Neilson’s new-look Hearts continue to gel

Gary Oliver, centre, celebrates with team-mates Sam Nicholson and Jordan McGhee after scoring Hearts' third goal
Gary Oliver, centre, celebrates with team-mates Sam Nicholson and Jordan McGhee after scoring Hearts' third goal
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A clear picture is emerging of how Robbie Neilson’s Hearts team will look this season.

A solid-looking backbone is evident after seven pre-season friendlies as the new head coach shapes the image of his Hearts side. Yesterday’s testimonial for St Johnstone’s Steven Anderson at McDiarmid Park was the best performance yet – just as Sunday’s opening Championship game at Ibrox edges over the horizon. Neilson seems settled on a fluid 4-4-2 formation in which goalkeeper Neil Alexander, centre-backs Alim Ozturk and Danny Wilson, plus midfielders Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben are the spine. Osman Sow will be the main attacking focal point, with Jordan McGhee likely to deputise at right-back until Callum Paterson recovers from knee surgery. Width will be provided by Billy King and Sam Nicholson, form permitting, and Kevin McHattie is the established left-back.

The team’s most influential components appear to be Gomis and Sow. The little Senegalese revels as the midfield hub and was outstanding for 45 minutes yesterday. He pushes passes around and switches play at will. He sets up attacks, wins tackles in defence and is a calming influence whenever things need tidying up. Sow is more than just a physical presence up front. He has pace, awareness and skill and seems destined to score a shedload of goals in this season’s Championship. His strike yesterday was his fourth in four appearances for Hearts so far. As his fitness improves, he is getting stronger by the week.

There is a serious argument for allowing 19-year-old Gary Oliver to partner Sow at Ibrox. Oliver has been outstanding in pre-season, scoring a well-executed header against East Fife and netting twice yesterday. All finishes have been of the highest quality. He has shown himself well suited to the role of second striker – someone who can drop off behind a main forward and play in the so-called No 10 position ahead of the midfield.

It should not be forgotten that St Johnstone rested many first-team mainstays after playing Spartak Trnava in a Europa League qualifier on Thursday. Nonetheless, they were outclassed by Hearts. Beating a Premiership club comfortably just days before the start of the Championship campaign left Neilson rightly satisfied.

“I thought we played well. It’s difficult to tell as it’s pre-season but we did a lot of things we’ve been trying to do,” he said. “There was a bit of tempo about it in the first half and St Johnstone put quite a strong team out, which is what we wanted. We took two teams to give everyone a chance to play. We did really well in the first half, although I thought the tempo dropped out of the game a wee bit.”

One thing Neilson will insist upon this season is sticking to a passing philosophy. The fluency he desires was there in Perth, but it will be more of a challenge to play that way against Rangers. “It’s important we continue trying to play a passing game. It’s easy to come into a big game with a lot of pressure and just start kicking the ball anywhere, or kicking it up the park,” he continued. “My job is to try and take the pressure off them and get them to pass the ball. They’ll make mistakes because we’re a growing team. It’s important we, as a coaching staff, aren’t negative when that happens because it will happen throughout the season and we will lose goals.

“I’ve got an idea what I’m going to do [against Rangers]. A lot of boys will be desperate to play and that’s a good thing. Last season there wasn’t a lot of competition for the boys but now, if you don’t perform then you won’t be in the team. We play a lot of 11 v 11 games at training and it’s real go-at-it stuff, just like a game. That competition has been great for them all.”

The pre-match attention yesterday should have been solely on Anderson, who was celebrating ten years’ sterling service to St Johnstone. However, Stevie May’s presence in the starting line-up was also a talking point given McDiarmid Park officials are negotiating his transfer with Rotherham United. He had overcome a thigh strain to take part but was often an isolated figure up front and was subbed at half-time.

Early efforts at goal from Sow and David Smith were the results of Hearts’ good opening. They pressed the ball quickly and moved it at a high tempo. Gomis was dictating play and teed up the first goal on 31 minutes. After nutmegging Gary McDonald with an outrageous touch of skill, he slid a weighted pass through for Sow to sprint on to. The giant Swede then simply brushed off both Tam Scobbie and Anderson to fire the ball high into the net with his left foot from around eight yards.

Two minutes later, after Jamie Walker and King combined, Jason Holt took possession 20 yards from goal. He sized up a raking right-footed drive and promptly dispatched it into the corner.

St Johnstone then emerged from their shell. They had former Motherwell and Scotland striker David Clarkson playing as a trialist, as well as ex-Falkirk and Dundee United midfielder Mark Millar. Clarkson’s volley from a tight angle five minutes from the interval forced an excellent parry from the Hearts goalkeeper Neil Alexander. Then came another fine stop, this time with the leg, from Liam Caddis.

Half-time saw the predictable raft of substitutions as Neilson introduced ten different players for the second period. Hearts scored again ten minutes after the restart. Substitute McGhee supplied an accurate cross from the right which Oliver expertly volleyed into the corner of the net first time. He was clearly staking a claim and did his cause no harm when he scored Hearts’ fourth. A kickout from St Johnstone’s substitute goalkeeper Mark Hurst was headed forward powerfully by Buaben and Oliver scampered clear of his markers to prod the ball beyond Hurst.

The hosts offered little as an attacking threat and the young Hearts defence was rarely troubled in the second half. Both 18-year-olds, Liam Smith and Liam Gordon, plus 17-year-old Liam Henderson looked composed and comfortable in amongst senior colleagues.

There were chants of “bring on the Rangers” in the final minutes from a few of the 700 Hearts fans in attendance. None of Neilson’s players and staff will be getting quite so carried away. Anderson admitted his team got “a hiding” at full-time and there is reason for Hearts to feel confident heading to Glasgow. Neilson’s plan looks like it is coming together. Next week will be the ultimate test.

St Johnstone (4-3-1-2): Banks (Hurst 46); G Miller (Kitchen 59), Anderson, Scobbie, Gilchrist; Caddis, M Millar, McDonald (Wilson 70); O’Halloran (Easton 16); Clarkson (Lander 82), May (Kane 46). Subs: Hurst, Kitchen, Kane, Brown, Lander, Buchanan.

Hearts (first half, 4-4-2): Alexander (Gallacher 46); L Smith (McGhee 46), Ozturk (McKay 46), Wilson (Gordon 46), McHattie (Henderson46); King (Carrick 46), Holt (Buaben 46), Gomis (Robinson 46), Walker (Nicholson 46); D Smith, Sow (Oliver 46).

Referee: Don Robertson.

Attendance: 2182.