Hearts debrief: The poise of Barrie McKay, the defensive weakness, the formation change

A look back at the match in St Gallen on Thursday evening as Hearts lost 2-1 in the first leg of the Europa League play-off.

Player of the match

Stephen Kingsley and Kye Rowles were strong defensively, especially the latter as he continues to impress following his summer move from Central Coast Mariners. However, it’s harder to impact the game further forward and that’s what Barrie McKay managed to do. Though he didn’t get a goal or assist, any time Hearts threatened Zurich he seemed to have a part to play, excellently picking up space and showing his typical vision.

Defining moment

We could point to the sixth-minute injury to Craig Halkett, which forced the Hearts defender from the action, as a pivotal moment in the overall tie. Hearts don’t really have another defender like Halkett, someone as aggressive and aerial dominant as he is. His absence showed after he went off with Toby Sibbick struggling in the right centre-back role, which pushed Robbie Neilson into eventually switching his side into a back four (more on that to come).

Ref watch

Hearts came out favourably from the performance of Polish whistler Bartosz Frankowski and his assistants. They managed to spot the foul on Nathaniel Atkinson which gave Hearts their lead from the penalty spot and correctly waved away another couple of appeals. His leniency when it came to cards also helped with Peter Haring guilty of giving away a few fouls.

Benefit of hindsight

Hearts midfielder Peter Haring is wrong-footed by Zurich's Donis Avdijaj. Picture: AP

Should Robbie Neilson have switched to the four-at-the-back earlier? There have been questions as to whether he should’ve just stuck with the same system which helped defeat Dundee United on Sunday, but even in that game Hearts didn’t play that well for much of the first half and, indeed, changed things into a 4-5-1 as it moved on. The switch into the 3-5-2 made sense to keep things more robust defensively, to give the midfield more support and keep McKay in the team, but once Halkett went off it wasn’t as solid an option. Atkinson and Sibbick down the same flank is a defensive weakness. Michael Smith’s introduction, for Atkinson, helped calm things in the second period, where Sibbick looked stronger at full-back after the introductions of Liam Boyce and Alan Forrest saw the formation switch to a 4-4-2.

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