ONE striker or two? It’s a question that just won’t go away when it comes to Hearts. Most managers at Tynecastle in recent seasons have favoured one centre- forward, while many supporters want a return to the more conventional 4-4-2.
For the bulk of the current season, John McGlynn has gone with one striker flanked by two wingers, but he sprang a surprise by pairing Callum Paterson and John Sutton in a two-pronged attack for Wednesday night’s League Cup success against Dundee United at Tannadice.
Sutton, given a first start since early September in midweek, is hoping to keep his place against former club Dundee at Dens Park today, but he understands the dilemmas modern-day managers face in trying to decide how to accommodate their attacking players.
He said: “There’s different ways of playing football. Sometimes the extra man in midfield helps you create more chances, but having the extra man up front can give you more chance of taking those chances. It’s not really about the formation so much, it’s the way you play it.
“It doesn’t really matter too much if you play one or two up front, all that matters is whether you win and, from a striker’s point of view, if you are getting chances and getting shots on goal. As long as we’re winning and pushing up the table, it doesn’t bother me whether we’ve got one or two up front. I just want to play, really.”
While Sutton has generally operated best in a two-man attack throughout his career, McGlynn has to consider what’s best for the whole team, rather than just one player. Despite playing two up front on Wednesday, the manager is in no hurry to ditch the solitary striker approach, insisting he will alter the formation on a horses-for-courses basis.
“Csaba Laszlo played with one striker as did Jim Jefferies, although he played two sometimes. Paulo Sergio played with one striker,” said McGlynn. “You come to a football club that only has two strikers left so if you start 4-4-2 and one gets injured where do you go? And what happens if one is having a nightmare and one is injured?
“So it was quite easy to continue with one striker. You could argue it’s three up front because you’ve got two wide players getting forward. It was quite easy for me to continue what was happening. Hearts won the Scottish Cup final with one striker and scored five goals in that game. The last time we were at Tannadice we scored three goals and played with one striker.
“But it was getting more frustrating at the amount of chances we created and didn’t take, so we tried something slightly different on Wednesday. It would be open to debate whether that was the difference or not. It just means we can change system. It gives us the choice.”
While Sutton is open-minded regarding the formation, he would like time to try to strike up a partnership with young Paterson, who replaced the Englishman as the lone striker following the home defeat by Dundee earlier in the season. “We had played a few times together in brief periods, normally when we’ve been chasing games,” said Sutton. “But the more we can play together, hopefully we can develop a good relationship on the pitch, and make life more difficult for defenders. Callum has got a lot of ability and is very athletic.”
Having scored a late equaliser as a sub against Ross County last weekend, Sutton was delighted to finally earn a recall to the starting XI at Tannadice. “I’ve been coming on as a sub recently, so it was good to start,” he said. “It drives any player nuts not starting regularly. You’re desperate to start every game. That’s what you play the game for.”
In an unfortunate quirk, Sutton has missed penalties in his last two starts. He fell out of the team after seeing a spot-kick saved by Rab Douglas in that early-September 1-0 loss to Dundee at Tynecastle, while he also failed with Hearts’ second kick of the shoot-out victory over United in midweek.
Despite these setbacks, he is in no mood to shirk future penalties if given the opportunity. Reflecting on Wednesday’s dramatic shoot-out, Sutton said: “When you miss your first two penalties, it’s unusual to go on and win a shoot-out but Jamie MacDonald has a good record of saving penalties, so if anybody was going to dig us out of a hole, it was going to be him.
“I could have hit my penalty better, but it’s not an easy skill. If you send the keeper the wrong way it looks like a walk in the park, but if he goes the right way he’s always got a good chance of saving it. I missed one against Dundee earlier in the season, but I’d still take one if the chance came up. I had scored a few in pre-season and I still practise them in training, so I’m still confident.”