Hearts boss Robbie Neilson explains 3-4-3 system - suiting the players, rotations, forward passes, midfield area
Seven games played, 20 goals scored, zero conceded. Since Robbie Neilson implemented the change to a back three back in April, Hearts have bordered on faultless.
Fans may well be frustrated about the lack of new recruits this window, with Alex Cochrane the only addition, but on a couple of levels it has narrowed the focus.
A handful of exits mean the club are no longer operating with a large or bloated squad. Just 22 players make up the first-team squad. Nine of those have started the three competitive matches so far.
This summer there has been continuity both in team selection and the make-up of the squad.
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Ten players who arrived during last summer have bedded in further, while looking back, those final four Championship matches have acted as a portent to this campaign.
Hearts are made up of a defensive trio, wing-backs, a central midfield pairing and three attackers.
It is only the latter which has changed ever so slightly with Liam Boyce flanked by wide attackers – Josh Ginnelly and Gary Mackay-Steven – who can alter their position. Last season saw a strike pairing and No.10.
System to suit the players
‘Rotations’ has been a buzzword so far this campaign and that was best exemplified against Cove Rangers with the movements of Ginnelly and Michael Smith. In possession, the latter would move infield creating another passing option with the former getting wide where he is most dangerous.
It is clear work has taken place on the training ground.
“In possession, out of possession and transitions,” Neilson told the Evening News. “It is something we work on quite a lot. Most days we’ll do something on it.
"The most important thing is game time. We continue to batter away at it.
"There’ll be wee tweaks throughout the season when we flip to a different system here and there.
"It is important we have something the players are comfortable in and I think at the moment they are.
"I think it is a system which suits the players we’ve got here already and it’s about adding a wee bit of quality here and there that we need.
He added: "We’ve got two systems. Towards the end [of the Stirling Albion game] we flipped into another one just to give us that balance.
"We moved into the 4-1-4-1 and it allows us to put a centre back into the defensive midfield position. I know we put Halliday in but it is quite fluid, we can make the change if we need to.”
Against Stirling on Tuesday night Ginnelly and Mackay-Steven swapped sides. Peter Haring sat and allowed Andy Halliday to push. Cochrane naturally filled in for Stephen Kingsley.
An understanding between players is developing, helped by the versatility of the squad.
“I think it is important that we try and get them to rotate into different positions," Neilson said.
"You see it with Michael Smith coming into that midfield position and Ginnelly going outside. It’s something we need to keep battering away at.
"The boys are enjoying it, they are getting results, we just need to carry it forward.”
While there is plenty of attacking threat within the system what has stood out are the eight consecutive clean sheets. More than 12 hours of football without giving up a goal.
Yet, the personnel within that are important players in the building of play through the lines, something which Craig Gordon wanted more of against Stirling rather than the ball going wide.
Neilson said: "The players we have in that back three, we’ve got Halkett at the moment playing in the middle who is physical and strong. We’ve got John Souttar and Kingsley either side who can play those forward passes through the lines.
"We are trying to build a team who can play forward passes and get support into the box.”
Souttar explained his role within it and how it is different from playing as part of a back four.
"You find yourself in different areas,” he said.
"You are probably wider when receiving the ball and a bit more running in terms of the channels but I’m enjoying it.
"Everyone has bought into it and if we keep winning, keep keeping clean sheets that will be the main thing.”
‘Take it, move it, be positive with the game’
Neilson knows the team are not the finished product and noted “slack” play in the win over Stirling and issues out of possession against Sunderland.
The midfield area is one he is aware of and knows the midfield two need support from elsewhere in transition after the ball is lost.
“One of the issues we have at the moment is the central area where if your front three don’t drop into the right areas you can get overloaded,” he explained.
"We’re trying to work on that and the options within it.
"Even the game against Sunderland, in possession I thought we played really well. Out of possession the good thing was they caused us a few problems and we had to figure it out.
"The midfield two have got to control the game. Take it, move it, be positive with the game.
"One of the issues we had on Tuesday was I felt we were playing, in that central area at times, Grandad football where you just pass it back all the time. When you’re in there you’ve got to take it on the half turn and go forward, half turn, play it out to the side.
"It’s hard work for the back five, hard work for the central two because they have to cover the ground but also the front three.
"We could quite easily go into a 4-4-2 and camp in and just cover the areas but we just feel in that shape it gives us opportunities to counter quickly and control the game.
"I still think there is better quality to come from us. When we move it quickly in the right areas we are a good team.”