Craig Levein has lavished more praise on John Souttar as he described the Scotland Under-21 centre-back as Hearts’ most prized asset.
The manager has regularly singled out the former Dundee United for his part in helping the Tynecastle side to ten clean sheets in 21 league matches since he returned to action in the summer following a serious Achilles injury.
Souttar has been an integral member of the second-meanest defence in the Scottish Premiership, and English Championship side Derby County were yesterday credited with an interest in taking him to the Midlands.
Levein is of no mind to lose the defender in the upcoming transfer window, but, after another strong display in Wednesday’s goalless draw with Hibs, the manager believes he has progressed so well since joining Hearts two years ago that it is only a matter of time before he takes his career to the next level.
“I thought that was his best game for Hearts on Wednesday, I really did,” said Levein, a former centre-back himself. “I think he’s brilliant. What he’s doing is everything that people said he couldn’t do, that’s the pleasing thing for me. Until I was 21, 22 years old, I didn’t feel I could dominate centre forwards because physically I wasn’t capable. I was quick and I could recover, get in behind and tidy things up but trying to win headers against experienced centre-forwards who know what they’re doing, for a centre-back that was really difficult. All John has been doing is learning, people had written him off at 17 and 18 years of age, saying he couldn’t do it.
“He has gradually been getting better, week-in, week-out and he hardly lost a header the other night. His tackling was superb, him and Christophe (Berra) with the offside trap were fantastic. He’s getting better and better and I honestly think he could be anything.”
Levein is adamant that Hearts are in a strong position if any club emerges with firm interest in Souttar, who is contracted until 2020. “When we signed him, I hoped the trajectory would be up the way and it has been,” said the manager of a player who had lost his way at Dundee United. “He was out six months with an Achilles injury and he spent that time in the gym working his backside off. Physically, he is a different specimen altogether and people don’t realise that he’s really quick. His passing is something that everybody admires, it’s one thing he is brilliant at. I think he is a complete player, I really do. I think he is another window away from being ready to go anywhere – he needs a full season of this and then I think he might be ready. He’s our most valuable asset, that’s for sure. We’re in a position that we don’t need to sell so that always helps.”
Levein, as a former Scotland manager, stopped short of suggesting that Souttar and Berra should be given the chance to take their burgeoning club partnership on to the international stage, although, such is his admiration for his two centre-backs, it is clear he would advocate such a scenario. “That’s not my place, thankfully,” when asked whether Souttar should be selected by the next Scotland manager.
Souttar and Berra will look to help Hearts to a club record sixth successive clean sheet away to Aberdeen today. Levein is heartened by how adept his team have become at keeping the back door shut in the first half of this season after they became a soft touch in the second half of last term. While he works on tuning up his attack, the manager is content for the team to be reliant on defensive resolve first and foremost. “Until we get into a place where we’re capable of going forward – and we’re not there yet – then we need to make sure we don’t lose matches,” said Levein, who is prioritising point-collecting over pretty football at this stage. “Very quickly it becomes a problem when you’re playing well and losing, playing well and losing – we had a spell of that. The defence has been good.”