So, what’s wrong with Hearts? Well, the answer is simple: too many injuries. No Uche Ikpeazu, no Steven Naismith, no John Souttar and, until this past Sunday, no Christophe Berra. That’s four of Hearts best five players, all gone at the same time. It’s natural that a team would struggle in the wake of that. Any team in the world would see a drop in form.
Although, there’s a drop in form, then there’s failing to win in six matches and scoring only one goal (and an own goal at that) from a team previously flying at the top of the league. Injuries are obviously the reason for the current free-fall, but it goes deeper than merely pointing to absent talent.
A disclaimer before we start: while Berra and Souttar are big players for Hearts, their impact hasn’t been quite as keenly felt as the two forwards who’ve been missing. That’s because Jimmy Dunne has been an excellent summer signing and, while he’s been poor these last two games, Clevid Dikamona has shown up well for the most part also.
MacLean’s new role
There were question marks around the signing of the 36-year-old when he agreed to move to Tynecastle from St Johnstone earlier this summer, especially when the manager said one of the things he liked about the attacker was that he’s “never been able to run”. Levein meant is as a compliment, basically saying fans shouldn’t worry too much about his age as his game has never been based around physical advantages, but for a support who’d suffered through a plodding and predictable attack last season, it didn’t bode well.
Then MacLean played and everything was terrific. With Ikpeazu and Naismith occupying the minds of opponents around him, MacLean could play to his strengths and drop into the pockets of space around the final third, linking with team-mates and keeping the football flowing. He didn’t have to worry about the attentions of centre-backs as much because they had other things to worry about.
Since the injuries to his partners in crime his form has really tailed off. With Craig Wighton not yet to the standard Hearts are demanding of him, MacLean has been forced to lead the line. Now opposing defenders are zeroing in on him and negating his influence.
Lack of form among the supporting players
Though the news that Naismith would be joining Ikpeazu on the treatment table was initially devastating, when the dust had settled there was still plenty to be optimistic about. Hearts hadn’t found themselves top of the table and reached the Betfred Cup semi-final just on the form of two players alone. Results were expected to fall back to an extent, but it was still expected they’d... well, that a Hearts player would score a goal in six games.
Looking around the rest of the squad, Olly Lee had emerged as another excellent summer addition, Demetri Mitchell brought a known attacking quality from full-back, Arnaud Djoum was settling into his role as an inverted midfielder on either the left or right, Callumn Morrison was the latest promising youngster to break through, and highly-anticipated September signing Sean Clare was reaching fitness. All of these players, it was assumed, had the ability to go beyond the striker and fill the attacking void.
Instead, none of them have performed to a high standard since Naismith went out injured. With MacLean swimming against the tide as a lone striker, the burden has fallen on these guys to help pick up the slack and they’ve thus far failed to do so.
When Naismith limped off against Celtic, Hearts didn’t just lose their best attacking player, they also lost a coach on the field. Watch the Scottish international during any game for a five-minute stretch. He spends just as much time barking orders at team-mates as he does riling up the opposition and creating havoc around the penalty area.
In that game alone there was a clear example of his influence in attack as Danny Amankwaa took his place and, in an unfamiliar role, looked completely lost. The irony being that, had Naismith been on the park, the career winger would probably have had a much better idea of where he was supposed to be.
Hearts’ form remained steady without the towering front-man. However, there were instances even in some of those games - the 2-1 wins over St Johnstone and Aberdeen at Tynecastle - that things were not going to be as easy for the Jam Tarts attack. With MacLean, Naismith and Djoum all playing well in mutually supportive roles, the home side were able to control possession in the opposition half and pass their way into opportunities around the final third, but they still failed to turn convincing performances into convincing results, having to hang on in both games.
Ikpeazu, along with his strength, has proven himself excellent with the ball at his feet. If it’s knocked up to him, he can back down a defender and retain possession rather than flicking it on, thereby setting up the attack deep into the opposing half. Without that out-ball, things had to be much more precise and it was easy to envision the same attack struggling to maintain their potency when the weather turned and pitches began to get cut up over the winter months, even had Naismith stayed fit.
This is a major problem in the present and going forward. Momentum is huge in football. The confidence from the unbeaten run which began the campaign had the Hearts players feeling ten-feet tall. Even though they went to Ibrox, lost three first-half goals and had a man sent off shortly after the break, they still gave a good account of themselves and won the second half. They weren’t afraid of anyone. Now, contrast that showing with what was witnessed at St Mirren Park the weekend before last.
Naismith is expected to return in the next couple of weeks. It should coincide with an immediate improvement in results, but the forward can’t do it on his own. He needs MacLean, Djoum, Lee or other supporting players to give him the same level of assistance he was receiving earlier in the campaign. These team-mates might get a lift from mere the sight of him in a Hearts jersey again, or they might be weighed down by the doubt that has engulfed the squad over recent weeks.