How will Hearts line-up against Rangers with the potential return of Peter Haring and Uche Ikpeazu?

Earlier this week Hearts fans were buoyed with the news that Peter Haring, Uche Ikpeazu and Steven Naismith could all return to the team for Sunday's clash with table-toppers Rangers at Tynecastle Park.

Thursday, 17th October 2019, 5:45 pm
Craig Levein has plenty to consider ahead of Sunday's fixture with Rangers. Picture: SNS

That has been tempered somewhat with doubts still surrounding the latter who has had to contend with niggles as he seeks to regain full fitness.

With Rangers in such dominant form, averaging more than three goals a game, it is important Craig Levein has good options to choose from.

The Hearts boss has already noted the visitors will likely dominate possession but is confident his side can prevail.

So, how could Hearts line-up?

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Back three

Levein's decision to opt for a back three in recent weeks hasn't been vindicated. The team succeeded in beating Hibs once the system had been switched to a four-man defence, while the team were desperately lacking fluidity in failing to score in the draw at St Mirren and 1-0 defeat to Kilmarnock at Tynecastle.

The latter fixture, especially, saw the back three play in a straight line against a team with one forward, no one willing to drive forward with the ball.

Another issues is the need to play wingers as wing-backs. It is a ramification of full-backs being required in the back three. Callumn Morrison was ineffective in Paisley, while Killie's winning goal saw Jake Mulraney caught under a cross at the back post.

With Craig Halkett and John Souttar out until next year it leaves Christophe Berra and Clevid Dikamona as the centre-back options.

However, Levein may see a back three as a way to combat Rangers who play their wide attacking players narrow, encouraging the full-backs forward. Crowding the middle of the pitch could disrupt the visitors, as well as giving one centre-back the task of man marking either Alfredo Morelos or Jermain Defoe.

New position for Clare

Ask ten Hearts fans what Sean Clare's best position is and there's every chance you would get half a dozen different answers.

Within the back three system could he be an option as a wing-back? It is a position he is not unfamiliar with having played there for Gillingham. He has the physical attributes to get up and down the line.

After all, he has been tried out in just about every other position.

Return to a back four

After the last two outings it may be a case of getting back to a more orthodox defensive unit with Dikamona and Berra as a centre-back pairing and Michael Smith and Aaron Hickey as full-backs.

It is a platform which allows for two midfielders to patrol and protect and an attacking trio to support a striker.

In a 4-2-3-1, Levein could play two wide men and field Ryotaro Meshino in a No.10 role where he has shown flashes of quality.

Pack the midfield

“It’s not going to be a game where we’ll have 65 per cent possession," Levein said. "Rangers are likely to have more possession than us but I think we’ve always got a real chance of taking something from the game at home.”

Rangers currently average slightly over 70 per cent possession in their eight Premiership games so far this season. If there is one ground where that can be put to the test it is Tynecastle Park.

Against Killie, Levein lined up with what some saw as a conservative midfield of Loic Damour, Glenn Whelan and Andy Iriving. When Damour had to leave the field with an injury, it was Oliver Bozanic who replaced him.

Such a midfield would be one which could compete and try and get control of the ball, preventing Rangers from pinning Hearts back.

Whelan and Irving offer composure, intelligence and vision on the ball, while Damour, who played as a No.10, can be a disruptive force to get in opponents' faces.

A back three gives the option of a midfield trio and two pronged attack. Alternatively, if it is a back four, it would mean the key attacking support for the striker will arrive from wide positions.

Striker

With Ikpeazu absent it was clear that Hearts missed a focal point against Kilmarnock from the start. Steven MacLean came off the bench at half-time and Aidan Kenna does not seem to have the full trust of the manager to start games.

The Englishman's chaos factor, ability to make it uncomfortable for defenders and capacity to get the team up the pitch was sorely missed and is badly needed for the Rangers match.

In a game such as Sunday's, where Hearts are required to be up-and-at-em, direct and stand up to a better team, he offers something no one else does.

Meshino on the bench

In six appearances for the club so far, Meshino has sparkled in stages rather than fully coming alight and dominating a game with his creative qualities.

The defeat to Kilmarnock was one of his more difficult afternoons in a Hearts top. Tasked with leading the line he was kept quiet by Stuart Findlay and Dario del Fabro.

His position as the main striker may have been behind Levein's desire to field three centre midfielders, tasked with feeding the ball to the Manchester City loanee.

During the international break Meshino was in Brazil with Japan's U22 side, playing in a friendly game before facing Brazil where they came from 2-0 behind to win 3-2.

Add in the travel during the last international break and Levein may take the opportunity of putting Meshino on the bench and using him as an impact sub.

Peter Haring

Finally, the Austrian. Will he, won't he?

It has been a long wait for Hearts fans to see their influential midfielder once more. 146 days and counting since he was in action for the team, the Scottish Cup final defeat to Celtic.

The team have clearly missed his presence in the middle of midfield. His ability to start attacks from deep, composure on the ball and sixth sense when there is a loose or second ball to be won.

He has trained this week but does Levein put him back into the team straight away? The last thing needed is for Haring to breakdown or pick up a niggle.

There is sense in starting him on the bench then, if the game is still in the balance, giving him some minutes in the second half; his arrival would give the crowd a huge lift.

Yet, he may just start. Levein said he is reluctant to play him in defence, the position he started his Hearts career in, but if he opts for a back three he could fill the role of sweeper who is confident of stepping out into midfield with the ball.

Conclusion

Levein is not short of options, both in terms of personnel and formations.

Fans will want the team to go toe-to-toe with their opponents but Steven Gerrard's side are an attacking force. They have nearly hit the target with more shots than Hearts have attempted had in total this campaign.

They deserve respect in terms of their quality but it simply means that the importance of a fast start, getting in their face and making it extremely uncomfortable is of the utmost importance for the home side.

Suggested XI: Pereira; Smith, Dikamona, Berra, Hickey; Clare, Irving, Whelan, Damour, Mulraney; Ikpeazu.