“The manager’s an idiot.”
When such words come from Hearts boss Craig Levein the expectancy is that he’s targeted a fellow boss to put in their place following a run-in. However, when he said that to the press pack following his side’s 5-0 loss at Celtic Park it was a brutally honest appraisal of his own performance.
The 54-year-old held his hands up and took full responsibility for the defeat. It may have done little to appease the travelling support as they trudged back to their cars or to the nearest pub to drown their sorrows following another harrowing Glasgow humbling, but it was an incredibly refreshing take from a manager rather than the usual platitudes served up in post-match interviews.
He explained: “I made a decision that with all the high-profile matches we’ve had, I thought the energy levels would begin to wain. I made the decision to sit in and try and frustrate Celtic and hit them on the counter-attack but I got that one wrong.”
Refreshing, yes, but was he right? Was he being too harsh on himself?
First impressions from the line-up suggested Sean Clare and Jake Mulraney would offer that counter-attacking threat from the wide positions with Peter Haring providing a base for Arnaud Djoum and Harry Cochrane to move forward and support Steven MacLean. Failing that, Djoum would be in a narrow left position and Clare behind MacLean, who returned from suspension for the fixture having sat out the Edinburgh derby.
Eyebrows were therefore raised within seconds when it became clear that Mulraney, starting his first game since August, was stationed in a central position alongside MacLean with Djoum and Clare in the wide berths.
It was not a good sign that inside 35 seconds all 11 Hearts players were within 30 yards of their own goal. However, the volume of bodies behind the ball saw Celtic crowded out with Cochrane shifting possession quickly to Haring who then fed Mulraney to drive away from Callum McGregor and take Hearts up the pitch.
It allowed the team to get an early, albeit brief, foothold in the game. Something similar happened in the eighth minute with Mulraney again driving forward and Hearts having a more sustained period of possession in Celtic’s half.
Yet, those were the only instances before Celtic opened the scoring in the 18th minute.
The vast majority of the opening period saw Hearts in a 4-4-2 shape very close together but also very close to their own goal. When Zdenek Zlamal was forced into a fine save from Ryan Christie prior to the first goal all 11 Hearts players were within 20 yards of their goal.
Staying deep, compact and narrow in an attempt to frustrate Celtic has worked previously this season. St Mirren and Kilmarnock picked up points against the champions, but away from Parkhead. Hamilton, Aberdeen and St Johnstone have also been able to make life difficult for Celtic with a retaining game.
It is easy to see what Levein was trying to do. Without four of his most important players, all out due to injury, and at the end of a trying period in terms of games - five in 15 days - plus Celtic’s struggles against deep defences, a reactive rather than proactive approach is understandable. The team had done a fine thwarting job in the Betfred Cup semi-final at Murrayfield until Oliver Bozanic’s foul.
A key issue was that the tempo and fluidity to Celtic’s play which had been lacking at the start of the season appears to have been found in recent weeks, certainly domestically. Following Saturday’s match, Brendan Rodgers’ men have now scored 23 goals in their last five domestic games.
There is the feeling that Celtic are back to the vintage which saw them waltz past teams who try to prevent rather than play. Even rivals Hibs showed that by going toe-to-toe football wise ended in a 4-2 defeat, although they were far more competitive than many opponents of late.
By sitting so deep, Hearts encouraged both Celtic full-backs to push forward, allowing Scott Sinclair and James Forrest to play more like forwards than wingers. But most concerning of all was the space and time afforded to Callum McGregor. Without Scott Brown, McGregor was the deepest midfield player and Hearts played right into his hands. He simply dictated proceedings, using his passing ability and intelligence to give the ball to team-mates in good positions.
The area behind McGregor, in front of the Celtic defence, was a possible area of vulnerability but he was rarely tested defensively despite Mulraney skipping away from him early on. Meanwhile, neither centre-back was troubled in the space behind the full-backs.
“I’ve done the players a disservice,” said Levein. “We had more energy than I thought we had. Once you set out that way it’s very difficult to change it other than half-time. The second half I was pleased with. I know we lost two goals but at least we were in the game and we had opportunities. I think the players felt better too.”
As the Hearts boss says, switching that mentality from defence to attack so early on having put in place a plan can be difficult. The team were much more competitive after the interval, engaging with Celtic much higher up the pitch.
Levein understandably singled out Djoum and Cochrane who both cajoled opponents as the Gorgie side put across a much better representation of themselves even if the game had already gone.
The defeat took Levein’s record of managing Hearts at Ibrox and Celtic Park to 19 defeats out of 21 and frustrated fans who were hoping for a more proactive game plan. Supporters are fed up with a lack of ambition in Glasgow. There was reasoning behind it but perhaps the Hearts boss’ biggest mistake was not trusting his players to take the game to Celtic, or at the very least be more attacking.
Yet, his reaction should encourage rather than demoralise fans. The next time the team travel west along the M8 there won’t be such a passive approach. Between now and then, the team will be looking to get back to winning ways and hold onto their position as league leaders.
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