Neilson leaves behind a winning formula
For all the criticism Neilson has taken for tinkering with his side and changing tactics, it’s a shame he’s about to exit Tynecastle on the back of two impressive results (and performances) with a new system that looks like it fits his players down to a tee. Hearts throttled the life out of Rangers’ passing game with a high pressing approach, which forced the visitors into going long more often in not. When Hearts looked to create themselves, they would go direct to Bjorn Johnsen at the point of the attack and get the likes of Arnaud Djoum, Don Cowie and Jamie Walker to get close and support. Robbie Muirhead would provide width from out-wide, while Perry Kitchen was tasked with doing what he does best, and that’s protect the back four. It all fitted together. Ian Cathro or Gary Naysmith or whomever takes charge would do well to keep this approach for the foreseeable future.
Robbie Muirhead is the weapon Hearts have needed
Everyone has talked about the issue with the strikers, but with Callum Paterson, Jamie Walker and Sam Nicholson all capable of getting close to or even reaching double-digits, it was a little overblown earlier in the campaign. Then the latter got injured and, with Billy King on loan, it robbed Hearts of natural width. The full-backs do their part, but Paterson likes to drift inside when he gets to the penalty area because of his goalscoring prowess, and Faycal Rherras (despite what some experts would have you believe) is predominately right-footed, meaning he likes to cut in rather than attack the byline. Muirhead, though viewed as a forward by trade, has filled this gap excellently over the last two weeks. In addition to his two goals against Rangers, he played a crucial role by keeping the shape of the team, which stopped the midfield from becoming too congested when Jamie Walker would cut in from the other side. With Djoum’s guile, Cowie’s stamina and Johnsen’s height and pace, there’s real balance about the attack now.
Rangers were incapable of “doing plan A better”
Using the tight Tynecastle pitch to their advantage, Hearts’ front players pressed Rangers from the off and stopped their opponents from building things from the back. It forced Wes Foderingham into kicking long to the slight Joe Dodoo and Harry Forrester, enabling Hearts to dominate proceedings as the half went on. The hosts finally got the reward their play deserved a minute before the half, which should have been the wake up call Mark Warburton required to change his system. Instead, they began the second half in exactly the same fashion. Though they’ll claim bad luck after Joe Dodoo’s “goal” was eventually offside (it was the correct decision), it would have been incredibly harsh on Hearts if the scores were tied after 52 minutes. The “goal” was the only time Rangers threatened in the opening 20 minutes of the second half and they only began to look like matching Hearts on any level when Joe Garner and Barrie McKay came on and they went direct (intentionally). Warburton showed too much patience and faith in his players that they were going to turn it around using his preferred method and it should have been changed sooner.
Bjorn Johnsen is a stud
The Norwegian-American striker put in a terrific performance as the focal point of the Hearts attack and is, undoubtedly, the first choice striker at the moment. As he stands 6ft 5in in height, the usual tired cliches about him being a “typical Levein signing” are obviously going to be trotted out. But Wednesday’s game showed he’s at his most effective outside the area when he gets the ball into his feet, as he displayed good technique, a deceptive burst of pace and the ability to link well with team-mates. Of course, he’s also a threat in the penalty area, both on the deck and in the air, and was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet.
Arnaud Djoum was pretty good too.
Robbie Neilson was a damn fine head coach
He had his flaws - every manager has them - but over his tenure at Hearts you cannot deny the success. He took over a club with a barren squad just days after they came out of administration, having suffered relegation, and brought them to where they are now in just 30 months. Regardless of how you spin it or point to how many games he lost against Hibs, that is a great achievement.