Craig Levein: I've failed to find system to end goal drought

Sharing the fans' frustration at how the season has stuttered, Hearts manager Craig Levein says he has been desperately trying to find a system that would somehow squeeze square pegs into round holes as he seeks to minimise the impact of losing key players.

But he confessed that despite pondering the issue day and night, he had, thus far, been unable to find a solution to the team’s scoring woes.

After a positive report from chairwoman Ann Budge, who touched on the burgeoning academy, new partnerships with clubs in North America, an annual profit of £1.8m, expanding revenue sources and the promise that the club was set to build on a period of “modest growth” by delivering “aggressive growth” ahead of the switchover to fan ownership in early 2020, the question-and-answer section of yesterday’s annual general meeting offered fans the opportunity to quiz Levein on the recent downturn in fortunes on the pitch.

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Despite a bright start to the season, with the team suffering just one defeat in their first 15 fixtures, progressing to the semi-finals of the League Cup and topping the Premiership table into November, they have won just one of their last nine games and dropped to fifth in the league as an accumulation of injuries to major players finally took their toll.

Hearts manager Craig Levein, finance director Jacqui Duncan and, right, owner Ann Budge. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS

“If you trace it back, the decline – if you call it that – started with Naisy going out the team,” said the man who shareholders overwhelmingly elected back onto the board, despite a tiny smattering of dissenting votes.

Embarrassed by Friday night’s 5-0 capitulation at the hands of Livingston, he admitted that things have been tough and said that circumstances meant that players needed to roll up their sleeves and find a way to grind out results rather than losing their focus and their individual battles.

“We managed to get over Christophe Berra and John Souttar dropping out, with Jimmy Dunne and Clevid [Dikamona, coming in]. But Uche and Steven Naismith have been the two biggest issues by far,” Levein added.

“Honestly, I’m struggling to find a system that allows us to score goals. That’s on me, absolutely. I go home at night and think about how we fix this and, I put my hands up, I’ve not been able to do it.

“That’s my responsibility and I feel it every single day. I’m trying my best and doing all I can on the training field with Austin [MacPhee], the coaches and the players to find a way – short term – of scoring goals and winning games.

“However, I did not expect to find myself in a situation where everything we worked on in pre-season training resulted in this.”

The catalogue of long-term injuries has been calamitous for the Tynecastle club but with Berra featuring again and Naismith’s comeback scheduled for this weekend, against Aberdeen, Levein expects to have all his main men back in the reckoning after the winter shutdown, while new arrival David Vanecek will provide even more attacking options.

“We worked all through pre-season on getting the ball forward much quicker than we did last season. That was the plan and we wanted to put pressure on the opposition, particularly at home. We would play it longer, earlier in the match.

“We had Uche [Ikpeazu], we had Steven [MacLean] and we had Naisy [Steven Naismith] and it worked well. It took some games to get the midfield players into the habit of supporting, but it worked really well in the end. That is what we worked on in pre-season.

“The difficulty has been that as we have lost all of our strikers, playing that way has become more and more difficult. In the last five or six weeks I have been searching for a system that suits the players we have, that will allow us to keep the ball in the final third of the park – because what has been happening is, it goes forward, it comes back. It goes forward, it comes back. Earlier in the season, it went forward – and stayed there.

“Our biggest problem is that we can’t retain the ball in the final third for any period of time. That has been the issue in all the games.

“What I will say is that I firmly believe that when Naisy comes back on Saturday, that will help us. Christophe, in spite of last Friday, has made us better and when John and Uche get back, we’ll be back to where we were.”