Michael Smith looks to be right at home in centre of a Hearts back three
It would seem imperative that Michael Smith remains the anchor in Hearts’ three-man defence. Playing centrally in a sweeper role, he delivered an imperious display in Saturday’s goalless draw at St Mirren.
If that formation is to continue, the Northern Irishman is the best candidate to operate in the middle of the three.
Club captain Christophe Berra was rested in Paisley as Hearts applied plenty pressure throughout the afternoon without carving their hosts open to sneak three points. The previous week had been monumental after an Edinburgh derby victory and progress to the Betfred Cup final, but a third successive win was beyond them.
On a day when Craig Halkett suffered suspected medial ligament damage and could now miss months of football, Smith’s performance was a huge tonic. He read the game magnificently, distributed the ball immaculately, plus won headers and tackles. Crucially, he also stopped the St Mirren striker Junior Morias in a one-against-one.
“I don’t mind playing in there. I get quite a lot of the ball to start the attacks,” said the Northern Ireland internationalist. “I thought we dominated most of the game without creating a lot, which is disappointing. We’ve had a good week and that would just have put the cherry on top.
“I think a back three suits us. We played it a little bit last year. It’s a tough role for the wing-backs, who have to bit, get up and down and put good balls into the box. I know from experience how hard it is. Cal [Morrison] and Jake [Mulraney] do have the legs for it. That final ball maybe needs work.
“After Jake’s cross against Aberdeen the other night, I thought he would have put some better balls in. After the weeks we’ve had, it’s maybe told on everyone. We have to win next week now to go into the international break.”
Asked about his perfectly-timed tackle in the first half to thwart Morias after Steven MacLean’s weak backpass, he said: “I have to thank Macca for that short pass. Actually, he’ll have to thank me. I just had to go for it and put a challenge in otherwise he was running through one-on-one. I got a bit of the ball.”
Smith also charged forward in possession when possible. “We talked about that. We talked about stepping forward and playing passes and that’s what we tried to do. We looked a bit short of ideas in the final third and a few boys looked a bit leggy after the week we’ve had.
“Before the Hibs game, we would probably have snapped your hand off for these three results. After the win at Hibs and the cup win, we went to St Mirren in good form. We thought we could have won but it wasn’t to be. I don’t know if it’s down to tiredness. I thought they ran their socks off but I didn’t think they created a lot. They didn’t trouble us a lot. It was the same at the other end. Our final ball or final pass just wasn’t good enough.”
With ten players now out injured, it is little wonder Smith believes his club are cursed. Not a week passes without someone in maroon suffering an ailment of some sort. News that centre-back Halkett is joining the list, probably for months, is gut-wrenching for Halkett donned the Hearts captain’s armband in Berra’s absence but went down on 25 minutes in the middle of the St Mirren Park pitch. He had collided with Kyle Magennis moments earlier and the hosts distastefully chose not to put the ball out of play to allow treatment.
Eventually he was taken off - to be replaced by substitute Berra - with suspected medial ligament damage. The French midfielder Loic Damour was also forced off before half-time in the match, although his problem was merely a tight hamstring.
Those injuries are added to a long list of Hearts players, some key, who remain unavailable whilst recovering from various problems: Steven Naismith, John Souttar, Peter Haring, Jamie Walker, Conor Washington, Ben Garuccio, Craig Wighton and Euan Henderson.
Speaking on Halkett, Smith said: “He’s a great lad and he’s been in great form. The gaffer gave him the armband and that shows what effect he has around the place. I’m gutted for him. I don’t know what’s going on at the club. We are cursed with injuries.
“I don’t know how bad it is but it’s not a fatigue injury. It’s an impact injury. We’ve had no luck whatsoever. I saw him at half-time and he was gutted. He wants to play and in that formation we want to play he can be a key man for us.
“It must be bad luck. We’ve had the training pitches tested for hardness and things like that, but they’re perfect really. We’ve no complaints about training pitches. I can’t put my finger on it otherwise we would have changed something. It’s definitely not going our way injury-wise.
“It would be some five-a-side team [from those sitting out]. We have three or four to come back after the international break.
“We’ll have Naisy back, Walker, Craig Wighton. I’m not sure how long John Souttar will be. Conor Washington will be a bit longer. It remains to be seen how long Halks is out but there’s a fair whack of a good team there.”
St Mirren (4-2-3-1): Hladky; P McGinn, Broadfoot, McLoughlin, Waters; Flynn, Foley; Magennis, Andreu (Obika 62), Durmus (McAllister 70); Morias (Mullen 62). Unused subs: Lyness, MacKenzie, S McGinn, Djorkaeff.
Hearts (3-4-2-1): Pereira; Halkett (Berra 25), Smith, Hickey; Morrison, Whelan, Damour (Irving 39), Mulraney; MacLean Meshino (White 78); Ikpeazu. Unused subs: Doyle, Bozanic, Clare, Keena.
Referee: Andrew Dallas.