sked.
Once again, a match involving Heart of Midlothian resulted in discussion, or noise, surrounding the clearly defined roles of director of football Craig Levein, head coach Ian Cathro and the club’s technical team. Chris Sutton was one of many calling for Levein to clarify his position and the dynamic with Cathro. This was despite Cathro making the dynamic clear, again, in an interview with BT.
Post-match, after the club’s soporific goalless draw at Rugby Park, focus shifted onto the matter of notes, passed from coaching staff to players. These notes were treated as some sort of Cold War espionage.
While time and energy has, was and will be spent on these inane topics, Cathro’s bamboozling tactics and the individual performances of the players will go under the radar, ignored. For Hearts fans shouldn’t be worrying about notes or structure, they should be concerned about direction and identity.
Most, understandably, would like to hear from Levein, about where it went wrong but more importantly what is being done to correct the mistakes and take the club forward. But everyone wants to see signs on the pitch, even just a clue or hint. But it only grows murkier each passing game.
Now, let’s get a major caveat out the way, this team is not the future. The fans clearly don’t want it to be the present, they want it in the past. As soon as possible. Ann Budge, in her state of the union speech, was right to point out the loss of key players to both transfers and injuries, especially in defence.
Still, in the main, there is a squad of competent individuals to deliver more than what’s been delivered just now. Cathro’s remit is to shape them into a team, into a coherent structure. That has not been evident.
Against Celtic, Hearts put in arguably their best performance under the 30-year-old. For 25 minutes. On that day there were signs of what Cathro enthused on his arrival: energy, risk, attacking endeavour. But even then it could be seen as haphazard. Don Cowie, with the lungs of an Ethiopian steeplechase runner, was pressing the opposition but increasingly there wasn’t a support mechanism in place, no second wave of pressure. Team-mates were tentative. This wasn’t an isolated case.
Neither Perry Kitchen or Alexandros Tziolis were protecting the defence. A jenga defence. Make one wrong movement and it all comes crashing down. The centre-backs were left in duels with Scott Sinclair and Patrick Roberts. There was only one winner.
Spooked, Cathro has looked to solidify and stop the leaks. Build the jenga blocks back up slowly and reinforce it with a hefty Greek midfielder. Against St Johnstone, Hearts set up as if they were travelling to a rampant Celtic or Rangers in the late 90s/early 00s. Tziolis took a very deep position, libero almost, between the centre-backs.
With two from either Tasos Avlonitis, Prince Buaben and Krystian Nowak, Tziolis has offered a presence and aerial ability to combat the likes of Steve MacLean, Marcus Haber and an ageing Kris Boyd. This, he has done effectively. But with the ball he has been more Franz Ferdinand than Franz Beckenbauer. Clearly playing at a level well below his standing, at times he appears to be trying to show just that with his nonchalance on the ball. He is not the cause of the poor performances but his pondering is indicative of it.
His positioning should free both full-backs to attack high and wide, opening up the game while providing a switch of play, something which is worked on at most levels throughout the club’s structure. However, take out Callum Paterson and the club’s collection of full-backs is underwhelming. Again, indicative of the malaise seen on the pitch.
Going from Paterson to the willing but limited Liam Smith is like going from eating an authentic pizza with views across the Bay of Naples, to putting a frozen Goodfellas in the oven as you prepare to watch Forgetting Sarah Marshall on ITV2+1.
With Juwon Oshaniwa and Faycal Rherras out of favour, plus Lennard Sowah injured, Andraz Struna has been moved to the left to accommodate Smith. At Rugby Park both full-backs offered little as an attacking outlet. Smith is a naturally reserved and hard-working right-back, while Struna constantly cut-back or cut onto his favoured right foot preventing any momentum building. It would have made sense to swap the pair.
As at Pittodrie, as at McDairmid Park, these factors affected the team further forward. While Kitchen sat as a holding midfielder, the trio of Jamie Walker, Arnaud Djoum and Cowie were tasked with supporting Esmael Goncalves. Yet, they weren’t set out in a particular structure, rather they had freedom to move between the lines, laterally and vertically. But there is a fine line between fluidity and disorganisation. It fell very much into the latter category.
This creative licence should see the trio, especially Djoum and Walker, thrive. But they look straight-jacketed by the ‘system’. Unsure where and when to move. Walker’s form has dipped dramatically, while Djoum has still to find his this season, only appearing intermittently.
The slow play from the back means players receive the ball with their back to goal and under the close attention of the opposition. So the ball often goes back into the vicinity it came from. When they are able to turn they are unable to penetrate because defences have regained their shape.
This all leads to aimless passes and launches forward towards Goncalves whose as enticed by the prospect of having to chase and harry as most are of going into exploratory surgery. The ball is turned over and it all starts again.
Cathro has tried to change and experiment, including a front three at St Johnstone which included Walker, Goncalves and Bjorn Johnsen. Walker, bizarrely, was the central attacker. Goncalves prefers to play from the left, as does Walker. Johnsen? A shadow of the player who at one time was a handful for defences.
Naturally, the turnover of players and injuries hampers the building of on-field relationships, creating chemistry. And, as was clear last night, there was little Cathro can do in terms of professional football players being incapable of controlling simple passes or making simple passes. But what he can do is put the team out with a clear idea, a robust structure with a general ambition to score goals.
Ask fans what the team’s structure and plan is before, during and after games and you’d be met with a look of befuddlement.
Hearts are a club which is modernising how they approach the game, holistic methods and such. But they are going against the grain in one aspect. They trust their coach and will give him time and space to breath and succeed. For that they should admired.
Instead it is this aspect which is being criticised, rather than the one which is concerning fans the most. Where is the team going? And where is its on-field identity? Answers have been severely missing.