Improved defending has underpinned Hearts’ rise to second in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
Merely a few weeks ago, they would have struggled to keep the ball out of a close. A new-found resolve has meant only one goal conceded in the last five league matches, taking the Edinburgh club to within six points of league leaders Celtic.
For comparison, the previous five league games saw Hearts lose nine goals. Fragility at the back threatened to undermine an excellent start to the season as new players tried to adjust to a new club and new team-mates in a new country.
Work on the back four at Riccarton in recent weeks has certainly paid off and the solidity is welcomed by all concerned. Assured performances from Igor Rossi and Jordan McGhee have been central to a tightening of the defence. They also bring a certain conundrum for head coach Robbie Neilson as he prepares to welcome captain Alim Ozturk back from injury.
The centre-back is doing rehabilitation work in the Netherlands after a second hernia operation inside four months. He has missed the last six games and isn’t expected back in Scotland until next week.
Neilson must decide whether to interrupt the defensive momentum built in recent weeks to accommodate his skipper once he is fully fit.
“We’ve been pleased with the way the players have performed at the back,” he told the Evening News.
“Alim’s been out injured, Blazej Augustyn has been out through suspension, Juwon Oshaniwa’s been out as well and Callum Paterson was banned. We’ve had to chop and change for a number of weeks now.
“We’ve got a group of six or seven there who are really good defenders.
“I know I can shuffle them about and they can all do a job across the back four. We’re quite lucky.
“When Alim comes back, it will be a case of him getting himself fit and then getting himself back in the team again. He’s our captain and he’s one of our main players.”
As Neilson alluded, a defensive record of four clean sheets in the last five league outings becomes all the more impressive given the enforced changes. Paterson has played right-back and filled in at centre-back, McGhee has occupied both full-back roles and featured in the middle, whilst Rossi had three different partners in central defence in October.
The Brazilian is clearly a more effective centre-back than left-back and Hearts are now making moves to extend his contract, which expires next summer.
The improvement in McGhee is also notable despite him being shunted around the back line. He coped admirably and looks a more robust figure who is now fully able to handle himself in senior football. That he doesn’t turn 20 until next July underlines the full potential of this Riccarton youth academy graduate.
“I’m really pleased with Jordan,” continued Neilson.
“He’s really pushed on with his game this season. He’s a lot more physical, he’s a lot stronger and more competitive. I think that’s come with his age and his development. I’ve been really happy with how he’s performed. He’s played right-back, left-back and centre-back recently so it’s pleasing that he can cover all these positions.”
So, what happens when Ozturk is fit and ready to play again? As club captain, he would normally be an automatic choice when available, and that may well remain the case. Dropping anyone responsible for stabilising the Hearts defence would seem harsh, though.
“It would be difficult to leave any of the defenders out, to be honest,” conceded Neilson. “It’s the same with the midfield. I’ve got four players who play in the two sitting midfield roles – Arnaud Djoum, Prince Buaben, Morgaro Gomis and Miguel Pallardo. They are four top players.
“It’s the same with the defenders. We have real quality in there and it’s a case of picking the ones I think will do us a job on the day.”