Analysing Hearts’ season so far is a fraught business since there are so many contradictory factors to consider.
In a campaign where they were top of the Scottish Premiership in November, and have made it to both the Betfred Cup semi-final and the Scottish Cup final (yet to be played), it is remarkable that it isn’t able to be deemed a clear-cut success. The reason for this, of course, is the demoralising slump in league form over the past six months in which they have won only seven – and lost 12 – of their last 23 Premiership matches since going six points clear at the summit with a 3-0 win away to Dundee in the last week of October. During this period they have slipped from first place to sixth and are almost certainly out of contention for a top-four finish as they prepare to play out their five post-split fixtures before their big day against Celtic at Hampden next month.
Prior to Saturday’s much-needed Scottish Cup semi-final victory over Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Hearts’ main source of cheer in the last six months had come from narrow victories away to Hibs and Kilmarnock, and at home to Aberdeen – the three sides directly above them. In addition to this, one of their best displays came in the recent home game against Celtic when they were unfortunate to lose 2-1. In contrast to their ability to make life difficult for the league’s better sides, they have generally toiled against the weaker teams, as evidenced by the fact St Johnstone are the only side in the bottom six they haven’t lost to. Given the fact Hearts have a core to their team (Christophe Berra, John Souttar, Peter Haring, Arnaud Djoum, Steven Naismith and Uche Ikpeazu) which can be considered, on paper at least, the equal of any side outside Celtic and Rangers, their current mid-table status is exasperating for their supporters and manager.
Injuries have clearly taken a toll, with four of the aforementioned key men missing significant segments of the season, Haring afflicted by hernia trouble for several months and Djoum pitched in in September on the back of a seven-month lay-off with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Perhaps most damagingly for Hearts, Naismith and Ikpeazu – the two pillars upon which Levein built his attack last summer – have been able to start together only four times since those giddy early months when they were being viewed as potential title contenders. Without those two busy-bodies simultaneously ruffling feathers, Hearts have been largely reliant on their set-piece expertise to get them goals, in addition to sporadic moments of quality from Sean Clare and Jake Mulraney, the two work-in-progress attackers who have blown hot and cold throughout the campaign.
As a result, Hearts have too often lacked the wherewithal to triumph in tight matches, regardless of the quality of opposition.
This is down to a shortage of creative spark in Hearts’ attack, with the Tynecastle side currently lacking someone in the mould of Daryl Horgan, Gary Mackay-Steven or Jordan Jones – a trio of lively wide players who have helped elevate Hibs, Aberdeen and Kilmarnock above them in the table.
Levein acknowledged recently that his team is in need of more flair, a situation he plans to rectify in the summer. “We could do with two or three players in the front area of the field that can help us in those games where there’s deadlock and we need to get in front,” Levein told the Evening News this week.
While the bustling nature of either Naismith or Ikpeazu in attack always gives Hearts a fighting chance, they have no other players in the final third they can currently hang their hat on. Clare and Mulraney clearly have talent but must add more consistency and ruthlessness to take their game to a level whereby Levein can properly rely on them. Craig Wighton falls into a similar category. “All three of them will have a part to play next season so I’m quite excited about that,” said Levein, who is hopeful that this trio will benefit from getting their first season at Tynecastle under their belts.
Hearts’ defensive and central-midfield department is in reasonably good order both at present and in relation to next season. While they have conceded more goals than they would have liked this term, the lack of continuity in personnel and long-term injury to key players has been a significant factor. Christophe Berra and John Souttar, assisted by Craig Halkett, Michael Smith and Clevid Dikamona, should be capable of rediscovering their dual solidity if starting next term injury-free. Even if the on-form Djoum chooses to leave under freedom of contract in the summer, Hearts will still be fairly well covered in midfield, with the dominant Haring plus Olly Lee, Olly Bozanic and Harry Cochrane. While any or all of Clare, Mulraney, Wighton and teenage winger Callumn Morrison could yet develop into reliable match-winners in time, Hearts could desperately do with adding some more established creative players to take the burden off Naismith and Ikpeazu and allow the team to start fulfilling its potential. The problem, of course, is sourcing these players within Hearts’ budget.
Levein had high hopes for Danny Amankwaa when he signed him just over a year ago, but the former Copenhagen winger – with the edge taken off his game following serious injury – lacked the required intensity and work ethic. Clare, who has chipped in with some lovely goals against Livingston, Kilmarnock and Dundee, would probably have had a better chance of hitting the ground running if he hadn’t been pitched in at a time when Naismith and Ikpeazu had just been sidelined by long-term injury.
In the absence of a reliable source of thrust and spark in recent months, it is easy to imagine that a player like David Milinkovic – who shone in an inferior Hearts team last term while on loan from Genoa – would have made a significant difference this season. Ultimately, however, as is usually the case with more proven attacking players who aren’t afflicted by fitness issues, finance was the stumbling block.
In his previous managerial reigns at Hearts and Dundee United, Levein was well-served by creative players like Jean-Louis Valois, Craig Conway and Danny Swanson. None of this trio were deemed big-hitters when he signed them, but they all developed into key men. Whether through the continued nurturing of the creative players already on the books at Hearts, or by pushing the boat out to get a couple of quality senior players who have already proven they have the ability to carve open top-level defences, Levein knows he needs to add a sprinkling of stardust to a team which otherwise has most of the key nuts and bolts in place. “Goals obviously change games so getting the first goal is always important,” he said. “The more players you’ve got who have that as their strengths, the better, so we’re looking for creative players who can not just assist but score as well. I’ve got a fair idea what we need for next season so I’m working behind the scenes on that. I feel that we’re not far away. We’ll only need to do three or four things rather than what we’ve done in the past couple of summers.”