How Hearts compare to same stage last season - and why they look best placed to finish third again
This term, there has been truth to the first part of that musical boast but, until now, there have been issues living up to the latter claim. The hope in Gorgie is that fortunes are about to change as they seek a balance that will allow them to fulfil their ambitions.
The Christmas Eve trip to Tannadice affords manager Robbie Neilson his first chance to roll out his first choice backline on domestic duty after injury, World Cup obligations and suspension contrived to deprive him of one or some of his top picks up until now.
The impact of that has been clear when compared to last term’s strong defence, offering a solid foundation.
At the start of the 2021/22 campaign, Hearts progressed through their League Cup group without conceding a goal, and added a further five clean sheets in their first 16 Premiership matches. Over the corresponding period of this league season, they have enjoyed just one domestic shut-out, against Motherwell at Fir Park.
In the first 16 league games of last term they conceded just 15 goals. A year on, the tally over the same number of fixtures has soared to 26.
Which means that the burden of wrestling points from the opening run of head-to-heads has been borne by the attack.
It so happens that, despite Liam Boyce’s early injury and subsequent prolonged period on the sidelines, there has been a potency capable of fuelling the Gorgie side’s chase for another top-three finish.
In Lawrence Shankland they have one of the top tier’s top scorers.
Add in Stephen Humphrys, who had just got his eye in before picking up an injury against Celtic, and should soon be back in contention, providing support and competition for places, and there is a liveliness up front that explains why the goal return after the first 16 games of this league schedule is above that of the same time frame last term.
Currently leading the league charge, Celtic have proved the value in finding the right balance between defence and attack. Goalkeeper Joe Hart boasts the most clean sheets, while a goal return of 51 is a daunting force to repel.
Those Celtic goals come from several sources but what has so far set second place Rangers and third place Aberdeen apart is the goal contributions of Antonio Colak and Bojan Miovski respectively. At the weekend, though, Shankland joined them at the peak of the scoring charts and if the Gorgie club can sharpen their defensive resolve, they know they can push for a higher position.
“When you look at some of the stats from last season and this, we’re actually scoring more goals but we’re conceding more so we need to be more solid at the back,” explained Neilson after his men carved out a 3-1 victory over Kilmarnock as they got back to business following the World Cup hiatus. “That’s been one of the issues we’ve had with the injuries and rotation we’ve had to do at the back. There has been a bit of instability so hopefully having players back will help them.
“Hopefully we get them back in as some stability and consistency of selection is important. We went through a period where I don’t think we had the same eleven for any of the games back to back at the start of the season.”
While Hearts have had European football to factor into the mix, placing greater demands on players and staff, the likes of Aberdeen and Livingston have benefitted from a more myopic approach. Now that Neilson and his increasingly-rehabilitated squad can focus solely on domestic duties, the competition could hot up, with this weekend giving the capital side the possibility of moving into third by Christmas.
Currently their points tally is three points shy of the 27 garnered from 16 games last term but, given this season’s tandem demands of European and domestic competition, compared to that of League Cup group stages and Premiership duties, there will be some solace to be gleaned from the fact they have emerged from a congested and gruelling period just one point shy of third-placed Aberdeen, who conceded late, late goals to Celtic and then Rangers to end both games empty-handed and permit Hearts to close in on them.
With a game in hand, Hearts are now looking to build some momentum and leapfrog them, although it must be noted that Livingston, who remain within touching distance with two games in lieu, still have to be factored into the current equation.
But, Hearts seem to have positioned themselves well, with the proceeds of their European experience there to help bankroll any January reinforcements and the return to fitness and form of others an undoubted enhancement.
This weekend sees the possibility of a Craig Halkett, Stephen Kingsley, Kye Rowles starting triumvirate for the first time since the former was forced off injured early in the Europa League play-off against Zurich in August.
There has been extensive shuffling of personnel since as stop-gaps were sought and confidence wavered in the ranks.
“Just 27 minutes, that’s all they’ve had this season,” bemoaned Neilson. “The three first team centre backs we looked at, Stephen, Halkett and Rowles. In the initial part of the season we only got 27 minutes of them together. That was disappointing but, hopefully, the more they play together the more they get to know each other. When you have that consistency of selection it helps.”
In a league where there is, it seems, little to separate teams on a given day, having a high performing defence, a stubborn goalkeeper or a prolific striker is the extra percentage needed to steal a march.
Hearts can now, arguably, lay claim to all three.
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