The high press
A lot has already been made of Hearts’ pressing in this game, but it really bears repeating. The hosts were so committed to this approach. There was nothing half-hearted, no player failing to pull his weight. Even the centre-backs were constantly getting tight to their closest market whenever the ball came into their area. The full-backs would regularly steam into the opposing half to deny Celtic space to pass it out. It didn’t matter if they were in the middle of the park or close to the Celtic byline, Hearts hunted in packs.
A similar approach was actually used by Ian Cathro in the last game between the sides at Tynecastle, which Celtic won 5-0. They pushed both the midfield and forward line up high and tried to suffocate Brendan Rodgers’ men. Despite the scoreline, it actually came close to working with the hosts missing a couple of great chances before the visitors scored, and Celtic ended up pummelling a demoralised Hearts side. The difference this time was the shape - a 4-3-3 instead of a 4-4-2, with a defensive midfielder in Prince Buaben to give an extra layer of protection to the back four. It also helped that Scott Sinclair and co weren’t so stunningly ruthless as they were in that encounter.
Long to Lafferty
It wasn’t just out of possession where the Hearts players worked themselves into the ground. In general, the plan was to go direct to Kyle Lafferty and have runners from midfield look to both break behind or at least get up close to support. It’s a wonder they didn’t completely break down in the second period, such was the intensity and sheer amount of running they did in the first half.
Such a plan only works if the man on the receiving end does enough to throw the defence off. He doesn’t need to win a header every time or successful retain his possession himself, he just has to do enough so that the centre-backs don’t cleanly win the ball and clear the danger. This allows the runners to pick up the second balls, which Hearts were tremendous at doing. As a result, when the ball went into the Celtic half it stayed there more often than not.
Celtic were completely smothered as they tried to pass the ball out from the back. The away side’s best hope would have been to move the ball up the park quickly and to try and exploit the areas left by the hosts’ pressing. The few chances they did create in the first 45 minutes tended to come down the right-hand side, where James Forrest was able to get in behind full-back Jamie Brandon. The youngster was as vigorous as any Hearts player in how he pressured his opponents in possession, but it did leave space in his area. That’s not a criticism of the 19-year-old - that was the job he was asked to do. You can’t take away absolutely everything against Celtic and, had Leigh Griffiths been in better form, this match could well have turned out differently.
However, the visitors either didn’t realise quickly enough, or were too dogmatic in their approach, to try and be direct more often. A great example of this was the opening goal. Coming 25 minutes into the match, Celtic had already conceded possession umpteen times around their own area, and yet they persisted in trying to pass through their opponents.
On the occasions they did try to go long, however, they found Christophe Berra in impervious form. The Scotland international repeatedly, and easily, overpowered Griffiths and sent the ball back to where it came from. It’s no coincidence that Celtic’s best spell came in the second half, from 50-65 minutes, and involved substitute Moussa Dembele playing the link-up man between midfield and attack. By that point, though, it was already too late.
The midfield three
The trio have already been praised for the manner in which they got forward to support the front players, both in terms of pressing and supporting the attack. But the Hearts midfielders deserve tremendous credit for the manner in which they stuck to their markers in the first half. Prince Buaben, poor with the ball with his feet, still did a great job defensively by following Callum McGregor everywhere. Ross Callachan marked Olivier Ntcham completely out of the game, despite the occasional need for him to break off his man and double up on Scott Sinclair or Kieran Tierney on the rare occasions when the Hoops threatened down that side. And as for Harry Cochrane - there’s a reason everyone was making the same ‘extracting Scott Brown from his back pocket’ joke on Twitter after the match. Rarely has the Celtic skipper had so little influence on a game.
The final word goes to the man of the match. The Franco-Serbian wideman was at the heart of just about every single Hearts attack. Lining up on the left, Milinkovic constantly drifted inside and supported Lafferty as a second striker. He always seemed to find space in which to create havoc, and two goals and an assist was the least he deserved for his efforts.
In addition to his match-winning qualities, he seemed to cover more ground than anyone. Having witnessed every one of his games thus far, Craig Levein is right to describe Milinkovic as ‘incredibly inconsistent’, even within the context of one game. However, unlike most wingers with such a tag, it’s not down to a lack of determination as he continually runs his heart out for the side. The electric atmosphere at Tynecastle seemed to focus his energies and the supporters will be eager for another performance like that when Hibs come to Gorgie in nine days time.