Analysis from Pittodrie: Steven Naismith and Conor Washington show way forward for Hearts

Substitute Ryan Hedges lashes home the winner with five minutes remaining to play at PittodrieSubstitute Ryan Hedges lashes home the winner with five minutes remaining to play at Pittodrie
Substitute Ryan Hedges lashes home the winner with five minutes remaining to play at Pittodrie
Accusations that Hearts’ attacking play lacks energy and intensity have lingered from last season.

That charge remained at Pittodrie until Steven Naismith and Conor Washington entered the field. Aberdeen ultimately won this opening Premiership match but Hearts looked transformed as soon as their two international strikers climbed off the bench midway through the second half. Quite simply, the way forward must be led by those two.

Sam Cosgrove’s goal had Aberdeen 1-0 ahead and looking comfortable in an increasingly-bruising game – which brought an ankle injury for the Hearts defender John Souttar. Naismith, fresh from signing a four-year contract at Tynecastle Park, came on with Washington on 66 minutes. Hearts switched from a three-man defence to a 4-4-2 system and instantly looked a different team.

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Naismith headed the equaliser two minutes later, Washington’s running and hustling unsettled the Aberdeen defenders, and soon after Jamie Walker prodded Hearts into a 2-1 lead. The change was striking, in more ways than one.

Then the game swung again on a red card. Aaron Hickey’s foul on Niall McGinn earned the 17-year-old defender a second yellow card, and within ten minutes the ten men saw their 2-1 lead overhauled to give Aberdeen a 3-2 win. Cosgrove scored from a penalty awarded for Clevid Dikamona’s unnecessary challenge on McGinn, and substitute Ryan Hedges then lashed home the winner with five minutes to play.

The disappointment was overriding but the sense that Hearts’ attacking weapons are there to be utilised is some consolation for the campaign ahead. “Naisy is a good player. Bringing him and Washington on is something I wasn’t able to do last season. I didn’t have the strength in depth,” explained manager Craig Levein.

“Both of them affected the match and Aberdeen were on the back foot once they came on. I find it very difficult to be really positive about the future when I’m sitting here feeling I’ve been punched in the guts. Naisy scored with his first touch, which didn’t surprise me. Jamie scored again, which is good for him. He’s still getting up to full speed and did some good things again. I feel better about our attacking options. I also feel better defensively.

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“I don’t think we deserved to lose. We did enough to get a point and I think we deserved three. The sending off changed that. Then Clevid makes a tackle in the penalty box. I don’t think there was a huge amount of contact but he certainly gave the referee the opportunity to give a penalty.

“Again, that was silly decision making. We can’t blame anybody else, we have to take it on the chin. Our performance was really good. We will use the positives for next week and hopefully get a win against Ross County.”

Hearts considered substituting Hickey after his first-half booking but decided against it. “We discussed it,” admitted Levein. “Jake Mulraney was going to play left wing-back but then he got booked. Wing-back isn’t Jake’s natural position and I was more worried about him maybe getting sent off for making a challenge than Aaron, who has played that position for years.

“It’s a sore lesson for Aaron and for all of us. He will remember this and that’s all I need him to do. You have moments in your career where things happen and you remember: ‘If I had my time again, I wouldn’t do that.’ I don’t think he needed to make the challenge.

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“Craig Halkett was good again and Christophe Berra was solid, but we’ve made some poor decisions. At the first goal, if Bobby [Zlamal] is in the right position he just comes and collects the ball. He was too central in his goal and too far back when the ball was up the other end of the field. He knows that and had put his hands up.”

The Hearts management left Pittodrie cursing those individual mistakes. If there was a positive, it lay in Naismith and Washington’s impact which concerned the Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes at the time.

“Craig made a couple of really positive substitutions,” admitted McInnes. “He’s brought Naismith and Washington on and gone 4-4-2. When you have Washington chasing pigeons and Naismith bright as a button, it unsettled us. We looked down and out but then we carried the fight and found a way to win.

“At 2-2 we could have settled for that but we got the winner near the end.”