Hearts debrief: King Kye; Centre-back pairing; Blunt attack; Formation tweak; Ref spot on

Some of the takeaways and talking points from Hearts’ 1-0 defeat by Rangers at Ibrox in the Scottish Premiership, which leaves Robbie Neilson’s team fifth in the table after 14 games.

PLAYER OF THE MATCH

Kye Rowles was making his first start since the end of August, but the Australian international centre-back looked like he had never been away and appears to be in good shape for the World Cup in Qatar. He made one mistake when robbed by Alfredo Morelos in a dangerous area. But other than that, Rowles was outstanding and his performance underlined just how much Hearts have missed him over the past couple of months.He hadn’t played with Toby Sibbick before, which is never ideal when going to a place like Ibrox, but the partnership was very effective. Sibbick has been transformed in recent weeks and the Englishman ran Rowles very close for player of the match, defending with aggression and authority.

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TACTICAL OBSERVATIONS

Robbie Neilson set up his team in a 4-4-1-1 formation with the intention of stifling Rangers and using the pace of Josh Ginnelly in behind to threaten on the counter-attack. Kye Rowles and Toby Sibbick were a rock solid centre-back pairing and there was a good balance to the team, with Michael Smith and Alex Cochrane in their natural full-back positions and Nathaniel Atkinson and Andy Halliday in front of them providing more defensive nous in wide areas. Lawrence Shankland, asked to drop deep in more of a No10 role behind Ginnelly, performed his role very well and Robert Snodgrass and Cammy Devlin dovetailed nicely in the centre of midfield.

The game-plan was to be defensively solid and well structured without the ball. Hearts were brave in possession, looking for opportunities to release Ginnelly in behind as the out-ball when they could. That much was made clear inside the opening ten minutes by the nicely-weighted first-time ball by Snodgrass which sent Ginnelly galloping clear. Rangers goalkeeper Alan McGregor rushed out of his box and just about did enough to nullify the danger on that occasion.

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It was promising, but thereafter chances were in fact few and far between. Despite a very disciplined, well organised and steadfast defensive display, Hearts offered very little as an attacking force, producing zero shots on target. After six straight defeats by Rangers, that is something they must improve to break the mould.

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Kye Rowles and Toby Sibbick hadn't played together as a centre-back pairing before but both were outstanding. Picture: Mark Scates / SNS

There weren’t many chances for Hearts, so it would have been easy to miss the best one just after half time. It happened in a flash at the end of a good move, Lawrence Shankland holding up the ball well and sliding in Josh Ginnelly on the right wing. The Englishman hit the bye-line and his low cut-back was fizzed in at pace. Rangers goalkeeper Alan McGregor dived forward to get a finger to it, diverting the ball agonisingly through Andy Halliday’s legs. The Hearts midfielder was unsighted five yards from goal and would have had a tap-in for his fifth goal in as many games, but it all happened so quickly and at such close quarters that he couldn’t react.

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REF WATCH

John Beaton had a straight-forward night, free from controversy and VAR discrepancies. Halliday was perhaps unfortunate to be booked for a foul on Matondo after appearing to make little if any contact and Sibbick was perhaps fortunate to escape a booking for pulling back Ryan Kent in a dangerous area. But the referee, who booked King, Barasic and Kent of Rangers, got the big calls right and can be satisfied with his performance.

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WHAT’S NEXT

After 25 games so far this season and three games in the past six days, Hearts finish up before the World Cup break with a home game in the cinch Premiership against in-form Livingston at Tynecastle Park on Saturday. David Martindale’s team won when the team met in West Lothian earlier in the season.