Christophe Berra insists Hearts are branded a long-ball team purely because of prejudice towards Craig Levein. Rightly or wrongly, the manager has found it hard to shake the perception he favours play going from back to front as quickly as possible.
Levein’s partly responsible for this well-established view since he has often relied upon a physically dominant centre forward. When he once chose not to and instead employed a 4-6-0 formation while Scotland manager, the controversy left a scar upon his managerial career.
Berra is certainly someone worth listening to. As a centre-half he’s bound to know as well as anyone about Levein’s instructions. He claims defenders are not told to punt the ball towards heavyweight centre forward Uche Ikpeazu despite what many might think. Berra points to a recent study that showed Hearts were among those least reliant on the long ball and wonders if Aberdeen, for example, are really any different in the way they seek to play to the physically imposing Sam Cosgrove’s strengths.
“That is a theory, aye [we are long ball],” said Berra, below, after another disappointing afternoon saw Hearts concede two first-half goals and eventually fall 3-1 to Rangers. “But I’m sure there is a stat that showed we were third-lowest with the long ball. I don’t know if that’s maybe something that comes along with the gaffer. It’s not our aim to do that. It is an asset… I’m sure Aberdeen play it long to the big man up front.”
Reaching a Scottish Cup final against Celtic next month has failed to quell fan unrest and further disquiet has been expressed about Hearts’ one-dimensional outlook. “People have maybe got a perception of the manager which is not the way we plan to do it,” added Berra. “Like most teams, you want to put pressure on and that can be hard to handle but I’m sure that stat would shut up a few people. Obviously in the first five, ten, 15 minutes at Tynecastle against bigger teams, you want to put their defence under pressure. You want to get crosses and corners in. That’s the plan. You have to do that.”
In truth, style of play was not why Hearts lost on Saturday. Indeed, it was when they did try to play through the midfield and take chances by holding on to the ball that they were undone. Twice they had their pockets picked by eager Rangers opponents. Craig Wighton, who was only told minutes before kick-off he was starting after Sean Clare returned from the warm-up still feeling unwell, was dispossessed by a Jon Flanagan tackle as he moved in-field with the ball to set in motion a move expertly finished by Jermain Defoe.
Ollie Bozanic was the other fall guy after losing the ball to Ryan Jack, who finished superbly after receiving the ball back from Daniel Candeias.
When Nikola Katic swept in a third at the far post shortly after half-time it signalled the last straw for many Hearts fans, who streamed towards the exits. Many had already voiced their disapproval when the teams left the pitch at half-time.
Hearts now face an arduous task this weekend against Hibs, who are on a nine-match unbeaten league run and have stretched their lead to three points over their rivals following yesterday’s 0-0 draw with Celtic.
“If you’re not winning games, it’s natural,” observed Berra with reference to yet more negative reaction from fans. “It would be the same at Ibrox, Pittodrie, Parkhead or Easter Road. No matter what ground you play in the country, in England or Europe, if you’re getting beat 2-0, they are not going to be cheering you off.”
He refused to countenance a suggestion this was a dent to morale in the run-up to the cup final. “You learn as a sportsman, in any sport, that you have got to take the losses and bounce back,” said Berra. “If you don’t, it’s a tough old sport to be playing for ten-15 years.”
One of the bright spots was the return of Harry Cochrane, who came on as a second-half substitute for his first taste of first-team action since December after a horrendous run of injuries. Levein later said he would have no qualms playing the teenager at Hampden if he reached the required standard of form and fitness in the coming weeks.
As for Rangers, this was another glimpse of what life might be like next season. There was no Alfredo Morelos – as might well be the case in the coming campaign. But Rangers continued to adapt well and in Defoe have a match winner every bit as clinical – and far more likely to remain on the pitch (although he was booked for a dangerous tackle on Bobby Burns).
Katic has returned to the side in central defence and again looked solid next to Connor Goldson. This was Rangers’ first choice centre-half pairing until Katic suddenly found himself out of favour towards the end of last year. Gerrard seems minded to give them another chance after their second successive game back together.
“I believe in myself and I think I can be part of a Rangers team who will attack the title next season,” said Katic.
“Of course, I want to keep my shirt all the time now. I want to play every game in the season if I can. I talked with the manager a few times when I was out of the team, but I will keep those conversations to myself.”