Hearts’ Craig Levein vows he can put up a strong defence

Colin Doyle, left, and Glenn Whelan begin the post mortem at the final whistle, following Hearts' defensive disasters last Saturday. Picture: SNS.
Colin Doyle, left, and Glenn Whelan begin the post mortem at the final whistle, following Hearts' defensive disasters last Saturday. Picture: SNS.
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If Craig Levein is to fend off the current calls for his departure from the post of Hearts manager, he will have to stage a strong defence.

Both figuratively and literally, it will have to be more convincing than the protection offered up by his team at Tynecastle on Saturday as, once again, they were fortunate to escape their own ground with a draw against historically lower-ranked opposition.

Looking like a man who had been through the wringer, Levein had been forced to weather chants from some fans clearly appealing for time to be called on his second tenure as Hearts boss, and performances by some players that only heightened that desire.

If the former hurts him (although he claims to have a thick enough skin to deal with such barbs) it is the latter that frustrates.

He has described this squad as his strongest ever and, on paper, few are arguing. Last term the unceremonious topple from their early-season role as Premiership leaders to a team who couldn’t buy a league win by the time the campaign was reaching its conclusion could be attributed to a calamitous number of casualties, most of whom were key personnel.

But while that trend has continued, main men being sidelined with almost metronomic regularity in the opening weeks of the new season, the greater strength in depth renders that less of an excuse.

There have been tough fixtures to deal with, such as thankless trips to Pittodrie and Celtic Park, and leaving such arenas empty-handed could have been forgiven had those results not been interspersed with some stodgy League Cup group games and dropped points and lumpy displays against opponents such as Ross County and Hamilton.

But having worked to address attacking issues and the lack of cutting edge by recruiting Ryo Meshino and seeing Steven Naismith back to fitness to bolster those already operating in advanced areas, he has seen the defensive side of the game falter.

Which is why there were harsh words in the aftermath of losing two eminently avoidable goals to Hamilton on Saturday and the promise that the international break would be used to correct the problems, through hard work and the hopeful return of men such as John Souttar and Michael Smith, who he is hoping will be fit enough to feature when they play host to Motherwell in the first game back.

“There is some consolation there that the defensive side is easier to fix than the attacking side and at least I can do something about that and take my frustration out on the training ground,” said Levein 
yesterday.

“I still think we have players who are more than capable of climbing the league table.

“Now we’ll get time to do some work on the training ground and I feel good about that. Sometimes when you have a problem, having an easy solution to it makes you feel much better than scratching your head. We can do lots of work.”

There was tangible disappointment that the rearguard foundation he tends to rely on, especially on home turf, had been so edgy and cost them vital points and several league positions, which, at this early stage in proceedings may not be significant in terms of where they will finish the season, but certainly proved telling when it came to the mood in the ground and the faith 
he and the fans can place in players who looked unsettled
and in some cases cowed 
by the growing off-field pressures.

“We continually didn’t do the things we normally do well which is making first contact on the ball when it comes forward early,” he
 added.

“On the other side of that I thought Andy Irving had another really good match, Glenn Whelan was good and we controlled the 
midfield in the first half in 
particular.

“We had some good moments of play but we’re going to need to have a lot of good moments of play going forward if we defend like that.

“To play here is not easy and every time we sign a player we talk about the stadium. When things are going well it’s fantastic but when things aren’t going well, it’s very difficult to rise above and shine when other people are feeling a bit nervous.”

Levein knows that moods can swing quickly in football. But with the first derby of the season and the next round of the League Cup following quickly on the heels of the Motherwell match, victories in those games are now vital, if by no means guarantees, to that.

“We’ll be doing our utmost in the games coming up and I sense that the supporters are just as frustrated, if not more so than I am. But I think we’re good enough to go into both of those games feeling confident we can win, certainly I am, that’s for sure.

“We need to do more work on the training ground with regards to keeping the ball out of the net. If we can defend 
better then confidence will come, I’m sure of that.”