The concerning trend for Hearts through their three Betfred Cup games

The point of emphasis for Hearts boss Craig Levein going into this season was to get more options in attack. Without Steven Naismith last term, the Gorgie Road side were blunt in the final third.

Thursday, 25th July 2019, 12:47 pm
Craig Levein (right) and assistant Austin MacPhee take in the action at Tynecastle

In 19 league games without the talismanic attacker, they netted just 13 times. Those figures clearly don't cut the mustard for a club of Hearts' ambition and although Naismith will return next month, the club can't rely on him being fully fit for all of the 2019/20 campaign, so there needs to be a contingency plan.

Step in Conor Washington and Jamie Walker as Hearts focus on quality rather than quantity. One is a Northern Irish international with Championship pedigree who'd scored goals in England's League One. The other is a proven potent attacking midfielder, not only in the environment of the Ladbrokes Premiership, but in a maroon jersey.

This would give the Hearts boss the firepower needed to live without Naismith, a theory tested from the outset with the Scottish international absent from the Betfred Cup group stages as his contract situation gets sorted out.

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In a way, it has made Hearts a greater attacking threat. They created countless chances in the opening half against Dundee United and should have scored more than the one goal they got. They then did likewise in the 2-0 triumph over Cowdenbeath last midweek.

Stenhousemuir on Wednesday night was undoubtedly the poorest performance of the three so far, yet they still forced the opposing goalkeeper into many saves, while four goalbound efforts had to be blocked by defenders.

There's a greater variance to the attack as they're not just relying on going long to Uche Ikpeazu and having others around him feed off the scraps. However, five goals through three games against exclusively lower league opposition is underwhelming. What is a little more concerning that only one of the goals - Anthony McDonald's strike against Cowdenbeath - has come from an attacker.

Walker, Ikpeazu and Sean Clare have been wayward with their finishing. Washington has managed to hit the target but it's often been the goalkeeper, while Steven MacLean hasn't had as many opportunities as he performs his link-man, facilitator role; which is fine, but only if those around you are capable of putting the finishing touch on a move.

The Tynecastle side should have at least 12 goals through these three matches. There are positives to take from that, but when it's stretched over 270 minutes there are obvious negatives in there as well.

This could be a whole lot of nothing in the end. Strikers go through barren patches where they're pushing too hard to score and it becomes counter-productive. It's not beyond the realms of possibility that, especially this early in the season, it's just a collective funk that will disappear as soon as a couple of these guys find the back of the net for the first time.

On the other hand, these are exactly the type of matches you want your strikers playing in at the beginning of the season in order to build up some confidence. That's why Washington has started in every Betfred Cup match so far. The striker said it himself: Hearts management told him this would be the perfect opportunity to hit the goal trail and use that as a launching pad to sustainable success throughout the season.

Washington will be a doubt for Saturday's clash at East Fife after being admitted to A&E following a clash in Wednesday's match. Hearts will just require a draw to put themselves in the next round of the cup. Given the level of competition, that won't be enough to satisfy the group of supporters who still jeered the final whistle against Stenhousemuir despite Craig Halkett's late intervention. Aside from gaining victory, they want their fears put at ease regarding those tasked with winning matches.

A couple of goals from the leading men in attack and a comfortable victory will do a world of good for confidence going into the first league game of the season, both within the squad and for those watching on.