The Dons were on easy street in the Granite City as they blew their capital visitors away with a 30-minute spell of football which ticked all the boxes for attitude, determination, enthusiasm and most importantly quality. In doing so, they also blew the race for third wide open. It was not just a result but a performance which now asks the questions? Is Robson now the favourite to become the Dons’ permanent boss? If not, then what does the former Dundee United and Celtic midfielder have to do to earn such a title?
The man himself played down the adulation, Aberdeen's place in the race for third place and a permanent role. He just wants to “win football matches” and send fans “home happy”. He certainly did that on Saturday.
Best Dons display
There have been few errant steps made by Robson so far. He is a man who brings assuredness, both in the way speaks and analyses the game and the way he sets up his team. He has proven himself to be a shrewd in-game manager, as he did in the win over Dundee United. He is not someone who would leave someone like Graeme Shinnie out of a massive cup tie with Darvel. He has made Aberdeen a far harder team to not only score against but play against. Perhaps most importantly, he has had the player’s buy-in and now the supporters to his and his trusted lieutenant Steve Agnew's methods.
You would be hard pressed to find a better collective display from Aberdeen this season than the 51 first-half minutes on Saturday afternoon at a rambunctious Pittodrie. They made life for their opponents very, very difficult. It was a performance seeped in Scottish football. Running hard, playing quickly and directly, pressing and closing down. A team whose energy levels were well above those of their opposition. Hearts had 62 per cent possession in the first half but did nothing with it. The difference can be seen in where the teams passed the ball. They had 184 first-half passes to Aberdeen's 87. But how many were in the Dons half? Just 55. The home side made 64 of their 87 passes in the Hearts half. When they won the ball they moved forward and engaged the nervous Hearts defence. It was a gameplan which had the fans eating out the palm of their hand within seconds, fewer than 300 when Graeme Shinnie skipped past Barrie McKay with ease, the Dons captain's cross being palmed away by Zander Clark but to the last person he’d have wanted to see it fall to. Aberdeen’s main forward Duk was on hand to hit the ball into the ground and the back of the net.
Shinnie and Duk were constant tormentors for Hearts. The visiting defence bounced off the absorbing and entertaining forward like they were throwing themselves into the side of a bouncy castle. As for Shinnie, he played like a man possessed, running over the top of a static, ponderous and bemused midfield. Soon he was joined by Ylber Ramadani who, like Ross McCrorie, ate up ground when the ball was turned over.
Race for third
It was Mattie Pollock’s excellent cross which Duk glanced brilliantly into the corner for the Dons’ second goal. And Pollock headed in the third after Hearts tried to play offside. The latter goal came after Aberdeen had won the ball back from a sloppy pass out of defence and won a free-kick. The Hearts performance can be summed up by that sloppiness and resultant anguish as players bickered anytime the ball was given away. Not long after giving the ball away for Duk to nearly make it 4-0, Alex Cochrane was subbed. He didn’t look at anyone as he made a beeline for the very edge of the bench.
After the break both teams had their chances. There was improvement from Hearts – there couldn’t not be – but they remained vulnerable every time Aberdeen attacked and every time the ball was in the vicinity of Duk. Now, with four post-split fixtures left there are just five points between three teams in the race for third.
The nine remaining matches are huge for Hearts and their manager Robbie Neilson. Having been in a commanding position to finish best of the rest once more, they face a fight. If it is one which is lost, Neilson will come under severe pressure from the Hearts support, as displayed after the game with anger directed towards him from those left in the away end. He knows it is going to be a battle.
“It was always going to be,” he said. “We have two teams behind us showing a bit of form while we’ve been huffing and puffing and we need to get back to it now. If you had said to me before the World Cup break we’d be in this position when we were five or six points back of teams I’d probably have taken it. But we’ve had opportunities to get ourselves further ahead and we haven’t taken it, and we need to get back to it now.”
If it is a race which is won by Robson, he has to be the new permanent Aberdeen boss. If he isn't already by then.