Analysis: Left-back position becoming big problem for Hearts
Left-back remains a problem area for Hearts more than two years since Adam Eckersley and Kevin McHattie exited Tynecastle.
Ten different players have subsequently filled the position without cementing themselves, meaning the club are averaging more than three left-backs per season at present.
Juwon Oshaniwa, Faycal Rherras, Igor Rossi, Lennard Sowah, Andraz Struna, Liam Smith, Michael Smith, Jamie Brandon, Ashley Smith-Brown and Rafal Grzelak have all featured on the left side of Hearts’ defence since summer 2015.
The previous season, the Championship title was secured in record-breaking fashion with Eckersley the established left-back and McHattie operating as a more-than-able deputy.
Promotion to the Premiership has coincided with what could easily be interpreted as a curse on the role. Manager Craig Levein only recently returned to the dugout having been Hearts’ director of football for the last three years, during which time he sat in the stand watching left-back experiment after left-back experiment taking place on the pitch.
Oshaniwa, Rherras, Rossi, Sowah and Struna all came and went under previous head coaches Robbie Neilson and Ian Cathro. Oshaniwa was signed to succeed Eckersley in July 2015 and carried a strong pedigree as Nigeria’s World Cup left-back.
Rherras was brought in the following summer because Oshaniwa had fallen out of favour due to a string of erratic performances. The Moroccan internationalist was an unusual commodity in that he was a right-footed left-back, but initially he performed steadily. Neilson’s departure for MK Dons in December 2016 paved the way for Cathro to take over, and quickly Rherras dropped out of the team before leaving – along with Oshaniwa – at the end of the campaign.
Rossi was primarily a centre-back but performed diligently at full-back to keep kept both Oshaniwa and Rherras out of the team at times. The Brazilian was sold to the Saudi Arabian club Al-Faisaly Harmah in January this year.
Sowah was prised from Hamilton Academical the same month but released in the summer after failing to find consistency. Struna was also in Edinburgh for the same six-month period but is predominantly a right-back and only filled in on the left for a few games. Another right-back, the Scotland Under-21 internationalist Liam Smith, did likewise on the opposite flank but he is on loan at the current Scottish Championship leaders, St Mirren, until the end of the season.
Levein now finds himself conducting his own left-back trials through necessity. Smith-Brown’s injury problems have been relentless since his arrival on loan from Manchester City and show little sign of clearing up. Otherwise, he would have been Hearts’ first-choice left-back and there would probably be no need to debate the issue.
His ongoing absence has led to Grzelak, the Polish player signed in June, filling the void. The 29-year-old is clearly still adjusting to life in Scotland and finding his feet in the Premiership and has yet to show his best form in maroon.
Michael Smith, the right-back signed from Peterborough United in the summer, has found himself switched to the left on occasions in an attempt to solve an ongoing problem. Teenager Brandon is also used to the right but has filled in on the opposite flank despite having less than ten senior appearances.
It is an unsettling situation which clearly can’t continue long-term, although a definitive answer before January’s transfer window opens may be impossible. Levein will look to address a few areas of his team if he can free up wages by moving on anyone who is surplus to requirements during the winter. One of his targets will likely be a left-sided full-back.
“It [the left-back area] is something we’re working on,” he told the Evening News without wishing to go overboard on detail. “I couldn’t have foreseen the Smith-Brown situation. It’s just quite bizarre. It’s something I’ll be looking to look at in January, for sure.”
Names like Takis Fyssas, Tosh McKinlay and Brian Whittaker have earned a cult following in Gorgie down the years due to their reliability on the left of defence. For that to become such a problem area with few obvious solutions is quite a contrast.
Levein recently promoted 16-year-old Harry Cochrane to the senior team and has also tried to blood other teenagers like Brandon, Lewis Moore and Euan Henderson. So far, he has resisted propelling the Hearts Under-20 left-back, 17-year-old Aaron Reid, into the first-team fray. Lack of experience is the obvious detraction from doing so, but Reid is a Scotland internationalist at under-16 and under-17 level.
There will be a solution one way or another because a former international defender such as Levein, with the managerial experience he holds, will want the problem sorted. However, Hearts’ left-back curse may endure for another couple of months until the spell can be exorcised in the upcoming transfer window.