Where should Hearts play Jake Mulraney v Celtic - as an attacking threat or defensively to counter the pace of James Forrest?

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Jake Mulraney will likely have a starting berth for Hearts in the Scottish Cup final on Saturday. Joel Sked looks at the roles he could play.

Cast your mind back to before Christmas. Jake Mulraney failed to get off the bench in a 2-0 defeat to Aberdeen at Pittodrie. It was the fifth consecutive match the Irishman hadn't featured for the side.

Jake Mulraney will be a key player for Hearts. Picture: SNS

Jake Mulraney will be a key player for Hearts. Picture: SNS

In 18 games, between the start of September and Christmas, the winger played just three times, starting once. In addition he had been left out the squad completely on seven occasions.

It seemed to prove to the doubters, naysayers and those who raised their eyebrow that they were correct in their belief that the player wasn't of the standard to play for the club.

However, slowly but surely, the 23-year-old has been winning over critics. Embracing the work of John Johnstone's Football Mindset, Mulraney was able to alter the direction of his Hearts career and embrace the challenges which present themselves at Tynecastle.

It is now at he point where the former Inverness CT man could be key to success at Hampden Park on Saturday.

But how could Craig Levein utilise him?

Wing-back

During the split the Hearts manager has been experimenting, using both a back four and back three. If he opts for a back three then Mulraney is ready-made for that position having played it before for the team.

He would offer a different type of threat from Michael Smith, who would likely be fielded on the right.

With a defensive trio behind him it would allow for Mulraney to be more adventurous and provide attacking width and support. In such a role he would be key in helping Hearts transition from defence to attacking, using his pace and dribbling ability to get up the pitch.

However, the concern is three-fold but all linked: James Forrest, space and Christophe Berra.

If Mulraney is too cavalier it could leave the team badly exposed, especially against one of the most potent attacking forces in the league, Ladbrokes Premiership player of the year Forrest.

With 17 goals this season, including three in his last three Scottish Cup appearances, he is Celtic's danger man.

Without direct support behind him, Mulraney could end up being forced into a left-back position, meaning Hearts are too defensive and struggle to get out from under the pressure.

Then there is Berra. As seen in the last defeat at Fir Park back in February, Berra is not so keen moving to the flank to defend and can struggle.

Winger

This is Mulraney's best position, the one he is most comfortable in and the one he can do most damage.

In a defensive sense it would give be Hearts two players to thwart the threat of Forrest.

There are a couple of options at left-back. Michael Smith, although a right-back, provides experience and know how. Bobby Burns is a more natural on the left but lacks experience and pace.

With Smith behind Mulraney will be more confident at taking the game to Mikael Lustig or Jeremy Toljan who are Celtic's weak links on the right if defence. Playing him closer to goal gives him more chance of influencing the game in the final third and providing Uche Ikpeazu with ammunition.

If it's Burns, Mulraney can offer decent protection having played the position before. The concern would be that he could overcompensate and sit on top of Burns, effectively doubling up as a full-back.

Therefore it would stifle his attacking threat.

Left-back

This would likely be Levein's last option but it is just that, an option.

There have been some games this season where he has been pushed back into that role but it is one which the player is not best suited to and not comfortable in.

With it being the Scottish Cup final you want players who are comfortable in their position. It would be a risk with the player unlikely to be sure in his positioning without the ball and he would probably question himself when the team do have it and whether to attack and how high a position to take.

There is one big benefit, however. Mulraney has the pace to match James Forrest. But would he have the nous to shut him down all game?

Conclusion

For Hearts to get the best out of Mulraney and for him to become an influential and decisive individual on the day, playing him as a winger ahead of Michael Smith would be the best decision.

It would provide him with the freedom to attack Celtic's weak point.

As wing-back, it would perhaps mean Hearts are bit more defensively solid in the defensive third but could become problematic only having one player in direct opposition to James Forrest.