MARK McGHEE stressed Motherwell wouldn’t be bullied by Hearts in this encounter. They weren’t. They were obliterated.
McGhee’s 900th game in football management turned into a systematic destruction, although not of the physical kind he predicted.
Hearts’ performance was slick, high-tempo and clinical right from the first whistle. They were aggressive and dominant and 3-0 ahead inside 22 minutes. Following on from a tenacious Scottish Cup display against Aberdeen last weekend, they look to be building serious momentum.
“I expect our lads to stand up to the Hearts players in the best possible way and not be bullied,” said McGhee in his pre-match press conference on Thursday. He also suggested the Edinburgh club “were playing a very robust style of game”, adding that he had no problem with it.
There was little sign of Motherwell, who arrived at Tynecastle unbeaten in six matches, being physically overpowered. They were simply outplayed and overwhelmed by Hearts’ pace and attacking football. If there was physical damage done, it would have been to the goal nets at either end as they bulged almost to the point of bursting.
Igor Rossi headed the first goal, Osman Sow drilled the second and Gavin Reilly’s penalty – he was pulled down dribbling round the visiting goalkeeper Connor Ripley – put the hosts out of sight with only a quarter of the game played. Callum Paterson added a fourth in the second half, followed by substitute Juanma’s fifth and another penalty by the outstanding Arnaud Djoum, who was fouled by Joe Chalmers inside the area. Juanma and Sow both had goals disallowed during the 90 minutes, further underlining Hearts’ authority.
Robbie Neilson’s side have seized the initiative in their last two games with a direct, attacking approach from kick-off. It is a ploy they will surely stick with. “My worry was that we wouldn’t start off the way we did against Aberdeen, but the players did,” said Neilson. “We were positive, got in behind people and caused problems and that first period won us the game. We were 3-0 up after 22 minutes and the game, if we see it out, is effectively dead.
“You’re always worried if they can get a goal. I heard Mark say that if they got a goal before half-time it would give them something to chase in the second half. We were the ones who scored first in the second half and ultimately it was a convincing win.
“We’ve got a strong squad. It’s not a huge squad but I can bring the likes of Juanma and [Dario] Zanatta in, [Jordan] McGhee can come on as well. We didn’t have Jamie Walker, Sam Nicholson or Morgaro Gomis, so we are strong.
“We aren’t going to get carried away. It’s a great result for us but I would say last week was a bigger performance in the first half. It was such a high-profile game with so much at stake. Everyone is pleased but we now have a massive game at Hamilton this weekend. They were the first team to beat us this season. That hit us for six a wee bit because we lost three on the bounce after that. We need to make sure we go down there and get three points.”
It should be noted that Motherwell’s absentees were sorely missed. Captain Keith Lasley was suspended and Liam Grimshaw’s loan spell at Fir Park was ended by parent club Manchester United last week. Consequently, Djoum and Miguel Pallardo ran the midfield area to Hearts’ advantage.
“It [the reshuffle] was part of it. I didn’t really have any choice,” lamented McGhee. “We asked Josh Law to play in the middle of the park, and Pearo [Stephen Pearson] was asked to play almost as a sitting playmaker. He is not that but we had no choice so that possibly affected us.”
Motherwell did ask questions of Hearts at 3-0. Scott McDonald headed a glaring chance wide at the back post and substitute Wes Fletcher should have scored after dispossessing Pallardo 35 yards out. The visitors lacked conviction, though, not something which could be levelled at them lately.
“I was disappointed obviously, I think we were a pale imitation of what we have been,” continued McGhee. “I don’t think we were at it anywhere. All over the park they were quicker to the ball, better in possession and obviously in finishing, everything about them was better than us. It wasn’t us at our best playing Hearts at their best, it was Hearts at their best playing us, who were a poor imitation of what we were capable of. But Hearts were excellent.”
There wasn’t a poor performer in maroon on the day. Six different scorers evinced a team playing to its optimum. Reilly and Sow look arguably a better striking partnership than Sow and Juanma, while Djoum and Pallardo dovetail perfectly in central midfield. Gomis and Nicholson were injured and Walker is due to begin full training this week after knee surgery. That they weren’t missed said a lot about the efficiency of those on the pitch.
Neilson’s defence has now kept two successive clean sheets for the first time since early November. However, it is the pace and power approach which has been the biggest difference in the last two games. “We continued on the same level as last week,” said Djoum. “It was important to keep it going because before that we didn’t win a lot of games. Now you can see we are in good shape and we have to continue like that.”
The Cameroonian revealed he had never taken a penalty in his career before. After being fouled trying to evade McManus in the box, he wasn’t for letting go of the ball. “It was my first penalty and it was 5-0. It is easy to take at that moment. I think I had a good action to win the penalty and, at 5-0, it was a good moment to take it. I was very happy to score.”