Analysis: Craig Levein’s Hearts rebuild shaping up well

Hearts players return for pre-season training
Hearts players return for pre-season training
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Hearts currently top this summer’s Scottish Premiership signings table, with ten recruits having arrived since the end of last season. As if to underline the level of activity, Kilmarnock, by contrast, haven’t added a single new face this transfer window.

With only eight recognised first-team players having left Gorgie this summer – Prince Buaben, Jon McLaughlin and Jack Hamilton, plus on-loan quintet Joaquim Adao, Steven Naismith, Connor Randall, David Milinkovic and Demetri Mitchell – Hearts should, in theory, be well stocked numbers-wise for the upcoming campaign. In addition, Craig Levein’s squad has been swelled by the return, temporarily at least, of Liam Smith and Conor Sammon following their loan spells with St Mirren and Partick Thistle, respectively, while there are sure to be at least a few more new arrivals before the window closes in two months’ time.

Craig Levein

Craig Levein

If nothing else, Hearts shouldn’t be struck by the type of senior player shortage that left them having to field one of their youngest-ever sides away to Kilmarnock on the final day of last season. Aside from the lack of a recognised back-up goalkeeper to Czech recruit Zdenek Zlamal, the squad looks to have an adequate level of depth in most departments, especially when factoring in the several teenagers who have already enjoyed significant first-team exposure. Levein has already stated that he intends to add a new keeper, so that issue should be addressed soon.

Defensively, the squad looks in good order. There are four recognised right-backs on the books in Marcus Godinho, Jamie Brandon and the two Smiths, Michael and Liam. Godinho and Brandon will both miss the first few months of the season through injury, but there are still sufficient options, with 16-year-old Cammy Logan also able to step in if required after deputising in the aforementioned match at Rugby Park. Left-back has been the problem position at Hearts in recent seasons and remains slightly on the light side, with only new Australian recruit Ben Garuccio a specialist in that department, although the versatile Northern Irish youngster, Bobby Burns, can play there if needed. It remains to be seen if Hearts will be able to bring back Mitchell, but a deal for the marauding Manchester United full-back, who impressed during a short-term loan last season, would leave the backline looking ultra-strong.

Central defence was the strongest area of Hearts’ squad last season, and the addition of Austrian Peter Haring to a unit that was already well served by Christophe Berra, Aaron Hughes and John Souttar, merely enhances that area.

In midfield, Hearts also look to be in good shape numbers-wise. With the long-serving but increasingly marginalised Buaben and Adao, the impressive loanee, having moved on, Levein will be hoping that Olly Lee, Ryan Edwards and Oliver Bozanic will have the collective effect of improving a central area which at times was overly reliant last season on teenager Harry Cochrane, veteran Don Cowie and Ross Callachan, who was still adapting after jumping two divisions from Raith Rovers. Arnaud Djoum’s possible return from injury for the start of the new league campaign means Hearts won’t be short of midfield options. The influx of midfielders will do little to enhance the prospect of the out-of-favour Malaury Martin forcing his way back into the picture.

The creative department of the team is another area in need of reinforcement, with a shortage of proven attacking stardust to link midfield and attack. While the likes of Djoum and Edwards can get forward and provide thrust, the batch of crafty players on Hearts’ books is predominantly made up of young and unproven players. Lewis Moore, Anthony McDonald and Dario Zanatta can all play wide or in support of the strikers, but none are properly established. Danny Amankwaa, the only senior wide player at the club, is still adapting to the Scottish game after arriving in January, while Burns and Jake Mulraney – two relatively low-key arrivals with development potential – are unlikely to be ready to make an instant impact. The collapse of a permanent transfer for Genoa’s David Milinkovic, last season’s most pre-eminent attacking spark, has left Levein looking elsewhere for a wide player. The prospective arrival of either Ali Crawford, who is currently on trial, or Naismith, who could return if he can reach a severance agreement with Norwich City, would significantly enhance the look of the squad.

The perception of the attack will be entirely defined by whether or not Kyle Lafferty remains at the club beyond the close of the transfer window. The striker hit 19 goals last season and there would be widespread deflation among fans if he were to move on this summer. If he stays, it would mean the attack would be in better fettle than last season, with Steven MacLean, the wily veteran, and Uche Ikpeazu, the unpredictable former Cambridge United striker, having arrived to bolster an area which was heavily reliant on the Northern Irishman following the January exit of Esmael Goncalves. Rory Currie will be back in contention after injury, although Sammon is likely to depart once more after spending most of his two years with the club out on loan.

With plenty of options at Levein’s disposal, and assuming prized assets like Souttar and Lafferty can be retained, Hearts are probably only a back-up keeper, another left-back, a winger and an attacking midfielder such as Crawford or Naismith, away from having a squad of genuine balance and substance.

HOW HEARTS’ SQUAD SHAPES UP

GOALKEEPER

Zdenek Zlamal

DEFENDERS

Michael Smith

Liam Smith

Marcus Godinho

Jamie Brandon

John Souttar

Christophe Berra

Aaron Hughes

Peter Haring

Ben Garuccio

MIDFIELDERS

Don Cowie

Ross Callachan

Harry Cochrane

Arnaud Djoum

Oliver Bozanic

Olly Lee

Ryan Edwards

Malaury Martin

ATTACKING WIDE PLAYERS

Danny Amankwaa

Anthony McDonald

Lewis Moore

Jake Mulraney

Dario Zanatta

Bobby Burns

FORWARDS

Kyle Lafferty

Uche Ikpeazu

Steven MacLean

Rory Currie

Conor Sammon

Euan Henderson