As far as conundrums go when you’re sitting two points clear at the top of the table in mid-October, the biggest one facing Craig Levein at present would appear to be how best to deploy Arnaud Djoum within his on-form Hearts team.
Amid a significant summer overhaul at Tynecastle, several midfielders were recruited to beef up a department of the squad that was previously lacking in depth and quality. Indeed so many arrived that two of them – Ryan Edwards and Bobby Burns – were almost instantly sent out on loan. The only senior midfielder to remain from last season was Djoum, who was ruled out of the start of the campaign as he continued his recovery from the Achilles’ tendon damage he sustained in February.
While the likes of Malaury Martin, Ross Callachan, Don Cowie and Prince Buaben were all being allowed to leave Tynecastle, Levein was eagerly awaiting the return of Djoum, a player he has huge faith in. “He’s a really important player for us who was just getting back to his best,” rued the manager after a 2017/18 campaign which had already been badly disrupted by injury was written off once and for all when the Africa Cup of Nations-winning Cameroon internationalist was carried off in the 1-1 draw away to Ross County eight months ago.
Now that Djoum is back in the mix, however, the problem has been getting him into a position that allows him to perform at his most effective best. Since returning as a substitute in the 4-1 win over St Mirren at the start of September, the 29-year-old has started four of Hearts’ last five games. The fact Levein has felt compelled to play Djoum so often despite him having just returned from a six-and-a-half-month lay-off merely underlines how eager he has been to add his longest-serving player to a team that was already motoring along nicely in his early-season absence. In the four games Djoum has started, Hearts have won three of them, so there has clearly been no major disruption in that regard.
While the former Roda JC and Lech Poznan player has helped keep things ticking over, however, there is no doubt that he is yet to properly ignite since returning from injury. A degree of this can be attributed to the fact players often require several months to get back to their best when they have been out as long as Djoum has. Even allowing for this natural battle to recover full sharpness, however, there is a feeling that his position has been a hindrance to him in recent matches.
Djoum is a fairly versatile midfielder, as evidenced by the fact he has performed well as a No.6, a No.8 and a No.10 during his three years at Tynecastle. However, after being utilised on both the left and the right of a four-man midfield in recent matches, it is clear that he needs to play centrally in order to truly impact a match the way he did under Robbie Neilson and also managed sporadically last season when not afflicted by pain. Against Rangers at Ibrox a week past Sunday, for instance, Djoum looked significantly more comfortable and able to get into game when he was moved into the centre later after a difficult and underwhelming start on the right of midfield.
The reason Djoum has been unable to return to his favoured central position is pretty obvious – namely the superb form of Olly Lee and Peter Haring in the middle. Those two new recruits were yesterday voted among Hearts’ five best players so far this season in an Evening News poll, and, on the basis of their consistently impressive form since arriving at Tynecastle, there are no legitimate grounds for dropping or moving either of them to accommodate anyone else at present. With Levein having preferred two strikers in recent matches, that has left him with only the wide midfield positions in which to shoehorn Djoum into the team. The manager’s desire to try and get the Brussels-born player on the pitch, even if he is slightly out of position, is entirely understandable as, on his day, he is capable of adding real quality and threat to Hearts’ play.
Assuming that both Haring and Lee remain fit and in form, there are still a few ways of getting Djoum into the team in a way which would, in theory, allow him to have more influence.
Bearing in mind that some of Djoum’s best games for Hearts came when he was utilised in support of central striker Bjorn Johnsen under Neilson, he could play as a No.10 in a 4-2-3-1, just behind Uche Ikpeazu, with Steven Naismith and Callumn Morrison playing off the flanks. Alternatively Djoum could play in a three-man midfield alongside Haring and Lee, as he did in his first start back after injury away to Motherwell last month. There is also the option of playing him as the attacking central midfielder within a 3-5-2 formation, allowing him a licence to surge forward to play in support of and in tandem with two strikers. That could be a formation worth considering this weekend since Michael Smith, the club’s only fit senior right-back, is suspended for the visit of Aberdeen.
The fact one of Levein’s most tricky selection issues surrounds how best to accommodate a 2017 AFCON winner in his team is a sign of how well things are going for Hearts at present.