Why on-field leadership at lily-livered Hearts is an absolute must against Hibs
Stendel can only do so much - his senior players need to stand up to relegation challenge
Daniel Stendel's letter to Santa would be interesting reading. The German coach, already looking slightly embattled after his first three Hearts matches ended in defeat, might ask Father Christmas for his own assistant manager, a defence that can keep a clean sheet, a midfielder who can create chances, or a striker who is clinical rather than wasteful. However, I suspect his one big wish might be some leadership in a team bereft of any direction on the pitch.
Hearts will wake up on Christmas Day rooted to the foot of the Ladbrokes Premiership tree - and unfortunately for Stendel, there are no gifts to be found down there. The transfer window doesn't open for another week and there will be no more players clambering off the treatment table to help him and his men out when Hibs visit Tynecastle for the Boxing Day derby.
Saturday's damaging 2-1 defeat by fellow basement dwellers Hamilton Accies left Hearts three points adrift in last place. It is a shocking state of affairs for a club of Hearts' stature, wage bill and supposed quality. Not one player has scored more than two goals in the league this term and they've only won twice in that competition. The only team not to take points off them this season is, ironically, Hibs.
That will change on December 26 unless the Hearts team stand up and are counted. Because, amid the ponderous play in the final third, a softness in defence and a deficiency of pace, the biggest problem at Tynecastle right now is a glaring lack of leadership. When the going gets tough, Hearts crumple like an old car in an accident and, right now, they are bang on a collision course with relegation.
Hearts didn't have the suspended Christophe Berra in defence against Hamilton. The captain's performances this season have not met his own standards, but he is still an influence on the pitch. Steven Naismith - the Jambos' general - only lasted 45 minutes in Lanarkshire and one wonders, fears even, that he may never be fit for Hearts for a sustained period of time. Once the hosts took the lead at the FOYS Stadium, Hearts unravelled and never truly looked like recovering. This is becoming a familiar theme. Only twice this season in the Premiership have Hearts recuperated points after losing the first goal.
It's challenging to cope without those two aforementioned players, but Hearts have plenty of experienced players to pull them through difficult moments. Steven MacLean is a veteran of this division, Glenn Whelan plied his trade in the English Premier League for years and has played 80 times for his country, while Craig Halkett was captain of Livingston last season. Even Michael Smith, a reasonable performer for most of this season, can't be exonerated. Loic Damour, 28, has played at the highest level in England and France. None of the aforementioned appear to be inspiring more youthful colleagues around them at crucial moments. It would not be unfair to question whether all of the players are pulling in the same direction.
It's hard to chuck too much criticism towards Stendel this early in his reign because he is operating with one hand behind his back. He doesn't have his own men beside him yet and it's likely he wants to discard a lot of this current crop of players. However, we all expected a bounce from his arrival and bar a couple of ten-minute periods here and there, Hearts have not improved under him.
A derby is no place for shirkers and Hearts' experienced core of players must exert their influence. If they go behind, like they did in the last match against Hibs, they can't fold. A relegation battle requires bravery, bottle and passion - as does a match against your nearest rivals. Hibs may be ten points clear of Hearts and riding a revival of sorts under Jack Ross, but this isn't a vintage Easter Road side rocking up in Gorgie. They have the tools to hurt Hearts, but have their own frailties too.
Stendel admitted Hearts' sole focus is now to avoid relegation. He needs his men to rise up to the challenge, as the lily-livered displays against St Johnstone and Hamilton will not get them out of this mess. The derby will tell us, once and for all, whether this Hearts side has, to coin a phrase used by their own Damour a few months ago, the ability to put its "balls on the table".