Hearts: Why Ross County draw showed 3-4-3 to be the most effective formation
No Hearts fan could have looked at Robbie Neilson’s starting line-up at Ross County viewed it as defensive.
There have been some reservations amongst supporters regarding the make-up of the 3-4-3 at times this season, with five defenders and two protective midfielders in front.
In Saturday's 2-2 draw, that outlook was very much different. The Tynecastle Park side lined up with a midfield made up of a defensive midfielder, two wingers, a No.10 and a striker, supporting another striker.
“We went with a 4-1-4-1 because we wanted to go all-out attack with five forwards,” Neilson told the Evening News after the match.
Hearts had more shots than any other league game this campaign, they recorded their highest number of crosses and offensive duels. On the ball, the number of passes, forward passes and passes to the final third were all above their average in the Premiership so far.
Ultimately, however, they didn’t look nearly as solid as they have done this campaign when playing a 3-4-3.
Neilson noted that Liam Boyce and Ben Woodburn – who played ahead of Beni Baningime – weren't getting “back in”, while County goal scorer Blair Spittal said the Staggies knew they could hurt Hearts “either side of the sitting midfielder”.
That could be seen in the first conceded.
Spittal plays a pass around Boyce and continues to move towards the box. The Northern Ireland international, however, stops and watches, hopeful it would break free and he could attack. He reacts too late as the ball is struck low into the bottom corner.
The second is one that would most likely not be given up in the 3-4-3. Craig Halkett is pulled into a wide position, Baningime has to come across to cover Regan Charles-Cook's run and Spittal is free – ahead of Boyce – to turn in.
Hearts have been good at limiting opponents to difficult chances or long-range shots. That wasn't the case on Saturday. County’s average shot distance was 13.69 compared to the 19.16 average of Hearts’ opponents this season.
The Staggies six efforts was below the average conceded by Hearts (9) but their xG (goals expected to be scored) was higher (1.29) than the average (0.85) against the Capital side this campaign.
It is understandable why Neilson made the system switch. He has plenty of attacking and versatile players and with Michael Smith out, there wasn't a natural replacement at right wing-back
In turn he gave fans what they wanted, “all-out attack” with a number of forward players on show. But they also have to be given the right platform, they have to have a solid foundation supporting them.
Baningime, who may well have been looking round for Peter Haring in the first half, was more comfortable with the arrival of Cammy Devlin. The Australian looked to take the ball from defence. In the first half, it was often left to Halkett step out from the back to pass through the lines, as he did for the opening goal.
With the additions made and new recruits getting up to speed there will still be teething problems, but right now, the 3-4-3 is the system which is most effective, both in terms of making it difficult for opponents and giving the forward players a solid base to play from.