Lessons to learn or not? Michael Stewart and Neil McCann debate problem with the Hearts defence in Europe

Former Hearts winger Neil McCann reckons the coaching staff will learn valuable defensive lessons from their European campaign, but Michael Stewart believes talk of learning curves misses the real point.
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Stewart, the former Hearts midfielder, believes the team would have been much more solid had their best defenders not been injured for most of the Europa Conference League group stage, identifying the absence of ken men like Craig Halkett and Kye Rowles and Stephen Kingsley.

“It’s not so much about a learning curve for these players, it is about getting your best team on the park,” Stewart said on BT Sport after Hearts finished their campaign with a 3-1 defeat away to Istanbul Basaksehir. “You can talk about learning curves as much as you want, but better quality players make a difference. Ultimately, for Hearts to have an opportunity against the likes of Fiorentina and Basaksehir, they have to have their best players on the park. They have not had that this year. Better players in the team means you don’t concede goals, you’re a lot stronger and you’re in the game.”

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Hearts conceded 16 goals in their six group matches and defensive mistakes were once again one of the main talking points after the defeat in Istanbul. McCann agrees with Stewart that the three goals Hearts conceded were avoidable, and reckons the coaching staff will have to work out a way to find more time to drill the team defensively if they reach this stage again.

He said: “From a coaching perspective, Robbie Neilson will gather all the information and it is the goals against [that have been the main problem]. It is trying to find a balance between being solid defensively and still trying to possess an attack with bodies that can have a a go. There is so much more you can do on the training pitch, but the problem is when you are bouncing from weekend to Thursday you’re not getting a lot of time to do work. That is where, as a staff, they will learn a lot because you have to cram in so much information with such little time on the training pitch.”

Stewart and McCann believes Hearts were braver in possession in Istanbul than they were in previous games against the top teams in the group, but defensive lapses proved costly. Analysing the first goal, a free header nodded in by Youssouf Ndayishimiye from a corner, McCann said: “They set up as a cluster, almost as if they are going to go man for man. Then they just separate and take their eye off the man who heads it. Two or three of them could have put that into the net.”

The second goal, scored by Serdar Gurler, came after Hearts held a high line and allowed Basaksehir in behind. Craig Gordon rushed out of his box but could stop the French winger. “There can be no excuse for Michael Smith,” explained McCann. “He’s playing offside because he’s a bit lazy and should be covering Toby Sibbick. Craig Gordon comes out and gets a little touch on the ball. It actually goes through Smith’s legs into the bargain once he gets himself goal side, but it was horrible from a defensive point of view.”