Hearts-Kilmarnock final word: This wasn’t a one-off, it was a continuation of unacceptable home form
Any hope that Hearts might have been close to turning the corner after spirited victories over Hibs and Aberdeen has been vanquished by Saturday’s limp defeat by Kilmarnock.
Had this been a one-off, it could have been excused as a bad day at the office. Instead it represented a continuation of the team’s unacceptable form at Tynecastle, where they have taken only two points from four eminently winnable home games this season and have won only two league games in 2019 thus far. They go into the October international break ninth in the Scottish Premiership, only two points off bottom spot. It is worth recalling at the same stage last year, they were two points clear at the top of the table.
If Hearts are to have any chance of enjoying even a moderately decent season, this remarkable malaise in Gorgie – the scene of solid form for almost every previously fruitful campaign the club has enjoyed – needs to be overcome. There is no hint whatsoever of that happening at present.
Hearts’ best hope of having any joy in their current depleted, beleaguered state is playing away from home, being organised and hitting on the break, as they did to very good effect in the Betfred Cup victory at Motherwell in August and, to some extent, at Easter Road a fortnight ago. When it comes to home games against teams they would ordinarily be expected to defeat – such as Ross County, Hamilton Accies, Motherwell and Kilmarnock this term – they are encountering endless levels of difficulty, unable to break down stubborn visitors and seize genuine control.
On Saturday, it wasn’t difficult to see why, with three centre-backs, three central midfielders not particularly renowned for attacking, no out-and-out striker and only three genuinely attack-minded players – Jake Mulraney, Sean Clare and Ryotaro Meshino – in a starting line-up which looked more suited to a match at Rugby Park than Tynecastle.
Even allowing for the fact Steven MacLean and Aidan Keena are never going to be first picks at Tynecastle this season, it was surprising that neither of the two strikers started the match in the absence through injury of Hearts’ main hitmen Conor Washington, Steven Naismith and Uche Ikpeazu. Craig Levein explained afterwards that he felt that MacLean had played too much football recently and that Keena was untried and untested at this level. The result was that Hearts spent most of the first half being comfortably contained by their visitors who scored the game’s only goal when Chris Burke was given all the space he needed to send a free header past the exposed Joel Pereira three minutes before the break. “It was a gift really,” said Levein.
Unsurprisingly, there was a slight improvement after the break when MacLean was introduced and the formation switched from the painfully-restrictive 3-5-1-1 to 4-4-1-1. The veteran hitman had a goal ruled out which Levein was adamant should have stood, although the manager acknowledged an equaliser would merely have papered over the cracks. Straying significantly from his recent stance of generally defending his players amid their ongoing adversity, Levein accused those selected on Saturday of lacking “the balls” to deal with the situation and not working hard enough. While he may have had a point, it was a potentially dangerous manoeuvre by a manager whose main positive amid an increasing array of negatives has been that the players are generally on his side and still appear to be fully behind him.
Levein then implied that many of those picked against Kilmarnock would drift back out of the team when some of his big-hitters return from injury. The manager was keen to stress on Saturday that he took some solace from the fact he is “going to get some characters back in the team now”. He was referring to the fact that Peter Haring, Steven Naismith and Jamie Walker – three of his key players – are all set to return from injury after the October international break. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that, if fully fit and able to play regularly and at their best, then things will get better for Hearts at some point, especially with the promise of Washington, Craig Halkett and John Souttar also to return at some point in the winter. In an environment where good players are becoming increasingly beleaguered and where fitness issues continue to plague the team on a routine basis – Ikpeazu and Loic Damour are the latest to be afflicted – it is hard to envisage Haring, Walker and Naismith, who have started only 25 matches between them this calendar year, being equipped to lead an instant and sustained upturn.
With a horrible home fixture against on-form Rangers to return to after the break, the whole situation for Hearts – after a brief wave of late-September optimism – once again looks pretty forlorn.