Return to form
After four league games without a win, back to back victories have brightened the mood in and around Tynecastle. The weekend triumph in Paisley was a step in the right direction but last nights domination of a team that had take points off them in previous meetings this term suggested that after a dip in form, Robbie Neilson’s man could be getting back to the kind of form that propelled them into such an advantageous position in the league, well clear of the melee behind them.
While the clubs below them continue to scrap, scratch and bite in a bid to take points off each other and secure membership of the top six club when the league splits in too, their 12-point cushion means that pressure is off a Hearts side suddenly back in the groove, playing with greater intensity and working as a unit to set the opposition back on their heels as they take control early doors.
They did that against St Mirren, and, again, even more effectively, against Aberdeen.
With so many key players back from injury and illness and back to full match fitness, there is a confidence that hasn’t really been evident for most of 2022.
No longer looking like they are grinding out points, there was an ease to the play that suggested a victory was almost inevitable and even the crowd seemed to sense it as they waited patiently for the breakthrough to eventually come.
A team once again packed with leaders, there is a strong spine there, and a hungry line-up that is getting back into its stride just in time to press home their superiority as the season pushes towards a conclusion.
The three musketeers
The return of John Souttar and Craig Halkett has been hugely influential as they reunite with Stephen Kingsley in an authoritative, intelligent and well-drilled back three.
A defensive unit - along with keeper Craig Gordon - that communicates well and complements each others strengths and weaknesses, they snuffed out any serious threat from St Mirren or Aberdeen before they amounted to anything and, as the midweek match against Jim Goodwin’s side illustrated, they pack a real punch at the other end of the pitch as well.
John Souttar is a player many fans wanted moved on at a knockdown price or sidelined after he agreed a pre contract with Rangers but the club knew the value in holding onto him and making the most of his obvious abilities for as long as possible. And, along with Halkett, his return has been a vital component in the team’s turnaround over the past couple of games.
Defensively, the reunion of the first choice back three has solidified and emboldened the entire team and, as well as thwarted the opposition, all three were involved in the set-piece goals that finally rammed home Hearts dominance against Jim Goodwin’s side.
Halkett got enough on the header to keep the pressure on before the partial clearance found Souttar for a stunning volleyed finish from the Scotland defender that any of the forwards in the line-up would have been proud of, while Kingsley proved he has the desire and ability to net, even if he is not the one taking the set piece, rising well above his marker to bullet home the second goal.
The biggest issue Hearts have now is finding the inner drive to resist cruise control despite being too far behind the Old Firm to catch up and, surely, too far enough in front of the rest of the league to be dragged back into a messy conclusion to the campaign.
But having struggled in recent weeks, they appear to have found that sense of purpose and mental and physical steel. Manager Robbie Neilson has acknowledged the improvement, claiming his players “got after it”, but rather than rest on laurels, content with a return to winning ways, he is demanding more between now and the end of the campaign.
More in every department but especially more consistent creativity and more of a clinical edge as he looks to kill off games by taking a higher percentage of chances. He will want them to find a way to maintain the energy, hunger and tempo and cut through defences rather than overwork the ball or, after a blistering but fruitless start to encounters, ease back, allowing opponents to believe they might still have a slither of a chance.
They got the job done - pretty convincingly - in their past two outings but their dominance was not reflected in the scorelines, which could have been far more flattering.
That gives them something to work on as the battle to end the season boldly and positively rather than simply drift over the line, relying on the good work done earlier in the campaign.