Hearts reaction: Neilson tactics, season-defining 15 days, Shankland stat, St Mirren's 35-year Euro dream
Robbie Neilson has built a Hearts squad which is flexible and offers various options. There are few individuals who can only fulfil one role, many are multi-faceted. Of the starting XI, only Robert Snodgrass has played the same role since arriving at the club. Looking at the line-up it looked perfectly suited to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 but many knew it would be a 3-4-3 variation, Neilson’s preference. What transpired appeared to be more of a 3-3-3-1 with Lawrence Shankland, Barrie McKay and Cammy Devlin all playing in front of Snodgrass at the wing-backs but behind Josh Ginnelly. When building play in the opposition half there was desire to have Alan Forrest move in field with McKay drifting right to try and isolate him against the St Mirren wing-back. It didn't work and it was recognised by the Hearts boss after a very uncomfortable first 45 minutes. A tweak to a 4-2-3-1 with all players in arguably their strongest position and the team appeared more balanced. Despite now being on opposite sides of the pitch McKay and Forrest grew into the match. The former was able to make those in to out movements as opposed to the opposite movement in the first half. Playing the Monday morning quarterback and suggesting Neilson should have set up the team in that manner to begin with would be easy but they have had positive results with the back three despite injury issues.
It is no great surprise that Hearts struggled due to their inability to get their No.9 involved. Prior to the season, there were many who queried the signing due to his goal record in his previous Premiership season with Dundee United and spell in Belgium. Now, fans of other teams, bring up the fact he has scored a number of penalties. However, this writer will continue to reiterate, he offers so much more than goals. He is a very adept, intelligent back-to-goal striker who creates and is so key to the team in how they build and put together attacks. That was nullified by St Mirren. No Hearts player who started the match had fewer than his 35 touches. Six of the starting XI, for context, had more than 75. Zander Clark had 42. Credit does have to go to St Mirren and their ability to close the space between the defensive and midfield lines where Shankland so often thrives.
Two big maroon weeks
The next 15 days could set Hearts up for a triumphant end to the season or it could see the positive momentum turn such is the nature of the Tynecastle Park club and football in general. There could, albeit optimistically, be four new players brought in with reinforcements in attack and defence, while it will be hoped the likes of Peter Haring, Stephen Kingsley and Andy Halliday can return to the first-team fold. On the pitch, the team could take hold of third place, opening up a nine point gap ahead of Aberdeen, who they meet a week on Wednesday at Tynecastle after playing their game in hand against St Mirren on Friday in Gorgie. Then, to conclude, the 15 days a trip to Easter Road in the Scottish Cup. The cup competition is huge because the winners will get that European group stage spot – if it is Celtic or Rangers it will go to third in the Premiership – while it presents an opportunity to ramp up the pressure on their rivals. It could well be season-defining.
St Mirren are well placed to finish in their highest position in the Scottish football pyramid since the 1984/85 Premier Division when Frank McAvennie hit 16 goals for the club as the Buddies finished fifth in the top flight. Since then it has been a case of yo-yoing between the top two tiers with their best offering a few seventh-place finishes, missing out on the top six narrowly on a couple of occasions. The reason for such confidence is the home form under Stephen Robinson. Only Celtic and Rangers have picked up more points on their home turf – Hearts currently average more home points – with only one defeat in Paisley in the league (to Motherwell). Aberdeen, Celtic and Hibs have all lost, Rangers and now Hearts have had to settle for draws. It is a place where opponents know they are going to be tested, as Hearts were. A well-organised defence which can drop into an almost impenetrable back five, harrying and hunting in midfield and a forward pairing who are a constant menace with their energy. If the Buddies could replicate a similar impact away from home they could be looking at their first European campaign since the 1987/88 campaign.
The Baccus sub
Touching on the previous point, a big part of St Mirren's identity is their combativeness. They will get in the face of the opposition as part of their plan to make it uncomfortable. Robinson felt he had to take Keanu Baccus off at half-time with the midfielder on a booking after being adjudged to have dived. The yellow card was something the Buddies boss believed was influenced by the protests of the Hearts bench. He didn’t want to make it but one required because of “how the game has become now”, alluding to VAR. The Buddies average the most fouls per match (14.1), have picked up the second most bookings (50) and have five red cards. With Baccus such a key pressing machine, ideal for unsettling opponents it may be viewed as shrewd and leads to a whole other conversation regarding the continued presence of five rather than three substitutes being used.
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