Analysis from Fir Park as Hearts defeated Motherwell to reach the quarter-finals of the Betfred Cup.
There was a clear gameplan
Results like last Saturday's 0-0 draw with Ross County can happen. An organised, defensively disciplined opponent is always capable of pulling off a result away from home to a team they're fancied to lose to comfortably. But the most startling thing for Hearts fans in attendance was the lack of a discernible gameplan from their favourites, especially in the attacking third. Without meaning to be harsh, the players looked absolutely clueless about how they were supposed to be going at their Highland visitors. Well, things were much different on Friday night. Craig Levein used Motherwell's confidence against them as Hearts performed very well as a counter-attacking team. With Conor Washington expertly linking with his supporting midfield three, the away side always had options in attack and space in which to try and exploit Motherwell. Sean Clare, Jake Mulraney and, prior to his injury, Jamie Walker were all capable of driving play up the park, which enabled them the away side to be a viable threat right up until the closing stages where they decided to shut up shop.
It was a vastly improved defensive performance
If you need proof that clean sheets and goals conceded are not always indicative of a good or bad defensive performance, then look no further than the past two games. Against County, Hearts managed to escape the 90 minutes without their opponents finding the back of the net, but that was only through sheer luck and the inability of the dark blue attackers to finish their chances. Although they would concede against Motherwell, the maroon backline was watertight for the majority of the 90 minutes. It helped having Andy Irving and Loic Damour as the double pivot in front of the defence in Levein's 4-2-3-1, though each member of the back four had excellent individual performances also. Attacking confidence clearly wavered after the hosts pulled one back, but they still managed to keep Motherwell at arm's length for the rest of the contest and never looked in any real threat of conceding another.
The No.9 position is now Washington's to lose
Levein doesn't want this Hearts side to play long ball football. If he did, they'd have probably been more effective through the struggles of the last 10 months. Instead, the defence and midfield knock it about for a bit and then launch it to Uche Ikpeazu. Since the big man isn't actually the greatest in the air, the play comes straight back more often than not. On Friday night, for the first time since his return from a broken foot in January, Ikpeazu was an unused substitute as Washington played the full 90 minutes instead of him. The Northern Irishman is certainly nowhere near as eye-catching as his fellow striker, what with Ikpeazu's brute strength, unorthodox style and deceptive quickness, but the team seemed to function much better around the summer signing. Instead of launching it up the park at the first sign of trouble, Hearts got it down and passed it. And when they did go direct they were able to funnel it into the channels to match the runs of Washington, who would assuredly hold up play and wait for support to arrive. Getting off the mark from the penalty spot should also do his confidence in front of goal a world of good.