How Hearts can close gap to Celtic & Rangers, Dundee United dilemma, Haring back to best, Siegrist fallibility
A look back at Hearts’ 3-2 win over Dundee United at Tannadice on Sunday.
Bridging the gap
There is no team in a league of their own in the Scottish Premiership quite like Hearts after their 3-2 success over Dundee United on Sunday. The three points took them 19 clear of Dundee United in fourth and left them 19 behind second-place Rangers. There will be many within the Tynecastle Park support looking at solidifying that ‘third force’ position ahead of rivals Aberdeen and Hibs in the coming years. After all, it is 18 years since Hearts finished in the top three in consecutive seasons.
However, Robbie Neilson and sporting director Joe Savage won’t be content with looking over their shoulder but upwards, getting closer to the Old Firm. European qualification and the benefits which that brings of at least eight games next campaign can be looked at two ways. One, those added games could see the league form suffer. Or two, the income which comes with that should allow more investment to build a bigger, more competitive side.
A simple look at the table shows what Hearts need to do to get closer. Win more away games. Hearts have won 36 points at home, compared to 44 and 40 for Celtic and Rangers. Away from home there have been just six league wins and 24 points won. It is 41 points and 39 points for Celtic and Rangers respectively.
Benjamin Siegrist is a very good goalkeeper. In fact, he has been one of the best in Scotland across the past couple of seasons. According to football analysis website Wyscout, no goalkeeper has prevented more goals in the Premiership over the last two campaigns than Dundee United’s Swiss star.
He is a great size for a goalkeeper, has real presence and the athleticism and agility to cover his whole goal and quickly. He's also adept at using his feet to stop shots as he demonstrated with a fine save to deny Liam Boyce on Sunday.
Of course, there is a but coming. BUT in recent months he has been more fallible.
There have been a number of times where he has pushed shots back into dangerous areas when other times he’d be getting the ball well away from goal. But now he seems to be making genuine errors. You could argue four of the last five goals United have conceded he could have prevented. The Charlie Adam strike in the derby still bamboozles when watching it hit the back of the net. He got a hand to Nathaniel Atkinson’s cross but didn't stop it getting to Boyce then the winning strike was struck with venom but right down the middle.
Siegrist has been a huge player for United over the last few years and will be a huge miss with his contract up at the end of the season. United will be hoping he leaves on a high, finding his best form once more and helping the club to fourth.
Haring back to his best
There was an amusing moment towards the end of the win at Tannadice when Tony Watt turned Peter Haring, only for the Austrian to haul the United forward to the ground. One Hearts fan beside the press box, implored referee Colin Steven to book him which is exactly what he did to much jubilation. A bet had clearly come in as the fan broke into the ‘Peter Haring baby’ song.
It was also a moment which demonstrated, in a way, Haring’s importance at the base of the midfield. He has been in and out the team throughout the campaign but in recent weeks he has perhaps looked his very best since a long-term injury which kept him out for the entirety of the 2019/20 season.
No player won more tackles in the game than Haring and it was that game-reading ability which allowed others to express themselves going forward. At the start of the season, there were queries from some Hearts fans that the 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 featured too many defensive players. This wasn't the case at Tannadice. Gary Mackay-Steven played as a wing-back, Nathaniel Atkinson is a forward-thinking defender and Haring was there to give Barrie McKay and Ben Woodburn – an early first-half sub – the platform to move forward and attack. Just look at the winning goal. Haring executed the perfect tackle, rolled the ball to McKay who then set up Ellis Simms.
Now, Hearts fans would like to see Haring put pen to paper on a new deal.
The Hearts midfielder gets the ball, ambles forward, looks up, tells a team-mate where to run with his eyes, finds said team-mate with a nonchalant pass. Rinse and repeat. He set-up Liam Boyce in the first half with a wonderful outside of the foot pass before playing in Ellis Simms for the winner.
Ten league assists for the season. 12 in all competitions. No player in the Premiership has created more big chances than his 14. Only David Turnbull and James Tavernier have made more key passes per match.
This is a player who is performing consistently. Steve Clarke should be watching. Scotland are in need of a goal against Wales for a place at the World Cup. McKay steps off the bench, gets the ball, ambles forward, looks up, tells Che Adams where to win with his eyes, finds Adams with a nonchalant pass. Qatar, here we come.
It has been a weird season for Dundee United. The club sit fourth in the league with European qualification very much in their hands, ahead of sides with bigger budgets – Aberdeen and Hibs. But there is still an element of disappointment and frustration amongst fans regarding the playing style on a consistent basis and the fact the team should probably have fourth place already wrapped up.
That’s three consecutive games where the team have taken the lead but not built on that advantage. Goals have been an issue at times this campaign. In the first 25 league games they managed to score two or more just four times. However, now they've done it four times across the past eight league games. In that time they have kept just one clean sheet. When you look at their xG conceded (how many goals they are expected to have conceded) it is probably no surprise. No team has a bigger differential in the league than United who are expected to have conceded 56.7 but have only conceded 40.
It is clear there are issues that are needing fixed. There is a good spine to the side which can be built around but against Hearts they couldn't get a foothold in the match at all with injuries to key central midfielders. When you can’t get a foothold in the match it will cause issues.
United fans should be happy with the club’s position but it is 100 per cent understandable the frustration they are feeling.
If there’s one positive for the neutral is that the final four games to decide the last two European entrants is going to be very, very exciting with one point separating United, Ross County and Motherwell. United host the Steelmen on Saturday as County travel to Hearts.
The picture should be a lot clearer this time next week. Then again, the way the season has transpired in the middle of the league, probably not.
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