Exclusive: Steven Naismith explains changes at Hearts, new playing style & David Moyes/Roberto Martinez factor
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There is a mix of frustration and purpose in Steven Naismith’s voice. He is verbally dissecting issues with Hearts’ playing style ahead of a managerial home debut this weekend. Change takes time, as indicated during Saturday’s Edinburgh derby defeat by Hibs.
Naismith’s first game in charge illustrated some of the things he intends to alleviate. Hence the frustration. He wants to eradicate tentative and passive use of the ball in favour of a more direct and aggressive approach. Ross County visit Tynecastle Park in four days for a game Hearts simply need to win after six successive defeats.
In his first ever senior management job, Naismith is charged with reviving Hearts’ quest for European football via a third place finish in the Premiership. A five-point swing is required to overhaul Aberdeen – potentially six depending on goal difference – during the final six league fixtures. One match into his interim reign after promotion from a role as Hearts B team coach, 36-year-old Naismith is clear on the reformed gameplan. Hence the purpose.
“We never really laid a glove on Hibs going forward. I said that after the game and in our meeting on Monday morning. That's the most frustrating thing for me,” said the former striker. “Hibs were much more direct, played percentage football, and that's where they got most of their chances from.
“For us, there was still those same things players were doing. It's small things. It's a backward pass, it's taking an extra touch when you don't need to. That brings on a bit of pressure, which then forces you into making a negative-type pass rather than a positive-type pass.
“That still happened at the weekend. We got ourselves into some good situations and didn't pull the trigger on those passes we should make. If we make those passes, that transition turns into so much more than what I felt we did on Saturday. We didn't really have those moments where we had them [Hibs] under real pressure. We did to a point, but not enough for what I'd like.”
Lack of confidence within the squad he inherited should not be overlooked. Naismith is a veteran of top-level football dressing rooms following a playing career with Kilmarnock, Rangers, Everton, Norwich City, Hearts and Scotland. One scenario he encountered is somewhat similar to the current situation at Riccarton as he tries to transform Hearts’ playing style and mindset.
“That [confidence] is maybe a part of that but it's also a part of what has been asked of them before. I know from being a player,” he explained. “I went from having Davie Moyes as a manager to having Roberto Martinez as a manager in the space of one summer [at Everton]. They are at opposite ends of the spectrum.
“Davie Moyes was about getting back into shape and not giving up cheap possession. So, as a player, I played loads of safe passes. Martinez comes in and says: 'I don't want you to run about as much. I want you standing in these positions so that, when we get you the ball, we can attack.’ I understand the process of that.
“When you're in a game and players have that adrenaline and focus, a lot of things are done on autopilot. On Saturday, we made the choices that we have been making that I think have been negative in the performances. Really, if we make one pass, it changes the whole feeling and the whole attack. We don't have to beat people all over again. We maybe make two passes that get us into a position where we have an attack building, but then we turn it down.
“That becomes a problem because it's a backwards pass. The player making it doesn't think he's making a negative pass. He thinks: 'I'm keeping the ball.' But everybody watching from the sides understands: 'No, you're letting them drive up the pitch 10 or 20 yards.' That's where we are at the moment and we need to try and change.”
A home game against the team sitting bottom of the league should, in theory, offer an opportunity to recapture winning form. Hearts’ last victory was at Tynecastle against St Johnstone on March 4, and Naismith fully agrees that starting on the front foot is vital against County. Nothing can be taken for granted.
Malky Mackay’s side are fighting for Premiership survival and tend not to lose too many goals away from home compared to their relegation rivals. They have conceded 19 times on the road in comparison to Kilmarnock’s 34, Dundee United’s 29 and St Johnstone’s 31. No-one need dig too deep to realise the current frailties in Gorgie.
“With it being a home game, you definitely need to be aggressive with the ball and how we play the game,” said Naismith. “I wouldn't underestimate Ross County because they are doing alright defensively. I'd imagine it will be a very direct game but, again, we need to deal with that.
“We can't just say: 'Ach, it's rubbish that teams are doing that.' It's the game of football, everybody is different. We need to deal with that firstly and then, when we have the ball, think about what we will do to hurt them.
“We want to play with that freedom, play those passes I'm talking about that create an attack – rather than taking four touches and playing sideways, then taking another four touches and going backwards. That just irritates the crowd and the coaches on the sidelines. Let's put them under pressure and see how it plays out.”