The re-signing of Steven Naismith brings the total number of Hearts summer recruits up to 11, and there’s yet to be an indication from manager Craig Levein that he’s going to stop there. With this in mind, Craig Fowler looks at other areas of the squad and wonders where else Hearts could strengthen.
As we’ve written about previously, it seems likely that Craig Levein will go with a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 formation predominantly next season, given the squad construction to this point. Jake Mulraney and Danny Amankwaa are the only recognised senior wingers despite an influx of additions over the summer thus far. The former wasn’t even a stand-out in the Championship last term, while there are serious questions over the latter’s future at the club seeing as he was given only six minutes across the two friendlies at the weekend - matches which, Levein stressed, would be an exercise in trying to get 90 minutes for as many first-team players as possible.
Even with a squad made up to play one way it’s always good to have reliable options in reserve, giving the manager the option to be both reactive and proactive when faced with a difficult opponent. The failed attempt to bring David Milinkovic back on a permanent deal would at least indicate that the manager is in the market for such a player.
With both Jon McLaughlin and Jack Hamilton leaving the club over the summer there is a hole still to be filled in the goalkeeping corps, even after the arrival of Czech custodian Zdeněk Zlámal. American stopper Kevin Silva has come in and impressed in the friendly matches, though Levein has yet to decide whether he’s ready to push for a starting spot. At 20 years old it’s easier to assume he’d battle Kelby Mason as the reserve team’s No.1 instead.
With Zlámal an unknown in British football - and having already missed a pre-season friendly due to injury - a reliable pair of hands in reserve wouldn’t go amiss.
Step forward Demitri Mitchell. Hearts would love to have the Manchester United full-back return to Tynecastle for another season, a feeling shared by the club’s support. While Aussie defender Ben Garuccio has been recruited on a three-year deal, left-back has been a problem position for the club for a number of years and it would be naive to assume one signing would undoubtedly fix it. Like Mitchell, the ex-Adelaide United man is an attacking left-back so there should be healthy competition for places if they manage to secure the Englishman’s return. It would also enable Levein to use both of them on the same flank, with Mitchell a former winger.
Should a Championship club gazump Hearts’ bid to bring him back, or if United wish to keep him at their Carrington training base, Levein should still be looking at other targets. Another season constantly applying sticking plasters at the position would be a major hindrance in the hunt for European football.
Before today, this writer would have said attacking midfield was still a position in need of addressing. However, that was before Levein revealed that the reason Hearts wouldn’t be offering Ali Crawford a contract was the signing of Steven Naismith. Most supporters wanted to see the former Everton and Rangers star in a more advanced role, playing just off Kyle Lafferty, during his initial loan spell at Tynecastle, and grew agitated when they saw the Scottish international stationed further back. Unfortunately for them, those comments would indicate more of the same is to come next term.
That would give Hearts the option of using new additions Olly Lee, Ryan Edwards, Bobby Burns or Naismith in the most advanced central midfield spot. With Naismith able to cover both in midfield and up front, that could negate the need for another forward, though we already know that Czech hitman David Vanecek will be a Hearts player in 2018/19, whether he joins this window or the next. With Kyle Lafferty entering the final year of his deal and speculation regarding the Northern Irishman’s future, it makes sense to nab a player Levein rates while the chance is there.
This may sound crazy considering the sheer volume of players in the squad capable of playing there, but hear me out.
While the new squad is shaping up nicely, there’s still a question mark over creativity and whether Hearts will have enough to be a good as attacking force as they are a defensive one. Of the midfielders mentioned above, Lee and Burns don’t have experience playing in the Ladbrokes Premiership. And while Edwards can operate in an advanced midfield role, his game is based around energy rather than being a creative or scoring threat. Naismith, due to his tremendous experience, has more in-game intelligence, but even he’s typically been someone who’ll utilise dynamism over guile to get his team into advantageous positions.
If Hearts are set at the position - and the army of central midfielders now at the club would indicate they are - then there is another area they could look to add creativity: wing-back.
As the advanced stats would indicate, Garuccio is a strong crosser of the ball. Getting someone of equal ability on the other side should give a lot for Lafferty and new signing/man-mountain Uche Ikpeazu to feast on.
At present, there are four players vying for one role. However, two of them - Jamie Brandon and Marcus Godinho - will miss the beginning of the season.
There is the returning Liam Smith, who enjoyed an excellent campaign in the Championship with league winners St Mirren. While the right-back should feel confident about staking a place given his performances last term, he remains a below-average crosser of the ball. His 25 per cent success rate in the second tier placed him firmly in the bottom half (Mulraney, for instance, notched 34 per cent and only just cracked the top 20 at that level). Michael Smith (at 27 per cent in last season’s Premiership) isn’t much better.
There’s also the fact that Liam Smith, Godinho and Brandon are all 22 or under, while Michael Smith may be required to fill in at centre-back if one of the starting three (Christophe Berra, John Souttar, Peter Haring) suffer injury and veteran Aaron Hughes continues to feature with restrictions on how often he can play.