Hearts: Why games like Ayr United are not a good indication for next season
Within the first 33 seconds of Hearts’ 2-0 win over Ayr United on Saturday it was clear it was going to be a stuffy and, at times, frustrating afternoon at Tynecastle Park.
The home side kicked off and right away, the visitors largely backed off, retreated and waited for the long ball from Andy Irving
Thirty seconds later, Mihai Popescu had the ball near the half-way line and every single Ayr player was behind the ball in their own half.
It was, for periods, a game of attack versus defence and therefore no surprise that come the full-time whistle, the possession stats showed Hearts had dominated the ball with 64 per cent.
The difficulties Hearts have faced breaking teams down, especially since the turn of the year, were on show.
Dominating the ball is something the team are more than familiar with.
The possession game
In the nine Championship games in 2020, the team averaged 62 per cent possession. In the 11 Championship fixtures this year it has dropped slightly to 59.91 per cent. Yet, the average number of goals has witnessed a more sharp decrease, from 3.2 per game to 1.73.
Looking back at the win over Ayr, the visitors deserve credit for shutting space, getting bodies behind the ball and allowing Hearts to play in front of them. That is something they did too often, in the first half especially.
A gripe of fans this campaign has been the possession play between the centre-backs. Against Dundee they played just nine passes between each other. At the weekend it rose to 30. If you add Andy Irving, the team’s deepest midfielder, the passing stats between the three were 85, up from 30 the previous weekend.
Halkett passed the ball to Irving 24 times against Ayr, substantially more than any other combination on the pitch.
Chaos, space and movement
Against packed defences, the ball has to be moved quickly but there is also a responsibility for one of the centre-backs to cause a bit of chaos to the structure of the opposition by stepping out of defence with the ball, driving forward and committing players, even if it is shifting the ball to a team-mate and carrying on a run to disrupt and pull others out of position.
That being said there also has to be better movement further forward.
The average positions of Armand Gnanduillet, Liam Boyce and Gary Mackay-Steven were far too close, almost on top of one another. It was much more spread out against Dundee.
Mackay-Steven in particular struggled to get to grips with the movements he needed to make as a No.10 before being moved out wide after 30 minutes.
With Ayr’s wide men dropping deep to track Stephen Kingsley and Michael Smith, it meant space out wide and in behind was at a premium.
The best moments came via quick, direct football with Andy Irving at the heart of it or smart movements from Aaron McEneff.
It shouldn’t be underestimated just how much a difference Gnanduillet has made to the team’s build up. If anything Hearts have been perhaps guilty of not using him enough, bypassing the midfield to get it to him quicker, bodies around him and play from there.
Especially in the second half against Ayr he was a nuisance with his movement and ability to bring others into play. On another day he may well have had a hat-trick, but it is hugely encouraging that he is not only opening space for others, being the focal point in attack but making those runs to get himself on to the end of good chances, having shots saved in both halves.
Looking forward, beyond this campaign, to next season where it is all but certain Hearts will be in the Premiership, fans should expect a bit more excitement, more intensity and more rounded performances.
Robbie Neilson, it has to be remembered, is trying to turn around what have been poor performances since November 2018. You could argue that it goes back much further.
Supporters have every right to want and demand more from this team. Trying to convince fans that performances have been thrilling or even stimulating would be insulting. Even for a team way out at the top it has been trying.
There is a view that getting out the league is all that matters, while others understandably want more from the biggest team with the biggest budget in the league.
Next season, teams are not going to pay Hearts the same amount of respect as their Championship peers have this campaign.
The best from players
Looking at the make-up of the squad, it is not one which thrives dominating possession.
One of the issues on Saturday was Halliday’s movement towards the ball and getting it beside Irving when his best qualities are his energy to get up on play and break into the box as he did for his chance in the first half. Likewise, McEneff is a dynamic and direct player, while Mackay-Steven prospers with space to run into rather than with his back to goal.
In an ideal world, the team would have romped the league playing sizzling back to front football, building an identity of high-tempo football. But opponents have done their utmost to stop that, while Hearts have not helped themselves with their own pedestrian play at times..
It has been a bit of a slog, it is completely fair for fans to want more, much more, and it is understandable if they are fed up with hearing about it, but next season they will be presented with the real Hearts, the one who will be striving to prove they are on the right road back to challenging in the upper echelons of the Premiership.