Hearts' John Souttar '˜has everything' to become top defender
Craig Levein believes John Souttar is primed to develop into the complete centre-back after his latest eye-catching display helped Hearts to a 1-1 draw with Partick Thistle on Saturday.
The Scotland Under-21 internationalist was his team’s standout player in Maryhill as he mixed defensive solidity with a desire to get on the ball and step out from the back. The Tynecastle side have lost only one of the six Premiership games in which Souttar, who turns 21 today, has featured this season, while they have conceded just four goals in those matches.
Levein feels the former Dundee United player looks ready to start establishing himself as one of Scotland’s top centre-backs after returning in the summer from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon which kept him out for the second half of last term. “John was very, very good on Saturday,” said the Hearts manager. “What really pleased me about him was how he got back to playing from the back. He’s been really concentrating on the other side of his game for the past month – defending, heading, tackling and sensing danger – but against Partick, he joined in (attacks) from deep on quite a few occasions.
“His range of passing and his striking of the ball was exceptional. Everybody thinks he’s 24 because he’s been about so long but he’s only just turning 21. He’s got everything that’s needed and I think he’ll get tougher as he gets older and learns the position. Christophe Berra and Aaron Hughes have been a big help to him.”
Levein was also keen to express his satisfaction at Esmael Goncalves’ tireless and mature contribution to Saturday’s match. The Portuguese was deployed as the lone striker in a 3-5-1-1 formation against Thistle after Kyle Lafferty, his strike partner in the victory over Hamilton Accies the previous weekend, was unable to shake off a back knock in time to play. Levein has seen an improvement in Goncalves’ all-round game recently and expects him to flourish as the season progresses.
“I was really pleased with Isma on Saturday, he was fantastic,” said the manager. “He’s getting more attuned to what we need in a striker, in terms of coming short at times when the game is long, and then running long when the game is short. He held the ball in, fought his corner and brought people into play. He made three or four great runs in behind and was so unlucky not to get the ball under control and finish them.
“If he keeps improving the way he is, he’ll be a huge asset. I think he’ll be a formidable player as the season goes on. He’s focused, he’s working really hard and he can finish. At times on Saturday, I wished he’d pulled the trigger when he had opportunities to shoot but he was unselfish, which is good in some ways but at the same time I’d rather see him taking more shots at goal.”
Meanwhile, Hearts’ development team face their Motherwell counterparts at Ochilview at 7.30pm tonight.