Pre-planned corner routines, free-kicks, throw-ins and penalties account for a vast amount of strikes across all four divisions of the Scottish Professional Football League. Any team defending set-plays expertly – or preferably not conceding many to begin with – will enjoy a good degree of success.
This is a pertinent subject at Riccarton right now. Indeed, it was no great surprise hearing the Hearts manager Robbie Neilson state at the weekend that 75 per cent of strikes in Scotland are a result of set-pieces.
Three of the last five goals surrendered by the Edinburgh club have been scored in that manner and there is a desire to halt the trend as quickly as possible.
Jason Cummings’ equalising header for Dundee at Tynecastle Park ten days ago was a precise and deliberate move from Cammy Kerr’s long throw. Last midweek, St Johnstone’s Liam Gordon tapped the ball past Craig Gordon after the goalkeeper’s defence did not clear Cammy MacPherson’s corner.
Then came Lewis Ferguson’s header to win Saturday’s game for Aberdeen following a Dylan McGeouch corner. Scott Brown cynically shoving team-mate Ryan Hedges into Beni Baningime prevented the Hearts midfielder challenging Ferguson in the air, resulting in a concession that is the latest irritation for Hearts.
A conversation with defender Michael Smith offered a hint of how exasperated he and his team-mates were by the 2-1 scoreline at Pittodrie. For the Northern Irishman’s liking, too many goals are being given up in set-play situations.
“We are obviously all disappointed. Everyone is flabbergasted at the way we got beat,” Smith explained to the Evening News. “We definitely weren’t at the races and there are no excuses. I’m not going to say we had three games in a week because every other team had three games in a week. We just didn’t look ourselves.
“Aberdeen changed their shape [from a back three to a back four, with Brown moving into midfield] at the start of the second half and we didn’t cope with it very well. Two really sloppy goals costs us, one from another set-play. We have to nip that in the bud.”
The disappointment was exacerbated by a lack of creativity at the opposite end of the field, where Hearts’ top goalscorer Liam Boyce was conspicuous by his absence through a niggling calf injury. It is hoped he will train fully this week and declare himself available once again.
“For me, a defeat is a defeat. It was more the way we got beat,” said Smith. “I don’t think we created a lot, that was down to us on the pitch. We weren’t good enough. I thought overall Aberdeen probably deserved the win. There are no arguments about that. We just need to get back to what we are good at and start creating chances again.”
Intensity was one of the biggest qualities missing from Hearts at Pittodrie as their 11-game unbeaten Premiership run ended. It has been a particularly notable feature of their play to date this season, which is why the Aberdeen manager Stephen Glass devised a plan to stop the opposition controlling proceedings.
“Aberdeen made it difficult for us to play. They were pressing us right from the front so it was tough to play through them the way we have been all season. We tried to go a little bit longer and we got no real joy from it, so it was a tough day all round for us,” admitted Smith.
The bigger picture is one of relative contentment in Gorgie. One league defeat in 12 as a newly-promoted club remains an impressive start, underlined by a position of joint-third in the table alongside Dundee United. It is an intriguing coincidence that they are the next visitors to Tynecastle this Saturday.
Smith is realistic enough to acknowledge the progress his club have made in just a few short months since forcing their way out of the Championship and back to the top flight.
“We are disappointed with some of the results but it’s not a bad start. We have to put Saturday behind us, come out this week and play the way we have been. We have dipped a little bit with the results,” the full-back commented.
“Before Saturday, I thought the football we had been playing was brilliant. We just didn’t show it on Saturday but we will be working hard this week to try and get back to winning ways against Dundee United at home.
“It’s down to us as players to take it on the chin. At the end of the day, we are the ones on the pitch and we have to deal with it.”
Any notion that some Hearts players may be suffering a touch of tiredness or fatigue at such an early stage of the campaign is shot down quickly by Smith. Any period of three games in a week is always demanding, something the player knows himself having played every minute against Dundee, St Johnstone and Aberdeen.
One or two changes to the team are expected for the United fixture but Smith insisted nobody is struggling physically.
“It’s definitely not a fatigue thing. We are well looked after,” he stated. “We get the rest and recovery that we’re meant to get and we train properly, so there are no worries about that. It’s certainly not a fatigue thing.”