ROBBIE NEILSON has promised to correct the erratic defending which is undermining Hearts’ start to the season.
Losing 18 goals in 11 games so far irritates the Tynecastle head coach and he is determined to solve the problems, which he believes stem from communication issues.
The Edinburgh club head to Parkhead to face Ladbrokes Premiership champions Celtic tomorrow knowing their defending must improve quickly. Players and coaches spent time at Riccarton yesterday studying video footage of Wednesday night’s dramatic 3-2 League Cup win at Kilmarnock, which again highlighted defensive frailties.
Neilson knows his team should not be conceding so regularly and is unhappy with the number of crosses leading to goals for opponents. He took pride in clean sheets in his days as a consistent Hearts right-back and doesn’t feel this season’s goals-against column properly reflects his team’s abilities. He wants his defenders attacking every ball and taking command of their penalty area.
It has taken 11 games in all competitions for Hearts to lose 18 goals. Last year, they did not lose their 18th goal until the 19th match, although most of those fixtures were against Championship teams as opposed to Premiership ones.
Communication is at the heart of the matter, according to Neilson. He and his coaches and players discussed the issue at yesterday’s video analysis session. He also cited fitness issues, suspensions and new defenders Blazej Augustyn, Igor Rossi and Juwon Oshaniwa needing time to settle as reasons for the discord at the back.
“The defending will come together,” he told the Evening News. “A problem we have at the moment is communication – understanding each other’s position, and understanding who is going to challenge for the ball and who is going to cover. These things take time. You need to keep working at it and working at it.
“At the moment, players are picking men up and, as long as their man isn’t heading the ball, then they’re happy. That’s not how it should be. We’re trying to work on getting them to be dominant, to go and win the ball. It’s something that has to be addressed.”
Another goal from a cross ball was shipped on Wednesday when Josh Magennis headed Kilmarnock into a 13-minute lead. Hearts found themselves 2-1 down on 89 minutes but managed to win the tie 3-2 with late goals from Juanma and Sam Nicholson. Further slackness in defence against Celtic is likely to have far more serious consequences.
“There’s the elation of winning at Kilmarnock but also the frustration of why we let ourselves get into that position. We shouldn’t have to score three goals to get through the tie,” continued Neilson. “I want to go to places like Kilmarnock and make sure the worst we get away with is a 1-0 win or a 0-0. We shouldn’t lose goals. That was the basis of our success last year, being secure at the back.
“It’s just taking us a little bit of time at the moment because of the changes we’ve had at the back, the fitness of defenders, suspensions and other things. We need to get back to being more solid. We spoke about that at the end on Wednesday night and we spoke about it again yesterday.
“We go to Celtic Park tomorrow. We need to make sure we’re strong and we don’t give them any opportunities. We get on the training field, work hard, look at videos of our defending and we talk about it. The players all agree on it. They want to defend properly so it’s up to Stevie Crawford [Hearts assistant coach] and I to put sessions on that help them.”
Captain Alim Ozturk is the man Neilson and Crawford look to to organise the defence. Oshaniwa is now free from suspension and is expected to return at left-back tomorrow. There is also the option of starting with three central defenders and using Callum Paterson and Oshaniwa as wing-backs to shore up against Celtic.
“We have lost a lot of goals in the last few games,” admitted Ozturk. “We need to try to keep the other team out because we know that will make it much easier for us. We know we can score in every game so if you don’t lose a goal and you win 1-0, it’s perfect. We have Celtic away now but it doesn’t matter which game is next. It’s important we defend better.”
Confidence levels have risen within the Hearts camp as a result of Wednesday’s win. They arrived at Rugby Park on the back of a slump having lost their last three games. They looked certain to lose a fourth until Juanma and Nicholson prised victory from the jaws of defeat in the dying minutes. Securing a place in the League Cup quarter-finals in such a theatrical way has helped improve morale.
“We believe in each other,” said Ozturk. “We lost three games before Kilmarnock but that says nothing. It’s still a really good start to have fifteen points and be third in the league. People were talking about us losing our last three games but we don’t care about that. We won on Wednesday and that’s the important thing.
“It was important to win in ninety minutes, otherwise you need to play another thirty minutes and then maybe penalties. We have confidence but the win gives us a little bit of momentum again. We are going to try to win at Celtic now.”
Despite statistics showing Hearts have scored just one goal in nine visits to Parkhead over the last six years, Ozturk is adamant there is no reason to feel intimidated there.
“I don’t think we should be frightened. It’s important you believe in each other and we do that,” he continued. “I think playing at Celtic Park last season [a 3-0 League Cup defeat] will help. They have a new team and we have a new team. We will tell the new guys about the surroundings so they know what to expect. We will be ready.”