With only one fit out-and-out striker available in Steven MacLean, Joel Sked analyses the attacking options available to Hearts boss Craig Levein.
When Hearts opened their Ladbrokes Premiership season at Hamilton Academical back in August they started with an attacking trio of Uche Ikpeazu, Steven MacLean and Steven Naismith. Such was the depth at Craig Levein’s disposal he could afford to bring last season’s top scorer Kyle Lafferty off the bench with the team already cruising to a 4-1 victory.
Fast forward a few months and the Hearts boss has witnessed Lafferty leave for Rangers, Ikepazu pick up an injury which will keep him out for around six months and Naismith face a spell on the sidelines for ‘only’ six to eight weeks.
It has left 36-year-old Steven MacLean as the club’s only fit recognised striker. The veteran was signed from St Johnstone to bring greater experience and intelligence to the team, while acting as a role model to the younger players. Few, including Levein, expected him to play as so regularly.
Yet, up until now, that has been down to the player’s excellent performances rather than necessity. Between now and January no matter what it will be a necessity. Starting with Kilmarnock on Saturday until the trip to Easter Road on 29 December, Hearts have nine fixtures. Looking at the spread of fixtures there are only two occasions where the team face three fixtures in a week.
It means that a repeat of the Callumn Morrison-Peter Haring experiment is unlikely - the former posed a threat but the Austrian understandably struggled with his back to goal.
Levein has been keen to play two strikers, such have been relationships which have developed and the individual performances of the forwards. The strike duo continued during the club’s 5-0 defeat to Celtic on Saturday as Jake Mulraney joined MacLean in attack . The Irishman, starting his first game since August in an unfamiliar position, had his moments as he drove forward with pace.
“It was a little bit alien for him playing up front,” the Hearts manager said after the game. “He had a few good moments in the first half and then again in the second half. When he runs at people he looks like he can cause problems for the opposition.”
In terms of Morrison as a striker, Levein has admitted that “at an absolute push” he may do that again, which suggests it is not in his immediate plans. Instead, there are a variety options for the Hearts boss to consider which should present opportunities for players to step up and reach the level of their injured colleagues.
One such player is Craig Wighton. The 21-year-old escaped the malaise at Dundee during the summer and was treated to a rapturous reception when he returned last month. The standard and tempo expected at Tynecastle is higher and he’s still trying to find his feet. Hearts fans will see the best of him after the winter break, according to Levein. Yet, he is capable of playing through the middle having done so on a number of occasions with Dundee and would allow the Hearts boss to continue with his preferred lop-sided 4-4-2.
One area of the pitch Hearts are blessed in is the centre of midfield. Haring, Olly Lee, Harry Cochrane, Djoum, Oliver Bozanic and Sean Clare offer balance and variety. It opens the door for a switch to a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. And Djoum could hold the key.
Anthony Brown has previously explored Djoum’s role within the team. That was before the spate of injuries and the Cameroonian is beginning to work his way towards the form and consistency which marked him as one of the club’s most important players. Even in a wide role he has provided decisive moments but in games at Ibrox and Celtic Park he came to the fore when moved centrally.
The 29-year-old can fill different midfield roles. Depending on the opposition, he can be moved into a No.10 role when the team are expected to dominate or moved slightly deeper if a more cautious approach is required.
If Djoum, Lee and Haring are played together in the centre there may be a concern that it would lack dynamism and be too one-paced. Thanks to the club’s recruitment, there are four players capable of offering width and pace on the wings.
Morrison plays without fear, is direct, works hard and continues to improve different aspects of his game, namely his crossing.
On the opposite flank, there is a desire among some fans to see Ben Garuccio reinstalled at left-back and Mitchell pushed further forward. There can be little argument that the Manchester United loanee has looked far more comfortable going forward than playing on the back foot. His ability to motor forward at pace, take players on and whip crosses into the box is being hindered in a defensive role without the added protection of Christophe Berra - who Levein has likened to having a 1.5 defenders.
In addition there are Mulraney and Danny Amankwaa. The latter, like the former, was fielded in an unfamiliar central attacking role against Celtic, this time in the Betfred Cup semi-final. It highlighted the player’s transformation in recent weeks. Many had written him off but he endeavoured to get back into the first-team fold. Similarly, Mulraney has been on the outside looking in of late. A switch to playing with two wingers would present the duo with opportunities to play in their strongest positions, even if it’s in an impact role from the bench.
The most intriguing individual in the Hearts squad currently is Clare. He arrived with an impressive reputation but also in the midst of recovery, having last played in March before his debut off the bench against Aberdeen last month. He has played both wide and centrally and has spoken of his mobility, positivity and flair.
Like Wighton, it is unlikely fans will see the best of player until 2019. But his versatility allows him to play in a variety of positions within a 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. It is yet to be discovered, by the fans at least, which position he is most effective in.
Injury to Berra seemed to scupper any plans Levein had of playing a back three. There is still the personnel to do so, whether it be Aaron Hughes joining Clevid Dikamona and Jimmy Dunne, or Michael Smith shifting in one. Playing it now would allow Levein to pack the midfield with the possibility of playing both Djoum and Clare behind MacLean and in front of Lee and Haring.
There is no question the league leaders will be in a much better position in terms of their squad following the winter break. But between now and then, with important fixtures to come Levein, in part due to his recruitment, still has plenty of options at his disposal.
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