Hearts fans aren’t particularly enthused by the return of the midfielder from injury, though Craig Fowler argues they should be
Two incidents summed up the difference between Hearts’ first half and second half performance in the loss to Kilmarnock last week. Before we begin, it should be noted that the second 45 were hardly great from the home side’s point of view, but they were an improvement on what was an aimless and, frankly, dreadful first 45.
Sixteen minutes into the match, Ross Callachan received a pass in the centre of the park, just shy of the halfway line. With no opponent within a ten-yard radius, he had the option of driving the ball forward. Or he could have moved it to Daniel Baur on the left, to Kyle Lafferty dropping deep, or to his midfield partner Connor Randall attacking the right wing. Instead, he turned and smashed a 30-yard cross-field pass to left-midfielder Lewis Moore. Taken by surprise by the speed of the effort, the teenager actually tried to catch the ball before it went out for a throw-in.
This, more than anything else - more than the lack of understanding between the front two players, more than the 17-year-old centre-back awkwardly filling in at left-back, more than the lack of trusted options out wide - was Hearts’ biggest problem against Kilmarnock. They had no control of the midfield area and, for most of the first half, they looked like the away side against an opponent several notches below them in the league table.
When one of the midfielders took possession, they too readily lumped the ball forward. Even when they tried to take a touch and find a pass, any pressure on the player in possession would see the ball go back to the defence or goalkeeper. Without a midfielder dropping in to offer an alternative they, in turn, would lump the ball forward.
Some striker-partnerships will have enough about them to make such distribution stick and haul the team up the park, but not Kyle Lafferty and Esmael Goncalves. Despite both being obviously talented players with impressive pedigrees, they’ve yet to show any indication they can mesh together in attack.
It meant the ball kept coming back. While the Hearts defence went to pieces for Kris Boyd’s goal, they can be commended for limiting the number of overall opportunities the visitors had in the opening period.
The hosts left the field with boos ringing in their ears. More than a few fans were demanding a half-time shake-up. Due to a combination of injury and another disappointing summer recruitment drive, Craig Levein was limited in his options. Instead of completely restructuring the team, he made a couple of positional swaps. Connor Randall went to right back, Michael Smith to right midfield and Don Cowie into the centre of the park. It wasn’t revolutionary and it didn’t transform this beleaguered group into world beaters, but it was enough for them to get a foothold in the match and, until Adam Frizzell’s late winner following a Goncalves equaliser, at least they were the team in the ascendancy from that point forward.
The improvement was evident six minutes in. Cowie, taking a pass near his penalty box, resisted any urge to launch it forward and instead attacked the space in front of him. He then played it into the feet of the retreating Goncalves, who knocked it back to the midfielder. With an opponent closing in, he was able to slide-pass the ball out to Randall on the right-wing, and bingo, Hearts were on the attack. Though the cross was easily cleared, Cowie picked up the loose ball and Hearts remained in possession with Kilmarnock deep in their own half.
Subtle differences like this can make the world of difference in any football game. And it’s why the return of Arnaud Djoum can’t come soon enough.
In general, the Hearts support is at the end of their tether with the Cameroon international. He’s failed to sustain the early promise of his first season where he was clearly one of the most technically proficient players in the Scottish top flight. And while supporters have often brushed off talk about his desire to play in the English leagues as newspapers fishing for a story, the sheer number of times these headlines have appeared, along with his waning form, has stirred some resentment.
Levein’s arrival saw immediate improvement in the first two games, a 0-0 draw against Aberdeen at Murrayfield where Hearts were clearly the better side, and a 2-1 win at Hamilton. However, one player still criticised by supporters after both games was Djoum. Operating at the base of the midfield in a deep-lying playmaker role, he was accused of still being too passive when the rest of the team was upping the tempo.
Having missed both of those games, I was keen to see how Djoum performed having heard the general assessment. While it was true that he wasn’t imposing himself on matches in a fashion he had earlier in his Hearts career, he was still fulfilling an important role in the side. Though sometimes caught in possession for dallying too much, he was still one of the few players who was capable of getting his foot on the ball, turning in tight spaces and keeping his team in possession. It’s a skill they badly missed over the past month.
Some of the criticism may stem from the much-maligned team of last season. Following the January transfer window there were too many players comfortable in possession and too few capable of fighting and running. This team is the opposite.
Djoum sustained a knee during the first half of the Hamilton win. He was taken off at half-time and hasn’t been seen since. His absence wasn’t as keenly felt with Jamie Walker and Cowie still in the team, but as those two dropped out through injury the team performances became increasingly grim.
This side needs a lift to come from somewhere and a (possible) return home may provide it, but they can’t put in another showing like the dismal 1-0 victory over St Johnstone. No, if Hearts are going to open a new Tynecastle on Sunday and immediately get the fans back onside then it is of utmost importance that they dominate the opposition.
Without Djoum in the centre, it’s difficult to imagine them doing that.