With Hearts set to face Kyle Lafferty for the first time since his move to Rangers from Tynecastle, Joel Sked looks at how Craig Levein’s men have evolved.
Whatever Hearts are to achieve this season one of the defining moments of the campaign will still be Kyle Lafferty’s superb controlled volley strike against Celtic in August.
On a technical level you would be hard-pressed to find a better finish in the Scottish top flight this term; the angle, the timing, the trajectory, the control. On an individual level it was peak Lafferty: big game, buoyant crowd, decisive moment, star of the show etc.
The goal not only brought the house down at a packed Tynecastle but also acted as stimulant to the players, management and fans that this season was going to be different to the previous one.
The 2017-2018 campaign was a trying one. Three different men took charge of the team, two different grounds were used to stage home matches, there were all sorts of mix-ups off the field and even more on it. Lafferty, and his ability to come up with big moments, big goals, was one of the few positive constants.
He quickly developed a rapport with the Hearts support and was aided by the club in a time of personal strife. He rewarded such compassion with 19 goals - one away from breaking a 26-year-long Hearts scoring record to become the first player net 20 goals in a season since John Robertson.
He netted in games with Hibs, Rangers and against Celtic on four separate occasions. That’s how you endear yourself to a club’s support.
The most recent strike against Celtic was different. It signalled a fork in the road for Lafferty and Hearts. One direction was Govan, the other the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership. That goal was the equivalent of one last warm embrace, a handshake which turned into a prolonged hug.
• READ MORE: Kyle Lafferty’s five best goals at Hearts
He comes up against his old team for the first time on Sunday as Hearts travel to Ibrox looking to extend their eight-point cushion over Steven Gerrard’s men.
There will be many supporters who would have been desperate to keep the Northern Irishman, keen to see what havoc he could cause in a better team, one with more creativity, more width, more pace and more support.
Now that idea belongs in the ‘what if’ category. However, there are no ifs or buts that since he has left, Craig Levein’s team have continued to evolve.
For the first time in the top flight since the rein of George Burley, it could be argued, Hearts have a combination of pace, power and physicality allied to an easy-on-the-eye, slick passing style. There is a real balance, with an array of options, especially in attack.
Last season’s strike partnership of Esmael Goncalves and Kyle Lafferty looked potent on paper but there was no chemistry: two individualistic players who failed to combine to any great affect. Their best moments either came alone or when the team’s attack was geared towards them, specifically the latter who became the focal point.
It created a weird dynamic. On one hand Lafferty wasn’t necessarily a team player, making on average only 17.13 passes per 90 minutes. No player made fewer, not even Cole Stockton. On the other hand he provided the team with that spark, that goal threat.
It affected the team’s build-up play and made the football quite stodgy, one-dimensional and laborious. Lafferty wasn’t the sole or main reason. This was a collective problem with the team’s lack of pace, width and depth.
The transformation has been stark. There is a goal threat and spark all across the park. There is no longer a reliance on one individual. There have been seven different goalscorers in the league already. In the whole of last season there were ten.
• READ MORE: Osman Sow: I’d happily play for Hearts in the future
Uche Ikpeazu has been a revelation in attack, yet Lafferty could point to the fact the Englishman averages the fewest passes per 90 minutes in the team. However, the forward signed from Cambridge is more of a battering ram than his former colleague. He can hold the ball in better, protect it and bring the team up the pitch. Although he passes the ball less often than Lafferty did, he still acts as a facilitator.
It is a chicken and an egg situation. Is Ikpeazu more effective because there is better support or are Hearts more of a threat because Ikpeazu is better at holding the ball, therefore allowing players to support?
There is definitely a case to be made for both, but there is no doubt that Ikpeazu has a partner in Steven MacLean that Lafferty never had. It is the veteran striker who has helped Hearts bridge such gap in their playing philosophy because his ability to link play is so good.
That has been seen in the last two games, with Ikpeazu out, against Motherwell and St Johnstone where the opposition were in danger of being overrun due to the runs being made from deep and wide. MacLean’s intelligence helped facilitate that.
Team-mates know they can fire the ball into feet and, more often than not, it will be safe. He averages 35.59 passes per 90 minutes and is in the top four for accuracy.
Across the pitch there are improvements. Steven Naismith has been able to be more influential in the final third because there is better quality in midfield to get him the ball rather than him having to constantly go searching for it.
With the recruitment and the continued development of the squad it was always likely going to be the case that Hearts evolved with or without Kyle Lafferty. Yet, it acts as validation to the new attackers that there is little to no pining for a firm fan favourite.
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