Using the number of goals they have scored and conceded in their 16 Scottish Premiership games as a barometer, Hearts are defending with the steel of a top-four side and attacking with the ruthlessness of a bottom-four team.
Currently sitting sixth in the table and 11 points adrift of fourth-place Hibs, it is pretty clear that their season thus far has been badly undermined by a lack of goals. Defensively, the team is functioning well enough, even allowing for the ongoing issues with the left-back position. Considering they have played only three of their 16 league matches at Tynecastle, those who are paid to keep the ball out of the net can take satisfaction from the fact Hearts have the fourth-meanest record in the top flight, with 19 goals against. Only Celtic (8), Hibs (17) and Rangers (18) have conceded fewer.
The Tynecastle side have restricted their opponents to no more than a goal in 11 of their 16 league matches, with five of those bringing clean sheets. With Christophe Berra, John Souttar, Michael Smith and goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin enjoying strong seasons and Aaron Hughes showing his quality when fit, there is a solid and dependable platform in place for the team to flourish, if they can address their lack of attacking harmony.
With just 14 goals in 16 matches (less than one a game), they have the joint-second-lowest scoring tally in the league along with Kilmarnock and Ross County, who sit tenth and 11th respectively. Only bottom-of-the-table Partick Thistle, with a meagre 12, have scored fewer.
For context, second-place Rangers have scored a full 19 goals more than Hearts, while Hamilton Accies, with the lowest budget in the league, have outscored them by nine.
By the 16-game mark last season, Hearts had 31 goals. At the equivalent point the season before, when they went on to finish third, they had 29. After 16 games in the 2012/13 season, John McGlynn’s underwhelming Hearts side, which went on to finish tenth, were on 14 goals - the same as the current team.
Craig Levein has already acknowledged that his side are nowhere near as prolific as he would like them to be, although mitigating circumstances shouldn’t be dismissed. The fact they played their first 13 matches of the season away from Tynecastle was a clear and unarguable impediment to Hearts generating the level of momentum and confidence they required to suddenly transform into a free-scoring side. The damaging impact to the form and confidence of those who have remained since Ian Cathro’s morale-sapping reign must also be factored into the analysis.
Given that they are currently in the top six despite scoring more than once in only two of their 16 games, it is not unreasonable to assume that they should be capable of a reasonably strong second half to the season if they can find a way to become even marginally more potent than they currently are. The manager, who has seen his team undermined by a host of missed chances against Ross County and a first-half red card to Jamie Brandon against Hamilton in their last two matches, remains steadfast in his belief that there will soon come a point when they are equipped to start putting opponents to the sword.
Attempts to add to the scoring tally must centre around finding a way to get the goals more evenly spread throughout the team. Astonishingly, only four Hearts players have scored in the league this season - Kyle Lafferty (5), Esmael Goncalves (5), Jamie Walker (2) and Ross Callachan (2). No team in the division has been reliant on such a small pool of players to find the net. Hamilton, for instance, have shared their 23 league goals among 14 players. Aberdeen, with 24 goals, have also had 14 different scorers. The majority of teams in the league have already had at least eight players on target. Cole Stockton, Arnaud Djoum, David Milinkovic and Don Cowie, attack-minded players with some form of recent goal-scoring pedigree, will all be hopeful of breaking their duck in the coming weeks.
Hearts have been aided by a reasonably steady flow of goals from defenders like Callum Paterson, Alim Ozturk, Igor Rossi and Danny Wilson in recent seasons, but this term only Berra, against East Fife in the Betfred Cup in July, has registered from that area of the pitch. The captain’s fellow centre-backs, Souttar and Hughes, are yet to find the net since joining Hearts while right-back Smith is not cut from the same goal-scoring cloth as his predecessor, Paterson. The search continues for a semi-dependable left-back, never mind one who carries a goal threat. While a few goals from defence would aid Hearts’ cause, the priority for Levein has to be ensuring that those who are capable of scoring goals are given the best possible opportunity to do so on a regular basis.
Lafferty and Goncalves are among the Premiership’s top scorers on five goals each - only Louis Moult (8), Simon Murray (6) and Alfredo Morelos (6) have hit more than them. However, the feeling persists that these two marquee signings of 2017, both with a good track record of scoring goals, are capable of delivering far more. Part of the problem is that they haven’t yet clicked as a partnership, a point acknowledged by Levein. In addition, they have been hindered by the shortage of clear chances created by Hearts over the course of the season, with a lack of home advantage until the past three games, and an absence of both midfield creativity and width contributory factors.
In addition to Lafferty and Goncalves, Walker, with more than 40 career goals to his name, is capable of better than this season’s tally of two suggests, although his form in recent matches offers hope that he is starting to rediscover his mojo. Djoum is another whose attacking threat has been stunted of late, with the Cameroon midfielder failing to find the net since March. A return of 13 goals in his first 18 months at Hearts shows he is capable of easing the burden on the likes of Lafferty, Walker and Goncalves. Cowie has scored more than 50 career goals, including four in the past 16 months. Stockton arrived at Hearts after scoring 13 goals last season for Morecambe and Tranmere Rovers, while Milinkovic proved in his only previous spell of regular first-team football that he is an able goal-scorer when netting seven times in 34 starts for Messina in Italy’s Serie C last season.
Indeed, the French-Serbian winger has shown enough in his first few starts for Hearts to suggest he can make them a more dangerous side. In the early months of the season, with Walker not operating at his best and Djoum sidelined by injury, they were bereft of any genuine creativity. Milinkovic, albeit sporadically, has brought a combination of width, guile, energy and spark to Hearts’ attack. There appears to be more to come from the on-loan Genoa player once he is fully acclimatised to the nature of Scottish football.
Between Lafferty, Goncalves, Walker, Milinkovic, Djoum and others, there is clearly enough quality within the squad to expect an average of more than a goal every Scottish Premiership game. If Levein can get his main danger men operating at their optimum, and in a cohesive manner, then this hitherto underwhelming season can still turn into a good one for Hearts.