Criticism, 4-4-2 v 4-4-2 and referee omen - Why Hearts v Dundee is one of the most intriguing matches of the weekend
If these two clubs were boxers, they would be familiar with staring down at the canvas, of the sound of booing, entertaining the sport and creating headlines as much for their activity and decision making away from the ring as what they have achieved within it.
Especially in recent years.
This weekend, they step into the save ring for an intriguing bout which, if recent history is anything to go by, is set to produce a concoction of entertainment, calamity and maybe even some chaos.
Rewind to the end of July and the release of the Championship fixtures. March 6 would have been one of the key dates circled; the final meeting of the odds-on favourites for the league and the team predicted to provide their stiffest competition.
Such an expectation was all but obliterated on the opening day of the league season when Hearts thrashed Dundee 6-2.
From that point onwards, even after the Dens Park side’s 3-1 win in the reverse fixture at the start of the year, James McPake’s team never looked like getting close to Robbie Neilson’s men.
12 points clear but...
Hearts sit 12 points clear at the top of the table. It is a point made by Robbie Neilson when asked about the questions regarding his future, as well as James McFadden and Billy Dodds after last week’s draw with Inverness CT on BBC Scotland.
Yet, there are supporters who have been unhappy with the level of performance this season as a whole and in the last three outings which have all finished 1-1.
The concern fans have is the direction the team are heading with a longer-term view, using this campaign as a building block to hit the ground running on return to the Championship. They understand other teams will make it difficult, they understand the team are not going to sweep all before them with scintillating football and they are aware Neilson returned after 18 months or more of on-field regression. But they certainly believed they would have witnessed more performances with a swagger and confidence than they have done so far.
Hearts have rarely hit the heights of that opening day win over Dundee, especially the first 45 minutes where they had their tails up, were vibrant and the visitors couldn’t live with them.
When it comes down to it, the team are still searching for an identity.
If Hearts supporters want to feel slightly better they only have to look at Saturday’s opponents. This is arguably the fifth consecutive season of under performance for Dundee.
As recently as last weekend, some fans were asking questions of James McPake following a 2-2 draw with Greenock Morton which saw the team drop out of the play-off spots.
Team consistency, personnel changes, tactics and set-piece were just some aspects being queried.
In the league they are averaging just short of two goals conceded per game and have struggled to put any sort of run together in the league.
It could be argued that with games still being played behind closed doors, pressure on the respective managers is not as severe as it could have been. Fans are unable to boo, jeer and whistle.
There remains a distance between team and supporters.
It has meant,that frustration has been expressed online with views and opinions perhaps even more reactive, due to the inability to vent in person, at the ground and in the pub.
Yet, it is games like these, especially that opening day clash when the lack of fans, that tension, the back-and-forth, the demands to push forward, the groans when dropping deep, adds to the occasion.
What can we expect
Dundee's most influential player in the previous two meetings between the clubs has been Charlie Adam. He is missing. Bizarrely, it could work in Dundee’s favour. They looked better in a flat 4-4-2 towards the end of the Morton draw and the impressive 2-1 win over Inverness CT during the week.
Danny Mullen will be a key player, doing a lot of the pest work as a foil to Jason Cummings who has scored three in three. Declan McDaid looks revitalised out wide with Paul McMullan on the other flank.
McPake has assured fans he will “have a go” at Tynecastle.
That, in theory, should work in Hearts’ favour. Too often the Tynecastle side have been ponderous in possession, struggling to break teams down who get back into shape quickly and defend with a low block.
More space should be of interest to the likes of Gary Mackay-Steven. The big decisions for Neilson regard Andy Irving and if he will be brought in to quicken the tempo in possession and Armand Gnanduillet to partner Liam Boyce and match Dundee in a 4-4-2.
Robertson… Don, not John
Further intrigue is found with the man in the middle, Don Robertson, fresh from officiating the Betfred Cup final between St Johnstone and Livingston.
He has been a bad omen for Hearts and Neilson hasn’t been a fan this season.
The Hearts boss felt Shaun Byrne should have seen red in the previous meeting when Robertson was referee.
“We’ve lost two games this season and twice Don Robertson was refereeing,” Neilson said.
“It’s a common theme. I’m hoping we don’t see much of him again this season.”
As for these two teams, when they see one another it has signalled goals, and plenty of them.
Hearts v Dundee may not be the showpiece event, but it is a bout which shouldn’t be missed.