It is typical of Hearts this season that they should eventually discover some defensive solidity at a time when their attacking verve has, temporarily at least, eluded them.
At the start of the campaign, the goals were coming at a pretty steady rate – 17 in their first six games – while they had trouble keeping the back door shut. Now they have conceded only one goal in their last three league games but scored only three – two of them penalties – in their last five games.
There is a feeling that everything is still to properly click for Hearts. For one reason or another, consistency of team selection has been hard to come by. Fitness issues have plagued key players like Jamie Walker, Alim Ozturk, Miguel Pallardo and Blazej Augustyn. Prince Buaben has started ten of his side’s 11 league games so far despite still not being fully up to speed after missing the second half of last season through injury. Danny Swanson is still clearly working his way towards full match fitness, while midfield fulcrum Morgaro Gomis has been dealing with the trauma of losing his father last month.
Yet, despite the notion that they have been in a constant state of flux this season, Hearts currently occupy a loftier league position than all bar two teams – Celtic and Aberdeen – in Scotland. Third place in the Premiership, just six points off the top, at the end of the first quarter is not a scenario to be scoffed at by any newly-promoted team. If they can get the bulk of their squad fully fit and firing in the coming weeks and combine the defensive resolve of recent games with the free-scoring form of their early-season five-match winning streak, a successful campaign still looks more likely than not.
Certainly Augustyn is optimistic that, after snapping a five-game winless streak in the league with Sunday’s underwhelming 1-0 triumph away to Dundee United, Hearts can now start to make more convincing strides forward.
“When everyone is fresh again, I think we can cause a surprise this season,” the Polish defender told the Evening News. “I am pretty sure this team is only going to get better once everyone is fit because we have quality players who know how to play football. We just need to have more belief.
“I hope after winning on Sunday we just get better now. We had a nice time in the first five games, then we had a bad time and now we just need to use our experience from the good run and the bad run and become consistent.”
Hearts’ defence visibly suffered from early teething problems, with Callum Paterson the only one of the regular backline who had any previous Scottish top-flight experience under his belt. Augustyn, Igor Rossi and Juwon Oshaniwa were new to the club, while Ozturk had only previously experienced life in the country’s second tier.
The fact Augustyn and Ozturk have had injury problems, while Paterson and Oshaniwa have missed games through suspension hasn’t helped with defensive cohesion. Despite the continued chopping and changing, though, there are signs of an understanding developing among the defenders as they get to grips with the unique demands of Scottish football. Two clean sheets – one –games are evidence of this.
“It’s important to keep another clean sheet because we have worked so hard on defence in training over the last few weeks,” said Augustyn. “As defenders, we are starting to form a good bond now.
“We cover each other and help each other out, which is good. We change [personnel] often, but it’s important that, when a guy comes in off the bench, he is fit and ready to come in and help us.”
With Ozturk out injured and Gomis dropping to the bench, Augustyn was handed the captaincy for the first time in a competitive game, underlining the impact he has made on Hearts’ management since arriving in the summer.
“It’s always good to be captain,” said the 27-year-old. “I like to talk a lot on the pitch and help the guys. I am always loud and trying to help my team-mates. I feel every single defender has to talk to each other anyway otherwise we don’t know where to go and when to go. It comes naturally to me, so I feel comfortable in the role.”
Augustyn was one of the standout performers for Hearts as they limited bottom-of-the-table Dundee United to no clear-cut chances on Sunday.
“Scottish football is hard, as you could see in the last ten minutes at Dundee United,” he said. “We just had to defend. We wanted to score another goal, but if you can’t score it, you just need to defend. Even though the team is last in the table, we knew it would be a tough game.
“We were happy to win and keep a clean sheet because we hadn’t won in the league for so long. We want to play better football because we have real quality here. We have to be more patient and play our own game.”
Augustyn arrived at Hearts with a history of injury problems and, when he dropped out of the team due to a hernia after just two competitive games, it didn’t bode well. However, he has now played in each of his team’s last five matches, and looks to be growing in stature.
“I am always working to keep myself fit,” he said. “Before every single training session I have to do various exercises to keep myself strong. It’s not a case of after the two weeks, everything is fine, I have to keep looking after myself and keeping everything working. I feel good though.”
Augustyn has settled well into life in Edinburgh. “I feel at home at Hearts,” he said.
“After two weeks here, I felt like I had lived in this city for a while. I am comfortable and happy to be here.
“I stay in Stockbridge, which is a nice area. We work hard in training and have jokes with each other and then when I come home I spend my time with the family. It’s all going well.”
It will be going even better for Augustyn if Hearts can beat fourth-place Ross County at Tynecastle this weekend. Such an outcome would ensure the Edinburgh side would be a minimum of three points clear in third place. “Ross County won on Friday against Aberdeen so it will be a hard game,” said Augustyn.
“We are looking forward to playing them and we want to win. I don’t want to make any promises about where we will finish in the league but we are a good team who fight to win every game we play.”