ANYONE studying Hearts’ play closely this season would have experienced extra satisfaction watching Saturday’s victory at Ibrox. Contentment at beating Rangers and the urge to goad their supporters are both perfectly natural. But the 2-1 win was pleasing on a whole new level, because it illustrated beautifully the merits of deploying two forwards together.
Craig Beattie climbed off the substitutes’ bench at half-time to make his Hearts debut by partnering lone striker Gary Glen with Rangers 1-0 ahead. Manager Paulo Sergio finally experimented with a two-pronged attack and the instant transformation in Hearts’ play was, if you’ll pardon the pun, striking. First-half lifelessness gave way to a series of cohesive attacks on Allan McGregor’s goal, and 35 minutes later the visitors held a 2-1 advantage which would see them through to the final whistle for their first win in Govan in almost eight years.
It was certainly no coincidence. Ian Black’s raking equaliser and Jamie Hamill’s converted penalty rebound ended a dispiriting sequence of five league games without a goal for Hearts as the lone-striker tactic had plumbed its lowest depth. It was most definitely the decision to field two strikers for the second half which changed the game’s complexion.
For months, Sergio has employed a variety of formations centring around a lone forward with minimal success. With Stephen Elliott, below, absent for personal reasons, it was Glen’s turn to be the isolated striker for the day against Rangers. Darren Barr occupied an unusual defensive midfield berth in a 4-1-4-1 formation, and Hearts were set up to contain rather than attack.
That, too often, has been the story this season. Sergio stands accused of being over-cautious with his refusal to play more than one striker at a time. Seven months into the job at Tynecastle, he should have realised by now that most SPL defences are not good enough or disciplined enough to resist concerted pressure from opponents. If he wasn’t aware, Saturday’s second half laid bare the facts of the matter for all to see.
With a two-man front line of Glen and Beattie, the latter not even fully match sharp, Hearts were a dynamic and dangerous side in a conventional 4-4-2 system. They probed and prodded at Rangers until the one-goal deficit was overhauled. If at half-time any kind of recovery had looked unlikely, by full-time there was a swagger about the visitors which had not been seen for several weeks. It was all down to a simple change in tactics, one which many have been crying out for.
“When Beattie came on, he was chesting balls down to people, bringing Andy Driver and Scott Robinson into play, and flicking things on,” pointed out Jimmy Sandison, co-commentator for Hearts TV. “Gary Glen got a wee bit of confidence and the whole team just lifted because of that second striker. You could see certain players’ chests expanding and it was brilliant to see.
“A lot of people I spoke to before kick-off were saying, ‘here we go again, it’s a lone striker and we aren’t scoring goals. How are we going to get a goal at Ibrox?’ I defended it a little because I’ve been there before and you don’t want to go kamikaze away at one of the Old Firm. I was very surprised to see Darren Barr playing holding midfield, but I thought the 4-1-4-1 tactic was clearly to stay in the game up until half-time and keep things tight. In that sense, you almost look at the game in two separate halves as a manager. In the second half you can bring on another forward and have a go. I’m only guessing, but I hope that’s what the manager thought too. If he did, then it’s been a great success.
“Steven Davis scored just before half-time but Hearts had defended well despite being sloppy with possession up front. We went in with heads a little down but I was hoping the manager would throw another second striker on and change the game. That’s exactly what happened.”
Beattie’s introduction brought a fresh dimension to a forward line which has been notably lacklustre for much of this year’s campaign. Goalscoring has been a constant bugbear, underlined by the fact Hearts’ current top scorer is midfielder Rudi Skacel, who cannot command an automatic start, with eight goals. Next comes the departed Ryan Stevenson on four.
Although the debutant wasn’t directly involved in any goals at Ibrox, there is little doubt his presence imbued others with much-needed belief. He held the ball up and attempted to link play with midfielders whilst also showcasing good movement and a necessary touch of aggression. He looked throughout the 45 minutes like an extremely astute acquisition, just as director of football John Murray intended when he first recommended signing the 28-year-old following his release from Swansea City.
When fully fit, Beattie is expected to prove a real handful for SPL defenders between now and the expiry of his short-term Hearts contract at the end of the season. “He’s experienced and he did well on Saturday. I’m sure he’ll pick up goals soon as he’s a good addition to the squad. He’s proved he’s a good player so fingers crossed he starts to hit the net soon,” said his new team-mate Black after the match.
The bigger question is whether the dual-striker policy will continue in the coming weeks. Has Saturday’s second half altered Sergio’s thinking when it comes to the starting line-up? Hearts host St Mirren this week in the quarter-finals of the William Hill Scottish Cup and, on the back of events in Glasgow, many will be eager to see Beattie and Glen paired together again. If not, Elliott and Gordon Smith can also come into contention. The main issue is whether it will be two strikers or one entrusted with the task of propelling Hearts to the cup semi-finals.
“The amount of people I’ve spoken to, even some who weren’t at Ibrox and only saw the highlights on television, were really excited with the second striker on the pitch,” continued Sandison. “I’ve no doubt the manager knows that. I wouldn’t like to think we’ll go 4-1-4-1 in the cup this Saturday. I’d like to see two strikers because we have to win the game, quite simply.
“If we can do what we did at Ibrox with two forwards, then what else can we do? I’m really looking forward to Saturday, hoping Hearts play a 4-4-2 and hoping Craig Beattie is fitter after more training this week. If we can play two strikers at the weekend, I see no worries for us at all.”
The case for the defence would appear to be clear. It’s time to attack.