Hearts: Why the 3-4-1-2 could be a useful tactic in Robbie Neilson's arsenal
Friday night’s 6-0 win over Alloa Athletic saw Robbie Neilson spring a surprise on fans with the line-up, or more so the formation of the starting XI.
It was the first time in 24 Championship matches the team had started in a back three.
In the 23 previous league fixtures, a 4-2-3-1 system was used ten times, a 4-3-3 eight times, a midfield diamond four times and a 4-4-2 once.
Therefore, it was somewhat surprising to see the team line-up in a 3-4-1-2 system with Liam Boyce playing as a No.10 behind two strikers.
“The manager is continually getting on at us and making sure we’re improving in different areas,” goalkeeper Craig Gordon said ahead of the Alloa game.
"He wants us to learn different formations so we can swap between formations in games. There’s still a lot of information and improvements to come.”
You can see that by watching Neilson in full flow during games as he tweaks, organises and re-positions his charges. Passive during the 90 minutes he is not.
However, the 3-4-1-2 was a new one, certainly from the start.
Neilson explained: “The way Alloa played with their back three, we thought getting two up front and Boyce as a 10 would give us superiority up there, but also getting John Souttar back in and Michael Smith on the other side it allows you to press into the No.10s who drop in.”
He added: “Will it be one we take forward? I think we’ve got players who are flexible enough to alter between a back three and a back four.”
Getting the best out of Halkett and Souttar
Analysing the current squad, the 3-4-1-2 is a system which has a lot going for it, both on an individual level and collective level.
Defensively, Michael Smith and Stephen Kingsley are full-backs who are suited to playing as the wide centre-backs. They are both good in one v one situations, comfortable confronting opponents in wide spaces and can step out and advance up the pitch.
Smith has also shown his ability as a sweeper previously. There are few better in the current squad at reading a game than the Northern Irishman.
But is a defensive shape which gets the best out of Craig Halkett and John Souttar.
For the latter, a position on the right of a three gives him better angles for playing the ball into midfield, zipping it to a striker or those booming cross field passes he is so good at.
As for Halkett, the 25-year-old was excellent in the centre of a three at Livingston, prompting his move to Tynecastle. There is greater cover when he does engage a forward, while he thrives in those moments where he needs to intercept, clear or block as the last man back.
Solving the winger dilemma
Moving wide, what better way to solve any lingering winger dilemma than not playing with any.
The versatility of Shay Logan, Smith, Kingsely and Andy Halliday gives Neilson plenty of options. The latter is arguably at his best there. Combative, aggressive, fit, good in the air and can contribute in the final third, as shown with his lovely through ball to find Boyce against Alloa.
But it could also suit Gary Mackay-Steven. Playing wingers as wing-backs is not a new phenomenon and has been popular in the Premiership this campaign.
The former Celtic and Aberdeen wide-man has not hit the ground running since his mid-season move and fans won't see the best of him until next season. But he has been at his best when running with the ball, rather than getting the ball with his back to goal.
At wing-back he has the opportunity to get the ball from deep. As a winger, it can sometimes be the case where he gets the ball, turns and the full-back is already on top of him. Starting from deeper can give him more scope to gather momentum, assess his running options.
In the centre of the pitch, a Peter Haring-Aaron McEneff axis certainly has potential, their qualities complementing one another, at the same time both are capable of doing a bit of everything.
Boyce’s dual role
The most exciting aspect is a front three.
His trajectory this season is of a player who is continuing to improve at Tynecastle, something of a rare occurrence in recent seasons.
Against Alloa there was a really nice blend of Euan Henderson's pace stretching the game, Armand Gnanduillet providing physicality, selfless running and an aerial target. It opened up space for Boyce to forage in. Few players in the squad have his concoction of balance, technique, vision, plus he has a goalscoring ability.
There has been enough of a sample size that it can be determined Boyce and Gnanduillet need to play whatever the system. They could be a fearsome attacking duo or part of a trio. Neilson has plenty of options available to him if he was to push the Northern Irishman further forward, such as Jamie Walker and Steven Naismith.
But seeing Boyce in action this season you can understand why Neilson is keen to have him moving towards goal from a deeper position rather than dropping away from the box.
Here to stay?
There has, of course, been talk of a revamp and a number of new players arriving in the summer with the aim of being competitive next season. The squad composition could look different but the back three is something which should likely stay at the forefront of the manager’s mind.
The Premiership has been awash with such systems this campaign, while the match against Alloa, in some sense, was an indication of the type of game they will face more often, a team who try to play, try to attack and open up a bit more, albeit it will be against an opponent with greater quality.
With three games to go and Souttar returning, it will be interesting to see if the 3-4-1-2 remains.