A POROUS defence is something Robbie Neilson won’t tolerate. Hearts’ head coach was irked at conceding six goals in three games over the festive period and promptly rejigged his back four. After witnessing a clean sheet against Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup, it was very much mission accomplished.
Hearts spent much of last week working on defensive shape, with Callum Paterson, Alim Ozturk, Blazej Augustyn and Igor Rossi lined up in front of goalkeeper Neil Alexander for hours on the Riccarton training pitches. Shunting Rossi from centre-back to left-back allowed Ozturk back into the side after hernia surgery. It also forced Juwon Oshaniwa on to the substitutes’ bench after some indifferent performances from the Nigerian.
Neilson’s ploy worked. Hearts were far better organised as a unit than they had been against Celtic, Dundee United and Kilmarnock. Physically, they were ready and able to deal with the threat of cross-balls and set-pieces against Aberdeen. Adam Rooney was successfully shackled and couldn’t add to his 14-goal tally as defensive solidity underpinned the Edinburgh club’s progress to the next round.
The same back line will almost certainly line up against Motherwell at Tynecastle this weekend when the Ladbrokes Premiership returns. Neilson isn’t averse to tinkering with team selection, but nor is he stupid and will know a good thing when he sees it.
“I think he’d be silly to change it,” said Dave McPherson, the former Tynecastle defender who was in attendance on Saturday evening. “What you’ve got there is quite a strong, physical defence but also quite athletic. Callum gets forward well from the right-back area, for example. Unless there are injuries or something else, then I’d be sticking by the defence.
“If you’re playing on the day and you do really well, you know there’s a good chance you’ll stay in the team. The players who aren’t playing know they have to fight that wee bit harder to get back into the starting line-up. Why change it when you come away with a clean sheet? The back four looked solid and didn’t look like losing a goal on Saturday, so I think he’d be silly to change it at the moment.”
Saturday’s visitors are every bit as potent as Aberdeen at the moment, thanks largely to the net-bulging antics of Louis Moult. The young Englishman has 13 goals in 23 games for Motherwell despite arriving as an unknown last summer from National League club Wrexham. Mark McGhee’s re-appointment as manager in place of Ian Baraclough fired an upturn in fortunes for the Lanarkshire club. Underlining the improvement is the fact they have won all but one of their fixtures since last facing Hearts at the end of November.
Every reason, then, for Neilson’s defence to be fully prepared. “Motherwell have Louis Moult on fire and Scott McDonald scoring goals as well,” noted McPherson. “I think at this time, if you’ve put a defence together which isn’t losing goals, then you’ll certainly need it this weekend. Motherwell are a team showing a bit of quality right now and they look like they’re going to score. Hearts will have their work cut out but, if I was Robbie, I’d be pretty confident of putting that defence back in and getting another clean sheet.”
Knocking one of the favourites for the Scottish Cup out of the competition at the first hurdle earned Hearts plenty plaudits. McPherson points out that it may also create a slight fear-factor over the next few weeks as other teams contemplate visiting Gorgie. “I was at Tynecastle on Saturday and Hearts weren’t really under much pressure. Aberdeen didn’t have a shot on target until well into the second half. By then, they had nothing to lose and they had to go for it,” he said.
“When you start leaking goals, other teams begin to feel they can score against you. That puts you under pressure. In a home cup tie, the goalkeeper and the whole defence would have been happy coming away with a clean sheet. Robbie will be pleased with that. Again, when other teams come to play against you, they’ll think: ‘Hearts are a tough team to beat, especially at home.’
There is no-one tougher in that back like than the aforementioned Rossi. He may be Brazilian by birth but the swashbuckling for which his compatriots are famous seems to be missing. Perhaps for that very reason, he has been a revelation since joining Hearts last July. The 26-year-old is comfortable at centre-back or left-back and has been the most consistent defender in maroon this season.
“He’s a no-nonsense player. He just seems to do his job quietly and get on with the game,” said McPherson. “Again, I didn’t think he was under any great pressure on Saturday but, in many ways, that’s the sign of a decent defender. He doesn’t really stand out a lot, he just gets on with the job.
“Maybe with the amount of games he’s played and the pressure now of being first-choice, it’s allowed him to flourish a wee bit. With him being Brazilian, you expect one or two wee flicks here and there, but I don’t think he’s that type of player. That’s a good thing because I don’t think you need that type of thing at the back.”
The point is well made. In a campaign when injuries and suspensions have forced Hearts to alter their defensive line-up time and time again, last Saturday might become a watershed moment. The four figures who lined up to protect the goal did a solid job and can expect a chance to build on the momentum again this weekend.