A subtle tweak to a settled team helped Hearts stifle Celtic and become the only Scottish side to beat the champions twice under Brendan Rodgers.
Consistency of selection has now brought the Edinburgh club four successive wins, with 20 goals scored and just one conceded.
Manager Craig Levein experimented with a three-man defence in pre-season friendlies and early Betfred Cup ties. That was discarded in favour of a 4-4-2 system which saw Hearts sweep Cowdenbeath, Inverness and Hamilton aside.
Adjusting to a 4-1-4-1 formation for Celtic’s visit to Tynecastle Park on Saturday proved pivotal. Peter Haring anchored midfield and was outstanding. Striker Kyle Lafferty was deployed wide left with Steven Naismith inside him, leaving Uche Ikpeazu as the attacking focal point.
The winning goal came as a result of that very set-up. Ikpeazu drove into the Celtic penalty area on the right, past Kieran Tierney and Jack Hendry, and cut the ball back towards the edge of the penalty area. Had Lafferty not been used in that wide-left role, he would likely have run into the box and found himself ahead of the ball instead of arriving 18 yards out for an exquisite first-time finish with the outside of his left boot.
The win gives Hearts a solid foundation from which to proceed. Levein knows it is ridiculously early to begin getting excited or making rash predictions about what might be achieved this season. All he will want to do is nurture the momentum and ensure it continues.
Whilst victories against Cowdenebath, Inverness and Hamilton were rather swashbuckling at times, Saturday was more about physical attributes. Energy and aggression prevented Celtic gaining control of the game and using their crisp passing style.
“Winning at Hamilton was good for us on the back of the couple of games before that. They [the players] were feeling good about themselves and they worked their backsides off,” said Levein, speaking to Hearts TV. “They pleased the supporters in that regard. In recent games, we’ve pleased the supporters with football. On Saturday we showed that, if it becomes a scrap, then we’re more than capable of dealing with that.”
Hearts are top of the Premiership with two wins from two league matches. They sit two points clear of Hibs, Rangers, Kilmarnock and Aberdeen, with Celtic a further point adrift. It is helping their cause so early in the campaign that their rivals for Scotland’s European places have been, in fact, distracted by continental competition themselves.
Aberdeen lost out to Burnley in the Europa League qualifying rounds less than two weeks ago, while Hibs have already travelled to the Faroe Islands and Greece in the same tournament before this week’s trip to Norway. Rangers have been to Macedonia and Croatia and are now heading to Slovenia. In the Champions League qualifiers, Celtic have visited Armenia and Norway prior to flying to Greece yesterday.
Fans of Scottish football will be encouraged seeing three of four European representatives progress. At Tynecastle, there will be quiet hope that the foreign travel continues for as long as possible. It certainly made Celtic’s task tougher at the weekend. A trip to Gorgie in between home and away legs against AEK Athens was always going to be more difficult than normal.
Lafferty enjoyed the limelight as a former Rangers striker who is coveted once again by the Ibrox club. “He knows how to make the headlines, doesn’t he? It was a really difficult finish,” said Levein of the Northern Irishman’s winning goal.
“Uche did wonderfully well out on the right-hand side. He swung in a great ball and he’s hit it with the outside of his left foot on the volley, which isn’t an easy skill to master. He is a man for the big games, he’s a man for scoring goals against Celtic and I’m thrilled that he’s getting all the glory.”
Every silver lining has a cloud, however. The Hearts captain Christophe Berra was due to undergo a scan yesterday after falling awkwardly inside his own penalty area near the end of Saturday’s first half.
Initial suspicions are that he has damaged a hamstring, and he certainly looked in some discomfort with his leg in a brace and perched on crutches during the second half.
The 33-year-old is a key component of Levein’s team. There can be little doubt they are more comfortable in a four-man defence rather than a three, and to that end Berra’s centre-back partnership with John Souttar continued flourishing in recent weeks. The switch to a flat back four also allowed Haring to push into midfield having arrived as a centre-back during the summer, and the Austrian is excelling there.
The nuts and bolts of a solid and entertaining Hearts team are in place. Even if Lafferty heads to Glasgow, there is genuine potential for season 2018/19 to continue enthralling the Tynecastle support.