Ian Cathro’s impact on Hearts is becoming more evident around the club’s Riccarton training base. Eleven days since his appointment as head coach, subtle changes are taking place to mould the team in Cathro’s image.
Partick Thistle’s visit to Tynecastle tomorrow will give home fans their first glimpse of the Cathro era. After last week’s 2-0 defeat against Rangers at Ibrox, the new coach has focused heavily on ball retention. He wants his players to gain control of matches for longer periods by keeping the ball.
It is a style of play with which Cathro is especially familiar. He coached it for years with previous clubs. At Rio Ave in Portugal and Valencia in Spain, keeping the ball and passing at a high tempo were like a religion. At Newcastle United, manager Rafa Benitez shared similar beliefs with Cathro looking on as his assistant.
The 30-year-old Dundonian is now striving to implement those philosophies in Edinburgh after taking up his first managerial role. Players are buying into his ideas as he installs a style he believes can take Hearts forward towards 2017 and further beyond.
“I have a good impression of him,” midfielder Arnaud Djoum told the Evening News in an exclusive interview. “This guy thinks a lot about football with a lot of short passes and I like it. Yes, he is pretty young but when he is speaking in front of us we don’t see much difference from the last gaffer. Everybody is concentrating and just wants to learn. I think he is a good gaffer, really smart with a lot of qualities.
“Tactically, he wants us to improve things like our ball possession and how we start the game. Those small details are really important for him. We are learning this in training. We want to have more control of the games so that they are not so up-and-down. This is something we need and we are doing this in training. I think you will see improvement in the next few games.
“He wants us to keep the ball for longer. He says, with the quality we have, we must have more control of the game in this league. We are working a lot on that. We will learn what he wants from us on the pitch and we will improve in a few weeks. We will be better and better.”
Cathro’s age – and even that of his 37-year-old assistant, Austin MacPhee – has been debated much more intensely outside Riccarton than inside. Djoum is one who understands the benefit of a having coach belonging to the same generation as his players.
“I prefer a young coach because, at my old clubs, I had a lot of old coaches,” explained the Cameroon internationalist. “”Sometimes the way they are thinking about football is old school and that can be hard. Now, the new generation of coaches are very close to the players. They talk a lot and Ian Cathro is like that. He talks with the players individually and that communication is very important. He makes you feel like you want to learn something because he wants to teach you something.”
The strongest message he will convey is the need to win. Hearts are facing up to vital league fixtures against Partick, Dundee, Kilmarnock and Aberdeen before the Ladbrokes Premiership enters its four-week winter shutdown. They are fourth in the league, five points behind second-placed Rangers and one behind Aberdeen in third. Tomorrow’s opponents will arrive bottom and very much embroiled in a battle against relegation.
Djoum and his colleagues aren’t overly concerned with Hearts’ position because they know there will be plenty opportunities to climb the table.
“It doesn’t really bother us just now because we know it is a long season and everybody is going to drop points,” he said. “We have confidence in the team we have. We just try to win games but we are confident. We have the ability to win more games and I think we will do that with the new gaffer. He can help us achieve things.
“Fourth place at the moment is not bad. It is a long season so we have time to come back and get into third or second place.”
Key to that aspiration could well be Djoum’s blossoming partnership with striker Bjorn Johnsen, the Premiership’s Player of the Month for November. The midfielder is thriving in the traditional No.10 role behind an American striker who is gaining serious momentum in Scotland – underlined by four goals in his last nine appearances.
“Bjorn is easy to play with. He understands what I am thinking and the runs I am making,” said Djoum. “He is a great player who is playing well and I am happy to play behind him. I hope this connection will continue.”
Djoum arrived at Tynecastle in September 2015 as an orthodox central midfielder with a reputation for getting about the pitch. Since then, he has developed more of an attack-minded approach.
He is now viewed as the principal goal threat from midfield and is encouraged to get forward to link up with strikers and wingers. That leaves others like Don Cowie and Perry Kitchen to work the central area behind.
“I don’t know if No.10 is the best position for me because I am used to playing like a No.8 and going box to box,” smiled Djoum, who plays that more central role for Cameroon.
“The No.10 role gives you more freedom so I can go where I want, get the ball and go forward. I don’t need to think too much about the defensive side of the game. I’m happy to be free in the No.10 position and I think I have given some good assists to Bjorn. I have to continue that because I really like this position.
“I have this freedom to go and attack and see the space. With the qualities I have, I can play this position. I think Hearts have helped me a lot to play in this position and they have helped me to play slightly differently since I came here. I am grateful to the old gaffer and the new one for giving me this role.”