Is this how Hearts' 3-4-3 could be more dangerous - Josh Ginnelly, creating better chances and the elephant in the room
Ahead of this weekend’s cinch Premiership clash with St Mirren, Hearts boss Robbie Neilson played down any suggestion of moving away from the 3-4-3.
Win, lose or draw supporters of the Tynecastle Park club have plenty of opinions on the system and the personnel within it. That discussion intensified following last weekend’s 2-0 loss at Motherwell, where Hearts were bettered and battered by the Steelmen.
Neilson, quite rightly, is not going to allow one result to dictate a move way from a formation which has Hearts sitting third on their return to the Premiership.
"You have to make small alterations,” he said. “You can’t be naive and just do the same thing. But we don’t want to come away from something that has been successful for us this season.
"As the manager we have to have a way of playing. You can’t do one way one week and something different the next. You need continuity.”
Quality of chances
One of the criticisms aimed at the formation has been the number of defensive players within it. As well as the three centre-backs, the two wing-backs are full-backs and the central midfield pairing of Beni Baningime and Cammy Devlin are perceived to be destroyers rather than creators.
Therefore it is deemed that a lot of the responsibility to attack, create and score falls on the shoulders of the front three.
If you split which areas goals arrive from, 47.8 per cent have been scored by forwards, 30.4 per cent by defenders and just 21.8 per cent from midfield.
What can’t be labelled at Hearts is that they are defensive. They are third for shots and touches in the opposition box, fourth for crosses and passes to the final third. Meanwhile, no team is better at winning the ball back in the final third.
Perhaps what could be a concern is the quality of chances created by the team.
While they have been profligate in games, namely in draws with Dundee and St Johnstone, they have outscored their xG (expected goals) – 23 to 17.4 – and, according to FotMob, created just nine ‘big chances’ – a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score. Only Hibs, Livingston and St Johnstone have created fewer.
In terms of consistently providing shot assists it is only Barrie McKay who features highly for Hearts. For crosses, McKay is again the most regular supplier with Josh Ginnelly and Alex Cochrane not far behind.
It is clear more in possession is required from Devlin and Baningime. Both are excellent players out of possession and on the ball in deep areas but at least one is required to be a bit more progressive with the ball going forward.
The elephant in the room is Michael Smith.
The Northern Irishman has been the club's most consistent player since he arrived in 2017 and no player has played more times for Hearts since then.
Criticism earlier in the season appeared slightly harsh and he seemed to provide an answer with a goal in the 3-0 win over Livingston. It is also forgotten how much influence he had in the team's attacking play last season, albeit in the Championship.
He would often find himself on the ball, either in or playing into advanced areas. He was in the top ten for crosses and accuracy and third for passes into the final third.
That attacking impact has waned, somewhat understandably, especially earlier in the campaign when the relationship with Josh Ginnelly looked really promising. In possession, Smith would move infield to give the team another passing option and help dominate the ball, while freeing up space for the winger to a stretch the game.
The arrival of Ben Woodburn and Barrie McKay has seen Hearts play slightly narrower with both forwards preferring to move infield and pick up those half spaces behind the opposition midfield and in front of the defence.
Therefore more responsibility falls on Smith to provide width on the right.
In his absence, Taylor Moore delivered an excellent wing-back performance in the 5-2 win over Dundee United. With Craig Halkett out for the Motherwell clash it seemed perfect for Smith to replace him as the middle of the back three – arguably his best position – with Moore and Souttar continuing at wing-back and right-sided centre-back respectively.
That wasn't the case and it didn’t go so well.
Ginnelly the wing-back
Looking at ways to bring more out of Hearts in an attacking sense, could Josh Ginnelly play the wing-back role?
There will be fans wary of the defensive side of the winger’s game but a formation is about balance. You have Alex Cochrane as a natural full-back on the other side, three centre-backs, one of which is Souttar who is comfortable in wide areas, plus the covering of Devlin and Baningime.
In certain games, Hearts could ‘cheat’ the system and allow Ginnelly to play as an attacking wing-back, the same way Hibs and Celtic have done in the past with Martin Boyle and James Forrest respectively.
Ginnelly would provide directness, pace, dribbling ability and a frequent crossing outlet. His presence would force teams back the way and offer a more dangerous counter-attack threat.
On top of that, he could help get more out of Woodburn and McKay.
Half spaces were mentioned earlier on. They are areas where teams can create more dangerous chances. Research from Arab Analytics shows Hearts are behind Celtic and Rangers as the team who make most use of getting players on the ball in such situations.
Ginnelly stretching play on the right could help create more space for fellow forwards, while offering a different passing angle and threat.
Hearts are prone to dominating the ball at Tynecastle against the Premiership’s so-called lesser sides, therefore there would be less onus on the Englishman defending.
Neilson has talked about minor tweaks. Could this be the alteration which would provide a big pay-off?
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