Hearts have received their fair share of criticism for displays away from home this term, but Saturday’s convincing 2-0 Premiership win over Aberdeen demonstrated again that they are a different beast within the confines of Tynecastle.
A two-minute blitz in which Steven Naismith then the fit-again David Milinkovic score the goals proved decisive, but the overall display from Craig Levein’s men was one of a team that is comfortable in its own surroundings.
They could have added to their tally, but were equally resolute in preventing the visitors from finding a way back into proceedings. That defensive strength is what you expect from Hearts now, but Levein was especially happy with how his players used the ball.
“I was really pleased with the composure in possession,” said the Hearts boss.
“The pitch is getting better, the grass is growing again and it played quite slick. At times I’ve bemoaned our willingness to take the ball under pressure but that wasn’t the case. Particularly in midfield, we were really good at that.
“Coming back [to Tynecastle] I always feel we have a good chance of winning against whoever we play. It was a strong performance and a fairly emphatic win, which against a good Aberdeen side is very pleasing.”
With a berth in the top six secured but European qualification beyond Hearts, the lack of anything really tangible to play for could have been a concern.
“The motivation’s been good all season – I’ve no complaints about that,” said Levein. “At times we haven’t played particularly well, but I can’t complain about their effort.
“Aberdeen always bring good support and our fans always turn up in numbers for these matches so the atmosphere in the stadium was good, and that helps everybody. I thought we were worthy winners in the end.”
Levein can see clear progress since his first match back in charge of the club, against the same opposition at BT Murrayfield. “We’ve had a lot of things that have taken us out of our comfort zone,” he reflected. “The new stand, playing away from home, Murrayfield, injuries and a lot of changes in January.
“They are little things but they can build up and cause problems and that’s happened with us. We’ve had to really battle this season so I really must compliment the players for still going really strong at this stage of the season.”
Levein made three changes to the side that left Dens Park with a point six days previously. Joaquim Adao’s injury meant he was replaced by Michael Smith, while Ross Callachan’s early goal on Tayside wasn’t enough for him to retain his starting berth, Connor Randall taking his place. Winger Danny Amankwaa dropped to the bench in a straight swap with Milinkovic.
The opening stages went as most may have expected given the previous encounters between the two this season, with Aberdeen shading possession and Hearts staying organised.
A poor kick from Joe Lewis eventually afforded Kyle Lafferty a chance after Connor Randall and Milinkovic worked the ball to him in the area, but the Northern Irishman sent a first-time effort over.
The Dons responded by hitting the woodwork at the other end. Niall McGinn’s teasing delivery from the left was glanced goalward by Scott McKenna, who watched on as it came back off the far post with Jon McLaughlin planted.
The game then exploded into life – for Hearts at least – with two goals in as many minutes. A clipped ball infield from Marcus Godinho picked out Naismith’s clever run, who took a touch to afford himself an extra yard of space before dispatching beyond Lewis.
Hearts then produced the perfect follow-up. A speculative Lafferty shot was somewhat fortunately deflected into the path of Milinkovic. The on-loan winger took full advantage of the time and space to steer the ball under Lewis for his sixth of the season.
The criticism after the 1-1 draw with Dundee was centred around not continuing to take the game to their opponents once ahead. There was to be no repeat this week as Hearts remained on the front foot after the restart.
A move started by Randall was almost finished by the same man after Lafferty picked out his near post run, but his attempted volley was blocked. An ambitious attempt from Christophe Berra after striding forward trundled wide as the skipper found himself in nosebleed territory and slipped.
Aberdeen, for their part, weren’t exactly knocking on the door in an attempt to get back into the game. A weak Gary Mackay-Steven effort was easily held by McLaughlin before the same player ended a sweeping counter attack by putting an equally tame effort wide.
There was a sense that Hearts had settled for 2-0, but hadn’t given up killing things off completely with a third. Lafferty lashed an angled strike narrowly over via a slight deflection, but would have seen an unmarked Michael Smith in the middle had he looked up.
Any chance of Aberdeen setting up a nervy period of stoppage time disappeared when they hit the woodwork again through Adam Rooney from close range.
Derek McInnes was disappointed in how little he felt his side made Hearts work for the points. “We were lacklustre in possession and played everything too safe,” said the Aberdeen manager. “Hearts didn’t need to do a lot to get their goals. They came off the game and allowed us a lot of the ball then it was up to us to play in a different gear and be a bit more dynamic.
“Hearts played a system that we’re used to playing against when we play them with the five, two sitting midfielders and two narrow wide players. They had bodies through the middle and we were guilty of poor decision making instead of playing on the outside of them and moving the ball quick.
“We were laboured, we were tepid and played in to their barrel. Both goals were avoidable.”