Under the tutelage of Ian Cathro there appears to be no middle ground for Hearts. They’re either great, as they were in last week’s 4-0 hammering of Hamilton, or they are utterly abject, as they were in yesterday’s mauling at the hands of a rampant Aberdeen side.
The hosts tightened their grip on second place in the Ladbrokes Premiership table with a thoroughly dominant performance that flattered the visitors in the end. Kenny McLean, in particular, was excellent at the top of Aberdeen’s central midfield triangle. The playmaker showed no ill-effects from his midweek omission from the Scotland squad, terrorising the Hearts defence and leading the high-pressing game which never allowed the away side to settle.
“I thought it was important for Kenny to demonstrate the same level of performance and approach,” said manager Derek McInnes. “When Kenny plays in that gear he sets the press, gets beyond, gets lots of shots. I mean, he didn’t score today, but he did everything but score. He was disappointed to be left out of the Scotland squad, but he channeled it in the right way.”
Aberdeen fired a warning shot within the first 60 seconds as Jonny Hayes was allowed a clear run down the right, where his cross was deflected wide for a corner. It set the tone for the opening exchanges. The visitors were unable to stop Aberdeen, complete with Hayes and Niall McGinn, two of the most proficient crossers in the league, from whipping balls into the penalty area.
The defect would contribute to the opening goal, though Hearts would pass up a glorious chance to open the scoring before that point.
After Shay Logan robbed Esmael Goncalves of a free strike at goal, Arnaud Djoum squared for Nicholson. The winger had plenty of time but put too much on the effort, curling it well over the bar.
Aberdeen would take the lead a short time later. McGinn was allowed to float in a cross from the left and found Logan streaking into the six-yard box to plant a free header beyond Jack Hamilton.
Hearts retreated into their shell from that point forward, offering no more than long punts that were aimed everywhere except the general vicinity of lone striker Goncalves.
With the ball continually coming back, it was a little surprising Aberdeen didn’t hold a stronger advantage at half-time. McGinn fired a shot right at Hamilton after being played through on the left by McLean, while Graeme Shinnie lashed an effort wide from inside the area.
The hosts almost killed the game three minutes after half-time. Adam Rooney reacted quickest after Hamilton had parried Shinnie’s shot, but the striker was flagged for offside. The reprieve only lasted 12 minutes for the visitors, who were complicit in their own downfall.
Alexandros Tziolis, in typical fashion, was caught trying to take too long on the football by McLean. When the Greek hurriedly knocked it back to his team-mate Tasos Avlonitis, the centre-back turned and played a woefully short back-pass to the keeper that Hayes raced on to. Rounding the goalkeeper, the winger was left with the simple task of passing into an empty net.
From there is was a case of how many Aberdeen would score as the Dons continued to pile forward. McLean and Hayes tested Hamilton, while both McGinn and Ash Taylor both went close with headers.
The game would finish on a controversial note as substitute Jayden Stockley saw red for a bizarre swing at Krystian Nowak as the two tussled for possession. Hearts almost grabbed a late consolation, but Nicholson again fluffed his lines.