Hearts: Why a goalscorer like Liam Boyce is imperative to the club's Premiership survival - but more creativity is required
Hearts hit a blank for the 12th time in the league as they failed to beat Ross County
On the drive in to Dingwall on Wednesday night, visitors were confronted by the town's Christmas street lights which, nearly 30 days after 25 December, were still sitting on lampposts and shining brightly.
While wanting to forget a festive period which brought about defeats to Celtic, Hamilton and Hibs, the travelling Hearts support were perhaps hoping they would be in store for a belated Christmas present in the form of three much-needed points.
To win games, however, you are required to score goals. And goals for Hearts have been keeping a very low-profile for much of the season, certainly in the league. Only St Johnstone and St Mirren have scored fewer.
The blank at the Global Energy Stadium was the club's 12th in the league so far - the team couldn't even muster a single shot on target. Attacking play was scarce in the first half and after the break any decent opportunity was followed by indecision, poor execution or players falling over.
Ross County, who have the worst defensive record in the Ladbrokes Premiership, kept their fourth clean sheet of the league campaign. It was their first since September and half have now arrived against Hearts. Therefore it is understandable the team have won just six league games in a year, and the trip to St Johnstone next month will signal 329 days since a league win outside of Edinburgh.
Creativity and subtly
The team are not shot-shy but finishing is poor. Hearts are one of only a few teams who are under-performing their xG (the number of goals they would have been expected to score given the chances created) - scoring five less than expected.
Only the Old Firm have had more touches in the opposition box and Hearts have recorded the second most crosses. In terms of getting the ball into the final third, only Celtic and Rangers do it more frequently.
But every one of the 740 away crowd will have noted the lack of creativity and subtly to the team's attacking play on catching sight of the Ross County box.
It was only when Uche Ikpeazu's battering ram style was introduced and Steven Naismith was moved deeper that Hearts began a period of pressure, probing the Staggies backline.
For a team of Hearts' stature they simply haven't been creating enough good chances. It only makes the noise regarding the much sought after goal scoring striker grow louder.
The ambition to sign one is there, with news last night the club are actively bidding for Liam Boyce, who is proven at Scottish Premiership level. He is a type of player who is different to Hearts' other forwards.
Conor Washington is emblematic of Hearts in the final third. A workhorse, effective at stretching opposition defences, running channels, but doesn't possess the required technique and instincts to thrive in the No.9 role. There is a lack of subtly to his game. In the last two fixtures he has been moved wide by Stendel.
Steven Naismith is more involved in the build-up, while Ikpeazu looks like being an impact substitute.
'Sign a striker'
Boyce is the type of striker who should make Hearts more efficient and effective in front of goal, taking chances when they come his way. But it is telling that Daniel Stendel is also on the lookout for more attacking options behind the striker. Both wide and in midfield.
It is easy to state: 'Sign a striker'. But even the very best can look mediocre without the correct service.
Too often against County the side were bogged down in midfield and took the decision to turn back. Ben Garuccio opting against taking the opportunity to cross the ball in the opening period had the German manager turning to the bench in frustration. New boy Donis Avdijaj was pitched in against County but rarely sparkled.
Stendel wants his team to play quicker through midfield to give the attacking players more of an opportunity to attack their opponents and be brave on the ball. His philosophy is to be on the front foot. After all the team which finished included Washington, Naismith, Ikpeazu, Jamie Walker and Euan Henderson.
The more time the team spend working under the manager the more they will become acclimated to his style and what is expected of him. In turn chances could become more frequent.
But it is at the point of the season where they simply need someone reliable to be in place to take the few chances which come their way to push the team away from the relegation battle.
For further progress longer term, getting back into the European contention, more than simply a striker is required.