Hearts' change in signing policy explained by manager Robbie Neilson

Hearts are prioritising high technical ability over physical attributes when they sign new players, manager Robbie Neilson explained today.

Thursday, 7th October 2021, 6:31 pm
Hearts coach Robbie Neilson at Riccarton.

Tenacious but skilled footballers topped the Edinburgh club’s agenda during the summer months as a total of eight signings were completed.

Many of those were smaller in stature, such as midfielders Cameron Devlin and Beni Baningime, plus forwards Barrie McKay and Ben Woodburn. They have underpinned an unbeaten start after eight games in the cinch Premiership.

Previously labelled “big physical Hearts” for years by opposition supporters, Neilson’s return to Tynecastle Park has seen a change in tack with the help of sporting director Joe Savage.

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The appointments of George Brown as lead recruitment analyst at Riccarton and William Lancefield as head of recruitment are also significant.

“We aren't at a level where we can afford guys who are 6ft 3in and brilliant on the ball,” Neilson told the Evening News. “They are all playing in the English Premier League. So we have to try to get guys who are really good with the ball and then deal with the physical side of it.

“You saw on Saturday against Motherwell that Cammy Devlin is in there being aggressive, winning headers and tackles. Beni is the same. Alex Cochrane went in and played left-sided centre-back [after Craig Halkett went off] against some physical players and he dealt with it.

“It's not always about the height. It's about the fight that's in there.”

Woodburn’s role is more of a roaming one, coming on off the left or right flank to find pockets of space. He had a quieter afternoon in the 2-0 win against Motherwell but Neilson pointed out that others flourished for that reason.

“We try to give Ben the freedom to go and find areas because he's a clever player. On Saturday when he was playing in that area, Stephen O'Donnell basically came in and tried to man-mark him, take him out the game,” said the manager.

“That makes it difficult for Ben but it frees up somebody else – Alex Cochrane, Liam Boyce or one of the midfield players. Sometimes you need to do that. Barrie McKay's man wasn't quite as aggressive on him, which allowed Barrie to get the ball.

“There will be weeks where one of them does it and the other guy maybe has to do the hard yards. Everyone else is the same.

“We knew that physicality was probably going to be the key. First and foremost, set-plays. Motherwell have scored a number of goals from long throws, free-kicks and corners. Secondly, there's the direct ball in and the knockdown.

“I felt comfortable that we would deal with the first contact but it's the knockdown – the second ball where they get their midfield three up on it. We only had two in there so there was a lot asked of them.

“That's the reason we put Peter Haring on near the end and changed our shape a bit to try and deal with that. I thought we did it well.”

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