How Hearts achieved touching distance aim despite 122-match absence, defensive uncertainty and the 4.38 demand

‘Within touching distance of third’. That was the mantra amongst Hearts fans anytime discussion arose regarding the Premiership position come the mid-season break, brought on by the World Cup in Qatar.

Robbie Neilson’s men have had to contend with a hectic period, from the end of July to the middle of November, unlike what has been seen before at Tynecastle Park. Not only were the team back on the European stage for the first time since 2015, but they had the excitement of eight fixtures in what was a condensed period to contend with. Scroll back to the 1988/89 campaign to find the last time Hearts played as many games in Europe and then they were more spaced out. With 24 games in total the team were in action every 4.38 days. In comparison Aberdeen and Hibs, going back to the start of the Premier Sports Cup group stages, played fewer games, every 5.95 and 6.3 days respectively.

Now for the kicker, Hearts had to play those games while suffering an unenviable raft of injuries (Rangers aside). Five players who could be regarded as key starters – Craig Halkett, Kye Rowles, Stephen Kingsley, Beni Baningime and Liam Boyce – missed at least ten games each. In total, outfield first-team stars were absent from 122 matches due to injury. Such a situation was a contributing factor in the frustrations felt by fans over the first-half of the campaign. From defence through attack into European competitiveness, it had a knock-on effect.

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Defensive uncertainty

Take the defence for instance. An area which requires significant improvement and one where Neilson will know the team can make great strides when they return to action in December. Hearts have kept just two clean sheets in the 24 games this season. They are without one in 12. Only the bottom three have conceded more in the league, while Hearts’ expected goals against is the highest. No teams’ goalkeepers average more saves per match than Hearts. Craig Gordon has, however, looked more fallible, whether it has been his kicking or decisiveness off his line. It was always going to be difficult to maintain the standard and consistency of last season's age-defying displays. There has been a constant uncertainty in front of him. Neilson has fielded 10 different players within a back three or four system with 20 different combinations across the 24 fixtures.

That has resulted in the team giving up too many easy goals. Set pieces have been a key issue, none more so than in Europe. Without Halkett, the player who dominates in the air, the team have looked lost without a commanding presence to take charge. A common sight after a concession from wide has been occupants of a maroon jersey looking around confused and sheepish. It has not been the best environment for Lewis Neilson and Toby Sibbick to showcase their talent. The defender to have impressed the most has been Alex Cochrane, who has missed just one game.

Creative influence

That consistency has not been matched further up the pitch in the creative ranks. After starting the season strongly both Barrie McKay and Alan Forrest faded. Only Cochrane and Gordon have played more minutes than McKay but no one looks more in need of a break than the playmaker. It is no coincidence a long-term injury to Liam Boyce has had a negative impact. The Northern Irishman shared the creative burden while using his intelligence to link with McKay and occupy defences to open up space. That sharpness, both in awareness and passing, was seldom seen.

Hearts sit fifth going into the World Cup break. (Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)

Add the defensive issues to the injuries to Boyce and Baningime and it is easy to see why the team struggled in Europe. In possession they were without two of their most calm and intelligent ball players. That being said, frustration at the way Fiorentina and Istanbul Başakşehir won so easily at Tynecastle Park was understandable. The team perhaps offered too much respect and didn't make it difficult in front of a packed crowd from the off. A possible learning curve for Neilson and his players ahead of future European endeavours.

Fan power

Anyone familiar with the general mood at Tynecastle Park will know the manager is only one bad result from an element of fans calling for his head. There was plenty of frustration aired over the team’s performance against a very fragile Rangers side at Ibrox. Not all criticism should be regarded as a demand for managerial change, however, and there is, rightly, a majority in his camp and aware of the job he is doing and has done over his two spells. And Tynecastle is becoming an increasingly positive place on match days. The European adventures of St Gallen, Riga, Florence and Istanbul brought the fans closer to the team with much credit due to the rise of the Gorgie Ultras, a group determined to improve the atmosphere home and away. Their efforts have been recognised amongst the support and throughout the club, including the manager and players. A dialogue is open with officials behind the scenes to further strengthen that connection further.

In spite of all the games, the injuries and subsequent knock-on effects, Hearts will return to Premiership action in a strong position to begin their ascent back to third. They should be back to a full complement of players, Boyce and Baningime aside, the best squad outside of the Old Firm and some money burning a hole in Joe Savage's pocket. Dropping points at home to Livingston on Saturday felt to fans like a missed opportunity, but less so than Aberdeen and HIbs’ inability to take advantage of the club's travails. It is hard to believe Hearts will be so generous after the break having stayed within touching distance of third and with it now in their cross hairs, Aberdeen just four points ahead.

The connection between fans and the team has grown. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)
Robbie Neilson has had to get creative with the team suffering a raft of injuries. (Photo by Paul Devlin / SNS Group)

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