It was very much a case of ‘do you want the good news or the bad news?’ for Hearts fans around 3pm on Wednesday afternoon.
The good news was that their team had confirmed the signing of a new player.
The bad news was that it wasn’t, and is unlikely to ever be, David Milinkovic.
In the most devastating blow to hit the maroon following since Carl McHugh’s goal in the Scottish Cup quarter-final defeat at Motherwell, it was revealed that the fans’ favourite would not be back for next season. Despite agreeing a fee with Genoa, initial negotiations were so out of sync between player and club that Hearts decided to walk away from the deal.
Any hope that the new signing would be a direct replacement for Milinkovic was similarly fleeting as he was readily described as an energetic central midfielder, one who preferred to play in the holding role.
Oliver Bozanic is the club’s ninth signing of the summer. He’s also the fourth slated to play in the engine room, along with fellow countryman Ryan Edwards, youngster Bobby Burns and ex-Luton Town star Olly Lee.
Add Don Cowie, Ross Callachan, Harry Cochrane and the injured Arnaud Djoum into the mix and that’s eight central midfielders contracted through next season, not to mention French outcast Malaury Martin and some of the youngsters who got playing time there last term.
There’s also the pursuit of Steven Naismith with the club refusing to give up hope of bringing the Norwich City player back to Tynecastle. Though he’s known as a forward, he mainly played as a central attacking midfielder during his five months in Edinburgh.
In fairness to the latest arrival, unlike the others he is advertised as a holding midfielder and has plenty of experience in the position, including seven caps for Australia. Hearts had a healthy number of central midfielders last season too, but none who were defensive specialists until Joaquim Adao arrived on a short-term loan in January.
While manager Craig Levein is spoiled for choice through the centre, there is a dearth of reliable options out wide. Summer signing Jake Mulraney was described as ‘hit and miss’ even in the Championship, and Danny Amankwaa has yet to show he has what it takes to shine in Scottish football.
Levein previously estimated that the club would make between “seven and ten” signings for the new campaign. The arrival of Austrian centre-back Peter Haring, expected to complete his move from SV Ried in the next couple of days, would fill that quota.
Though it’s safe to assume that Levein was conservative in his previous guess, what with there still being over two months of the transfer market still to go, it’s also seems unlikely that he’s now going to channel all his resources into stocking up on players in attacking wide-men.
Instead, the current shape of the Hearts squad is already giving a clear indication of how the manager wants to set-up for the next campaign.
In addition to the recent business, veteran centre-back Aaron Hughes was handed a new one-year deal. With Haring arriving and Christophe Berra and John Souttar already in residence, the centre-back corps is also becoming pretty inflated. Consider that Michael Smith can play in the position too and there is enough cover to consistently adopt a three-at-the-back system next term.
Three at the back, three in midfield and two up front; as things stand, it appears the most logical gameplan for Hearts. Levein experimented with a three-man defence fairly consistently towards the tail end of last season, though he would often opt for a 3-4-3. The issue with that formation was the lack of quality senior options in the wide positions, especially when Milinkovic was out injured.
The club have looked to bolster the attack in the summer, adding St Johnstone veteran Steven MacLean and the unknown Uche Ikpeazu. However, both are out-and-out centre forwards and shouldn’t be expected to have the versatility to play out wide. The same goes for signing target David Vanecek.
Fans’ favourite Kyle Lafferty and returning pariah Conor Sammon each have experience playing in wide positions, but neither option is conducive to a club like Hearts reaching its potential and grabbing a best-of-the-rest finish in the top flight table.
So all the signs point to a 3-5-2 system and a fairly industrious one at that. Whether it’ll be effective or not remains to be seen.
READ MORE - Hearts pull the plug on David Milinkovic deal