Where next for Hearts after four seasons of overhaul?

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Once more fans of Heart of Midlothian face an end to the season which provokes apathy rather than anticipation, exasperation rather than excitement. The season all but over before the clocks spring forward. Ctrl + C, Ctrl + V.

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Hearts manager Craig Levein will be under pressure to significantly strengthen the squad this summer. Picture: SNS

Hearts manager Craig Levein will be under pressure to significantly strengthen the squad this summer. Picture: SNS

Since 2016 the general ambiance has been one of annoyance and resentment around Tynecastle. It started just before 10pm on Tuesday 16 February, 2016 after Scottish Cup defeat to Hibernian. There was a further peak a few months later following defeat to Birkirkara in the Europa League. It reappeared in February 2017 and has rarely left.

Such is the nature of football fans, there was cautious optimism coming in to March. There was a Scottish Cup quarter-final to look forward to, followed by a meeting with Hibs and a sense that the team, as a whole, were progressing.

The cup trip to Motherwell was the biggest game of the season. A time for the club’s big players to step up. A time for Craig Levein to prove he was the right man to step into the position vacated after Ian Cathro’s sacking, to win over doubters among the Hearts support. What followed was an away performance fans are all too familiar and all too fed-up with.

A passive first-half, with a questionable team choice, would cost the team dearly as they lost late on. It was followed by yet another leaden display at Easter Road. No shots on target, no imagination, no shortage of disillusionment. In 180 of the biggest minutes of the season, Hearts wilted.

Between now and the end of the season fans will look for an excuse, any excuse, to not have to endure the remaining eight figures as they partake in a healthy dose of introspection.

Hearts are set for another period of transition, another summer of overhaul. Only 12 senior players are contracted for next season, a list which includes two right-backs, Conor Sammon, Malauray Martin, Ross Callachan and little excitement. Key individuals and fan favourites are likely to depart, Jon McLaughlin, Demetri Mitchell, Connor Randall, Joaquim Adao and David Milinkovic.

It is a result of a questionable recruitment strategy where a long-term vision, direction and forward thinking has given way to band-aid fixes, finger crossing and papering over the cracks.

The numbers are there for everyone to see. Since promotion in 2015, 71 players have been used. Include the season in the Championship and it rises to 89. Add in players who have been included in squads but not played and it reaches 95. The club have rarely had a settled team let alone an idea in the last 24 months. Is it any wonder there is a lack of connection between those on the pitch and those watching off it?

As way of comparison, since Hearts’ return to the top-flight Aberdeen have used 52 (seven have been goalkeepers). In the 2015/2016 season Hearts finished third, six points behind Aberdeen. They now sit 14 behind the Dons. A clear sign of the regression at Tynecastle.

While Derek McInnes’ side have largely developed together, complete with solid spine, Hearts have had countless surgeries, patched together with spare parts. More robotic than life-like. But they show no sign of advanced intelligence, as anyone who has witnessed the on-field fare for two years can attest.

Easter Road on Friday wasn’t a nadir. It doesn’t fall into the category of previous trips to Leith in the Scottish Cup, the Birkirkara debacle or Dunfermline fiasco. It’s because such a performance is the norm when Hearts step out of EH11. Although, that is not to say Hearts are a swashbuckling outfit at Tynecastle. Far from it.

Levein’s men were competitive throughout at Easter Road. There wasn’t a lack of desire. What there was, though, was a severe lack of quality and attacking game plan. The team, as they so often have been, were one-paced and flimsy.

Steven Naismith was ponderous and unsure in possession and didn’t seem to know what his role was. He was subsequently ragdolled by John McGinn, while Florian Kamberi bullied John Souttar and provided Hibs with a focal point to build the game. At the base of the midfield Dylan McGeouch gave the Hearts midfield a lesson in how to control and dictate.

Lewis Moore, a player who struggled on loan at Cowdenbeath, has the trust of Levein without it being clear what he offers, while Harry Cochrane is beginning to look like a player who is still more than a month away from being able to get a provisional driver’s licence and would likely be ID’d if he wanted to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Before injury his legs looked heavy and mind flustered. Plus Hearts should not be relying on 16 and 17-year-olds for inspiration.

Hearts were missing key individuals. Milinkovic offers pace and drive, even if Levein doesn’t fully trust him. Mitchell has the pace to keep up with Martin Boyle and trouble him the other way. And without Arnaud Djoum the team miss the one player who brings a semblance of composure and imagination to the midfield.

The Cameroonian has had his critics - he should have greater control over games - but in the 15 matches he has missed in the league and Scottish Cup Hearts have only won three times. In the 18 games he has played in the two competitions, Hearts lost three times.

The injury issue has to be a concern for the club as does the reliability to certain players. From the first league game of the season until the defeat to Hibs on Friday a total of 102 changes have been made to the starting XI, game to game. Not once has the same starting XI started consecutive matches. It feeds into the style dilemma under Levein.

For a spell Hearts looked like they had a return of that stereotypical robust, no-nonsense, structured approach. A club record for consecutive clean sheets was broken and there was a point where opposition teams required the skills of Johnny Ramensky to breakthrough. However, if you were to listen to those who look into the advanced stats of Scottish football it was nowhere near sustainable using the expected goal metric, while at the same time there is no team worse at creating chances from open play.

It doesn’t paint a picture of a team which fans look forward to watching. Yet, even with the issues, with the money spent on certain individuals and the squad in general they should be doing better than sixth place. Aside from the points gap to Aberdeen and Hibs, it is Kilmarnock’s rise under Steve Clarke which accentuates Hearts’ under-performance. Since he took charge of Killie they have won 10 more points than Hearts, with a game less, and have clear direction.

Reports suggest Levein wants nine new players. The club are in need of an overhaul, fresh talent. The team lacks pace in crucial areas, as well as width and a balance squad. While the team can be physical they don’t possess the power which the likes of Hibs and Motherwell have through the spine of their respective teams. But that has largely been the case for the last three transfer windows at least and it has not been rectified. The lack of these attributes have made it harder for the team to get a foothold on games which allows players such as Cochrane and Anthony McDonald to flourish while offering them protection.

Between now and the end of the season the club need to have a look at themselves. They need to decide what they want to be. Without doing so they will continue to enervate the support - a support which will soon be receiving season ticket renewal information - and in 12 months time it will be another case of copy and paste.

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