5 centre midfielders Hearts boss Robbie Neilson could target to strengthen the squad

Neilson revealed he is on the lookout for a midfielder to add to the squad

By Joel Sked
Thursday, 23rd July 2020, 5:00 pm

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson has revealed to the Evening News his desire to recruit a centre midfielder for the forthcoming season.

The Tynecastle boss had previously outlined his recruitment priority, targeting speedy and creative wide players, having signed Craig Gordon as a solution to the club’s goalkeeping issue.

In addition, Neilson wants to add a steely midfielder to beef up his options which include Peter Haring, Andy Irving, Olly Lee, Loic Damour and Harry Cochrane.

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Robbie Neilson is reportedly keen on Calum Butcher. Picture: SNS

He said: “In any league in Scotland, it's important your team has a bit of strength to control that central area.

“You need that base and that strength in the central area, especially if you are playing in the Championship. A lot of the game is direct with a lot of second balls to be won, so you have to dominate in there.”

With that in mind we look at possible options who could provide the Hearts boss with what he's looking for.

Calum Butcher

Ross McCrorie spent last season on loan at Portsmouth from Rangers. Picture: SNS

Robbie Neilson has been strongly linked with a move for his former midfield general at Dundee United. It is a swoop which isn't likely to be entertained by the Tannadice club. The 29-year-old is in his second spell at the club and it is one which has been far more positive since re-signing in January 2019.

Butcher was the team’s enforcer at the base of the midfield. Before the shutdown, United hit a poor run of form which had coincided with the player’s injury, Neilson noting his importance following a draw with Partick Thistle. In the six league games he missed, the Tangerines were victorious just once, a win percentage of just 16.7. With him in the team the win percentage was 77.3.

The midfielder is combative and no nonsense, providing the team with a backbone. Despite United easing to the title, no player committed more fouls in the Championship than Butcher, picking up eight yellow cards in the process. It could be perceived as a lack of discipline or the player doing a fine job to spoil and stop the opposition. He is the type of individual who would thrive in a battling performance where the team are simply required to eke out a result.

That being said, he was in the top 15 of the division’s most frequent passers with 976, nearly a quarter of those were into the final third which shows a willingness to play forward.

Sam Foley is a key player for St Mirren. Picture: SNS

Ross McCrorie

There may have been a message in the two Rangers friendlies on Wednesday as to the future of McCrorie. After a season on loan at Portsmouth he was with the 'B’ team for the match with Dundee United, played at Murray Park before the first-team faced Motherwell at Ibrox. Another loan move could be on the horizon.

The 22-year-old is well thought of at Ibrox with more than 50 games under his belt but his position is still up in the air. He broke through as a centre-back, Steven Gerrard saw him as a destructive presence at the base of the midfield, while he was mainly a right-back on loan at Portsmouth. Versatility is good for a player but for the individual he requires a settled position and a real run of games there.

At Rangers and Portsmouth they are impressed by his physical qualities. He can get about the pitch, has a good acceleration and will put himself about. Gerrard had hoped that he would play more in midfield for the League One side to help develop his on the ball skills.

Youssouf Mulumbu was highly impressive across two spells at Kilmarnock. Picture: SNS

Sam Foley

Of the signings made in the Scottish Premiership last season, Foley may be one of the most underrated. He was vital at the heart of the St Mirren midfield for Jim Goodwin as the Buddies avoided relegation. Flashy he is not, but the midfielder embodied his manager and what he was looking for. Diligence, organisation, structure.

Goodwin had little time to build a squad but with Foley in the middle he had an individual who could knit a team together, keeping their midfield line, narrow, compact and hard to break down. His reading of the game is excellent and the 33-year-old displayed that with his ability to pick up those loose balls which Neilson referenced.

Under contract at St Mirren and turning 34 in the coming months, it would be an unlikely signing and not the most exciting, but Foley’s qualities would certainly tick a lot of the boxes of what Neilson is looking for.

Youssouf Mulumbu

Hearts fans will be aware of the Congolese midfielder due to his exploits during two spells at Kilmarnock, the first of which earned him a move to Celtic. Strangely, for aplayer of his quality, since departing Parkhead last summer he has been without a club.

Sam Hutchinson is a free agent after leaving Sheffield Wednesday. Picture: SNS

The 33-year-old is different to the players already mentioned. He isn't quite that aggressive, no nonsense, combative midfielder who will sit at the base of the midfield and frustrate the opposition. He is much more progressive and showed a lot of his talent in a more advanced position for Killie. Yet, during spells with West Brom and Norwich City he was required to perform a more defensive role.

Mulumbu doesn’t lack strength or an aggressive side. He is incredibly composed on the ball and a highly intelligent player. He would bring a huge amount of control and direction to the Hearts midfield.

Sam Hutchinson

The 30-year-old departed Sheffield Wednesday this summer after more than 140 games for the Owls. It is quite the achievement for a player who was forced to retire at 21 when he was breaking through at Chelsea due to a knee injury. There are similarities to Ross McCrorie regarding the player’s versatility with his ability to play as a centre-back or at right-back.

While there were stylistic comparisons to John Terry when a youngster, he has made a name for himself in the middle of the pitch. Speaking in 2017, he gave an idea of the kind of player he is: “I just want to show people I’ve got no qualms about doing anything, and go into things full-heartedly. If you go into things half-and-half, that’s when you’ve got a problem. I can play but I can put my foot in. I love going one-on-one with someone and just … beating them.”

Now a free agent, the combative midfielder would fill an enforcer role at a number of clubs. His experience and quality would be welcomed at Tynecastle.

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