Hearts fans should be excited over Lawrence Shankland - all-round striker, goal record context, Neilson factor

In August 2019, Lawrence Shankland had netted seven goals in his first three league games for Dundee United, adding to the two he had scored in the League Cup, one of which came at Tynecastle Park against Hearts.

It prompted then United boss Robbie Neilson to joke he was on course to surpass 100 goals that season. He had to make do with 28 in 33 appearances as he fired the Tannadice side back into the Premiership following a move from Ayr United where his scoring record was even more enviable.

Fast forward nearly three years and a reunion has finally happened, this time at Tynecastle. Hearts announced the signing of Shankland from Belgian outfit Beerschot on a three-year deal with an undisclosed transfer fee.

Despite such success under Neilson previously, it is a move which has raised a few eyebrows and even doubts amongst some Hearts fans, wary of the striker’s goal return over the past two seasons, first for United in the Premiership and then in the Belgian top-flight. Context is required and will be provided for both campaigns but perception is something Shankland has had to live with most of his career.

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Bottom to the top - twice

Success at Queen’s Park tempted Aberdeen to bring him north. It didn’t work at Pittodrie with no goals in 17 matches. It could have been easy for the player to lose his way and perhaps, for a time he did.

Former colleague Mark Reynolds, who was a team-mate at Aberdeen and Dundee United, spoke of a young boy faced with a lifestyle change on moving to a top-flight team and having to compete with Adam Rooney for a starting berth at Pittodrie. He had two productive loan spells at Dunfermline and St Mirren but then two loan stints where the goals dried up, once more in Paisley then at Greenock Morton.

There were less than flattering appraisals of his conditioning and by September 2017 he was a free agent, reduced to signing a short-term deal with Ayr United. That’s where the renaissance started and another perception began to build. Lawrence Shankland, goalscorer. A stunning 63 goals in 74 games followed. Twenty six arrived in League One then 24 in the Championship. Onto Dundee United and another 24 goals in the Championship, this time in fewer games.

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Hearts boss Robbie Neilson got the best out of Lawrence Shankland. Picture: SNS

It was the manner of the goals which stood out. Right foot, left foot, headers, penalties, tap-ins, solo effort, one-touch finishes, spectacular long range strikes. He had the full repertoire.

When, in the Premiership, he scored from just inside the St Johnstone half at Tannadice, it wasn’t the first time he had done something like that. Ayr United supporters will remember similar against Partick Thistle.

By the time he had ascended back to the Premiership he was already a Scottish international. Steve Clarke saw enough in him to bring him on in the crucial Nations League match with Israel. He scored a penalty as Scotland progressed to face Serbia.

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More than a goal scorer

Shankland is a Scotland international. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)

Shankland is a striker who comes alive in the box. He was deemed a goalscorer as fans waited to see if they could make the step up on a consistent basis in the top-flight. The goals may have dried up but ask any Dundee United fan and they will talk of the player’s work outside the box. His ability to drop deep, link play and occupy defences. His touch and balance is excellent, whether in the box or with his back to goal under pressure from the opposition. A goal against Inverness CT stands out where he killed the ball in the box, shaped to shoot, taking two defenders out of the equation to create space before firing low past Mark Ridgers.

There are valid reasons as to why his ratio in the Premiership fell to one in every four games. Dundee United under Micky Mellon didn't play to his strengths. They were a team who sat deeper and made it difficult for opponents. No team had a lower xG (expected goals figure). No team scored fewer. No team played fewer crosses. Only Livingston and Hamilton averaged fewer shots. They didn't get the ball into areas to create regular chances for Shankland. He had to fend for himself and produce something special, as he did against St Johnstone and St Mirren with a wonderful hooked volley.

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He also created for team-mates. Only David Turnbull provided more smart passes – a penetrative pass that attempts to break the opposition's defensive lines to gain a significant attacking advantage – while he was top five for through balls.

Belgian context

Liam Boyce was forced off early in Hearts' final league game of the season against Rangers. Picture: SNS

Stylistically it wasn’t too different in Belgium with Beerschot struggling to create chances or work the ball into the box from wide areas which Shankland is adept at getting on the end of with his movement.

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In addition to moving away from family to experience European football, he worked under two different managers and two different caretakers, while finishing the season fielded wide right. Yet, he still scored against Genk, Anderlecht and champions Club Brugge.

In Shankland, Hearts are getting a forward who compares to Liam Boyce. Not only has he got a very good career scoring record (148 goals in 324 appearances) but he’s someone who can lead the line on his own, take on the goal scoring responsibility, play with a partner and create. His goal tallies may have not been his best over the past two campaigns but he’s made the most of those situations, developing in other areas of his game.

Neilson is quite right to want to work with and get the best out of him once more.

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