Hearts set out an attacking gameplan for St Mirren as a critical point arrives in the battle for European places
Hopping up and down in exasperation, you could hear Steven Naismith’s yelling from the Tynecastle Park press box during Sunday’s match with Celtic. Cries of “forward, forward” whenever Hearts played a backwards pass were audible even above the din of an 18,000 crowd.
The Edinburgh club’s interim manager is frequently animated in the technical area. He is still implementing his style of play after replacing Robbie Neilson last month and is adamant certain aspects will not change. Particularly the attacking emphasis when in possession. Hearts travel to St Mirren this Saturday for a vital match in the context of their European aspirations and will take the same approach they did against Celtic.
“Yeah. Every game we play, if I'm the manager, we will have that same mentality,” Naismith explained to the Evening News. “Ross County was different to Celtic. We had to be disciplined in our shape against Celtic when we didn't have the ball. This week, I expect there will be moments like that in the game at St Mirren. In possession, our way of playing won't change. No matter who we play, that won't alter at all.
“I feel that's one of the biggest things I learned from my playing career. Nowadays, there is so much analysis in football, so much data and research, that small margins are going to dictate games. Yes, if one team has much better players than the other, they have a better chance of winning. The fine details make things so much easier and I know how big those moments are.
“It's a five-yard pass, for example, but it's your body shape. It's having it in your mind, 'I'm going forward,' rather than thinking: 'Oh no, that opponent might come at me so I'll go safe and I'll turn the wrong way.' It's a basic thing but it has such a big impact in the game for me and the way I want to play.”
Hearts were the dominant team during Sunday’s first half despite Celtic knowing they would secure the Premiership title with victory. Alex Cochrane’s disputed red card swung the game in the Glasgow club’s favour and they went on to win 2-0. Pleased with the endeavour and application from his team, Naismith explained that the display is still some way off his end game.
“If I'm honest, it's a good bit away. Any team and any style takes time. It's about building blocks,” he said. “This is only short-term at the moment. If I'm the manager longer-term, there is still a long way to go to where I expect us to be.
“The first thing was that we need to be solid defensively, then it's breaking that barrier of being safe and going back [with passes]. We had a couple of moments on Sunday where players were being too safe. When we are aggressive, we cause teams problems all the time.
“There is a long way to go but this squad is hungry to learn. That's the big positive for me. They are willing to accept it, they want to learn, they are asking loads of questions week to week and understanding what we want.”
Four games of the campaign remain and Hearts are five points behind third-placed Aberdeen in the table. To overhaul that deficit, they realistically need to beat St Mirren before next week’s meeting with the Pittodrie club at Tynecastle. Finishing third – which is likely to bring guaranteed European group-stage football – was the pre-season objective. At times against Celtic, an unexpected surprise looked like it might manifest.
Naismith is confident players saw enough in the opening half to keep the faith. He was not required to pick anyone up in the aftermath of the defeat. “I didn't need to. Everybody was disappointed with the results but factors in the game caused that disappointment,” he explained. “Not the performance, not work-rate, not the basics that we demanded since we came in. We knew we were in a game on Sunday and we knew we had a chance to get something from it.
“I've said consistently that we need to go into every game believing we can win. The first 45 minutes shows that, even the first 60 minutes. We were dealt a blow [Cochrane’s red card] but our composure and attention to detail, our positions on the pitch, waiting for our moment, were brilliant. I think that's something in the past where there's been reaction – somebody might get beaten so the next player is reacting, then it's all reactive which causes goals. There hasn't been much of that since I took over.
“There is more of an understanding now of: 'Okay, they beat us there, let's not gamble and let them get to the next level.' There is a better structure all-round. Everybody is disappointed after Sunday but I definitely think we can see the positives.
“The numbers, data and statistics show that we were the team in the ascendancy in the first half. We looked more likely to score. If there is one part you would like to be better it was that final moment.
“We did really well keeping the game in Celtic's half and, I've said consistently since I came in, this is different to what the boys have been used to with the chances we are creating. Once we get that last detail slick then I'm sure we will score more goals.
“What I've heard from most people is that we showed high energy on the front foot in their half, but on top of that there is good football. We aren't playing direct, percentage football. We don't just get in the final third and put balls into the box. We try to work the ball and create the best opportunities.”