How a subtle change to Hearts' midfield sparked extra goals

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Goalscoring midfielders command a cherished place in Hearts’ recent history. Think Rudi Skacel, Paul Hartley and Colin Cameron and you begin to understand the adulation reserved for such precious talents.

Modern-day successors have much to live up to. At least they are making a belated start at finding the net. Three goals from midfield inside the last three weeks represents notable improvement from a department challenged by manager Robbie Neilson to start scoring.

After Cammy Devlin’s first Hearts goal at St Mirren last month came Beni Baningime’s maiden strike in maroon against the same opponents on Saturday. Peter Haring also registered his second goal of the campaign at the weekend – both of them in the Scottish Cup – to ensure he wasn’t being outdone.

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Now, none of the above can lay a glove on the feats of Skacel, Hartley or Cameron. Nor are they likely to any time soon, for rippling nets is not considered their strongest attribute. That doesn’t mean they can’t contribute more often and cause more damage inside the opposition penalty area.

Midfielders Peter Haring and Cammy Devlin both scored for Hearts in recent weeks.Midfielders Peter Haring and Cammy Devlin both scored for Hearts in recent weeks.
Midfielders Peter Haring and Cammy Devlin both scored for Hearts in recent weeks.

“We are always, always on at one of the centre midfielders to get into the box. It’s so important to the way we play,” Neilson told the Evening News. “Two of them managed to do it on Saturday, Cammy did it a couple of weeks ago, so hopefully that makes them realise it’s worthwhile.

“As coaches, we can talk about it and show them things but by getting a goal it might mean they continue to do it next time. We are pleased with it.

“We need the midfielders to contribute in that sense. I spoke about it a few weeks ago and said goals need to come from midfield. We had goals from attacking areas, goals from full-backs, goals from centre-halves. They also need to come from the midfield area. Hopefully this is just the start.

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“The boys were joking in the dressing room that Baningime now has more goals than Barrie McKay. I have to say Barrie has been sensational for us, absolutely sensational. His goal will come.”

Beni Baningime scores to put Hearts 1-0 ahead against St Mirren.Beni Baningime scores to put Hearts 1-0 ahead against St Mirren.
Beni Baningime scores to put Hearts 1-0 ahead against St Mirren.

An obvious question is whether midfielders might find it easier to score from within some formations than others. A minute change to the team’s midfield structure during play has helped in that regard.

Hearts spent the majority of this campaign lining up in a 3-4-3 system which was fluid enough to flip to a back four when the opposition had possession. Recently, that tactic has been turned on its head. A dip in form during February led to just one league win in six outings, prompting the most subtle of technical alterations from the coaching staff.

“We don’t play a 4-2-3-1 when we are in possession. If you watch, we slide into a back three,” explained Neilson. “So it’s exactly the same as we have been playing, it’s just a bit more defensive in a 4-2-3-1.

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“Everyone thinks we have changed our shape. We haven’t really changed the shape, we’ve just changed it at kick-off. Prior to that, we played 3-4-3 and slid into 4-2-3-1 to defend. All we have done is do things the opposite way and everyone thinks: ‘Oh, you’ve changed it.’

“If you look at the full-backs in Saturday’s game, Nathaniel Atkinson goes high and Andy Halliday tucks in [beside the two centre-backs]. It’s just exactly the same. For some reason, everybody thought we had changed the shape because we had lost a couple of games.”

The issue during February’s stumble seemed to be finding the net, especially whilst top goalscorer Liam Boyce was absent through illness. He is now back in the team and goals are emerging from all areas of the pitch. Hearts’ winning habit appears to be back after three victories and a draw in their last four outings.

There was never outright panic at Riccarton during that difficult spell. Nonetheless, there is still clear relief that it seemed to pass relatively quickly and did not linger anywhere near long enough to derail the campaign.

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“We were always creating chances. That period in February, we played Dundee here and could have been 5-0 up at half-time. It was the same when we played St Johnstone,” recalled Neilson.

“We can always create opportunities in the final third but sometimes there are periods when we don’t take them. That’s just football, it’s where we are at the moment.

“As a club, we don’t have the ability to have three guys who are going to score 20 goals a season. We will go through periods where we will create chances but won’t score goals.”

Injuries don’t help and there have been more than enough of those since the turn of the year. Gradually, players are beginning to return as a potentially-historic season approaches its climax.

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Of those unavailable to face St Mirren because of various ailments, Neilson is hopeful three could be ready by the time Livingston arrive at Tynecastle Park this Saturday.

Wingers Gary Mackay-Steven and Josh Ginnelly would be warmly welcomed back alongside full-back Alex Cochrane if they make it. Defender John Souttar and midfielder Cammy Devlin must wait for now.

Hearts are homing in on third place and guaranteed European football via the Premiership. Next month’s Scottish Cup semi-final is on the back burner for the moment.

“I’m hoping to get three back at least for this weekend. That would be huge for us because we didn’t have a lot of options from the bench on Saturday there.

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“We had Aaron McEneff attacking-wise but other than him we only had Sibbs [Toby Sibbick] and [Taylor] Moore, who are more defensive. If we can get a couple of attacking options back then it will be a big bonus.”

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