With long-term injuries to key frontmen, Uche Ikpeazu and then Steven Naismith, the Tynecastle side have been finding goals hard to come by.
Levein has thrown in young Craig Wighton and newcomer Sean Clare in the hope that they could produce something special but it is a situation that has been forced upon the Hearts manager as he tried to explain at the club’s annual general meeting this week. Fans are becoming increasingly frustrated by the side’s slide down the Premiership standings, as the positive 13-game unbeaten run at the start of the season has been turned on its head. Since the beginning of October, Hearts have lost seven of their 12 matches and won only three.
Lack of goals has been a major contributing factor, with the team drawing blanks in half of the last dozen games.
The burden of expectation has fallen on 36-year-old Steven MacLean, who made a positive initial impression but has struggled without the link up play of Naismith and Ikpeazu. Deployed in an unfavoured and unfamiliar lone striker role, he has failed to shine, while more has been demanded of youngsters Wighton, who signed from Dundee as a longer-term prospect, and Clare, who has also been expected to hit the ground running despite a summer injury.
None of them have the important qualities Ikpeazu or Vanecek is touted to possess in the final third. “We tried everything to sign David Vanacek in August but his club [FK Teplice] were impossible to deal with,” explained Levein, who is struggling to find an immediate solution to his team’s inability to retain possession or pose a threat in the final third. “We had agreed a fee of �50,000, then they changed their mind and said he couldn’t go, then they said they would let him go if they found another striker.
“This went on and on, and I didn’t trust that they would let the deal go through before the window closed. I would have loved to have him in right now to call on. But he will be with us on 5 January and will go to Spain [to the team’s mid-season training camp] and be ready to go. He is an experienced player, 27, and will do the job that Uche did until Uche gets back.
“He will give us that security in the final third and also give us somebody to score from crosses.
“In the meantime, we have signed someone I believe is an excellent long-term prospect in young Craig Wighton. I think, in time, he will be a very good player. However, what has happened with all the injuries is that, all of a sudden, Wighton has become something I didn’t want him to be: a player we need to rely on during the early part of his time at Tynecastle.”
Levein’s fear is that fans turn on the youngster before he has the time to prove his worth.
“With young players, particularly if you don’t know them well, going out here [Tynecastle] and playing and carrying the responsibility of being one of the main strikers can be hard and can affect them. If you don’t play well it can create a negative experience of being here. I try to put young players in during situations where the rest of the team is quite solid – everything else around that young player works and he feels comfortable. I haven’t been able to do that with Craig Wighton and I haven’t been able to do that with Sean Clare.”
Having gone over on his ankle at training last Friday, ruling him out of last weekend’s embarrassing collapse at Livingston, Wighton is expected to miss out on the trip to Pittodrie on Saturday as well.
While Naismith could return, Clare could feature along with MacLean with their manager hoping they can somehow help turn the tide.
“Sean will be a fantastic player, but he has been thrown in as a solution to a problem that has arisen due to injuries and, at this minute in time, I am probably putting pressure on players that aren’t ready for it.
“I signed Steven MacLean to play 15 games and be a great example to the young kids – and I think he has played nearly every game. I think that has been to his detriment. Earlier in the season, when Uche and Steven Naismith were available, Steven was doing really well for us. Now he is probably getting criticised as well because he is doing something that he is not capable of doing. He is not a lone striker, he doesn’t have the mobility.
“The players need to step up, though. I need them to step up. When you take the main players out, someone else has to step up. Someone needs to win the game for us. We need to find someone else. It might have to be Sean Clare.