When a five-game winning streak turns into a three-game losing run, it is reasonable to beg the question: “What has happened to Hearts?”
While the frenzied reaction to Sunday’s chastening 3-1 defeat by Aberdeen was understandable given the paucity of the performance, it appears, in the cold light of day, that the Tynecastle side have been knocked out of their early-season stride by a combination of several relatively minor issues, most of which can and should be easily remedied in the coming weeks.
When Hearts made mincemeat of Partick Thistle at Tynecastle a month ago with their best performance of the season and soared two points clear at the top of the Premiership after five games, the prospect of taking no points from their subsequent three matches looked unlikely. By that point, Robbie Neilson’s side were being spoken of as potential title challengers.
In fairness to the Hearts players and management, most of this fanciful chat was coming from supporters and us in the media. Juwon Oshaniwa, of course, stated “anything is possible” when asked about Hearts’ prospects of winning the league. In defence of the Nigerian, however, he had, at that point, little knowledge of the Scottish football landscape and appeared to have simply let himself get carried away with the sense of expectation building around his new club as they racked up the victories. Such public bullishness was otherwise non-existent from within the Hearts dressing-room.
After the win at Dundee on the second weekend of the season, Morgaro Gomis laughed dismissively when asked if his team could challenge for the title. Likewise, Neilson wouldn’t entertain comparisons with the much-feted George Burley side of a decade ago and was beginning to become irked at what he felt was the placing of unfair expectations on his team.
In short, the head coach had an inkling, particularly given the fixture scheduling, that a sticky patch may not be far away for a team that had, by his own admission, ridden their luck at times in the early games. Having racked up their opening five victories, though, it was widely felt that Hearts could then make it six at Hamilton at the end of last month. Although not at their best that day, they would probably have done so had Willie Collum not errantly red-carded Callum Paterson while they led 2-1.
Having had their momentum halted, it was always going to be difficult for Hearts to get back on track at any point in September given that they would face the top three from last season in quick succession. From the moment the fixtures came out in June, the possibility of the newly-promoted side taking no points from trips to Inverness and Celtic and a home game against Aberdeen was a reasonably high one.
Although there is no shame in losing at Inverness, a venue at which they hadn’t won for five years, or at home to a rampant Dons side who had won each of their previous seven matches, it is the limp nature of the performances which has been most demoralising for the supporters.
In the last two games, Hearts have looked weak defensively, in midfield and in attack. For all that this appears a cocktail for disaster, there are mitigating circumstances and there is no reason that the flaws shouldn’t be ironed out.
The backline are clearly still trying to find some sustained harmony together. Blazej Augustyn, Igor Rossi, Oshaniwa and Alim Ozturk are all adapting to a new league, with the Pole enduring an injury-interrupted start and the Turk, without reliable cohorts from last season like Danny Wilson and Adam Eckersley alongside him, having been rushed back into action after a severely-disrupted pre-season. The new recruits, particularly Rossi, have looked good as individuals so far but the backline is still lacking proper cohesion and assurance. With Neilson and Craig Levein drilling them on the training field, this should come with time.
The defence, like the rest of the team, have also suffered from the absence of Gomis in the last two games. The midfielder has been the fulcrum of the team and brings levels of energy and quality that have been badly missed in the last two games. Prince Buaben, still not fully fit, has suffered without his trusty colleague alongside him, with Sean McKirdy, understandably given he is only 17, and Miguel Pallardo, badly off the pace in his first game of the season on Sunday, unable to currently offer the same level of authority as Gomis. With Kenny Anderson seemingly persona non grata at Tynecastle, the need for midfield back-up has been highlighted in recent games.
The reluctance to play wingers out wide has also blunted Hearts’ attacking threat in recent games. In Jamie Walker, Sam Nicholson and Billy King, they possess three of the most swashbuckling young creative players in the country. While supporters would like to see all three unleashed in the one game, it is understandable that the management would prefer to keep one on the bench in case the team requires an injection of fresh zest. However, given that all three are in decent form – Nicholson has been Hearts’ best attacker this season – there is no reason that at least two of them shouldn’t start most games. For instance, on Sunday, they would surely have been better served with the spark of Nicholson and King out wide as opposed to Juanma and Gavin Reilly, two central strikers who looked like fish out of water on the flanks and were easy to defend against in those positions.
In the grand scheme, Hearts, despite their last two belly-flops, are not far away from being a pretty strong team once everyone is fully fit and acclimatised to the Premiership. It is important to remember that they are still a respectable third in the table after eight games. All we have learned from the last few weeks is that they are not yet at the level of Aberdeen and Celtic, two teams who look set to pull away from the rest. Even if, as looks likely, they lose at Parkhead on Saturday, they should still be able to rediscover the winning feeling when the fixtures become more favourable in October and go on to contend for a European place.