Defensively, Hearts remain slightly disjointed two games into their competitive season. Five goals conceded to Arbroath and St Johnstone confirms that their newly-assembled back line needs time to adapt. The flip side is their scoring prowess in attack, where eight goals in total have secured two wins against the aforementioned opponents.
There will be another adjustment in defence at Dundee tomorrow if Nigerian internationalist Juwon Oshaniwa is given a debut. The unforgiving confines of Dens Park aren’t normally conducive to forging an understanding among new defenders, especially a week after Dundee opened their league campaign by banging in four goals at Rugby Park.
Recent recruits Oshaniwa, Blazej Augustyn and Igor Rossi are settling into voids left by Danny Wilson, Brad McKay and Adam Eckersley at Tynecastle. Oshaniwa is pushing for a start at left-back tomorrow and should bring more stability in time.
Goalkeeper Neil Alexander admits he is still growing accustomed to the new faces in front of him. He knows the changes are necessary as well as being unsettling. He is also still smarting from the three goals St Johnstone put past him in last weekend.
The 37-year-old wasn’t involved in last week’s 4-2 League Cup win over Arbroath as Jack Hamilton kept goal but, having helped Hearts concede only 26 goals in 36 league games last season, Alexander is upset at losing three in his first game this term – despite Hearts beating St Johnstone 4-3.
“I’m definitely not happy with it. You try to keep a clean sheet so I’m disappointed to lose three on the opening day,” he told the Evening News. “If someone said they’d give you three points before the game, regardless of the score, you’d take it. I’m disappointed with the manner the three goals were lost, though.
“I do mull over it. You can’t avoid it these days with the newspaper and TV coverage. We analyse the games in here to see what we can improve on and what we did well. I think that’s good. It helps you as a player and it’s good from a coaching point of view. I analyse the young goalkeepers as well as myself. You’re never too old to be critical. I’m my own worst critic. If I haven’t done something well, I know it.”
True to his word, Alexander acknowledges he might have dealt better with the high ball which brought St Johnstone’s first goal in the 4-3 win. Yet he is adamant he was fouled by Liam Craig as Joe Shaughnessy’s long throw landed in his six-yard area, causing him to flap at the ball and leave Simon Lappin with a tap-in.
“I knew at the time it was a push and I thought it was a foul,” said Alexander. “Not a blatant foul, but there’s enough to make it a foul. I look at myself and say, ‘maybe I could’ve done better, maybe I should’ve been stronger and expected a challenge’. In the same respect, what happened doesn’t happen for no reason. The ref’s got to look at it and ask why it happened.
“If there had been no challenge, I’d have gone up and caught the ball. The ref needs to ask himself why has the keeper not caught it? There has to be some sort of contact and there was. I’ve watched it about 30 times. Certain angles show it better than others. Liam Craig has run in front of me and, just as I’m going up to catch the ball, he’s put an arm out and shoved me. It wasn’t a massive shove or a blatant shove, but it was enough to put me off balance.
“It nudged my arm out of the way as I was going up with two hands and it made me flap at it. It looks terrible from my point of view as a goalkeeper but you’re wanting the referee or the assistant to help you out a bit. It’s disappointing, but maybe I could have done better, been stronger or gone and punched the ball. I was just quite confident to go and catch it. For the other two goals, we maybe could have defended better. However, it was the first game, we had a new defence and a new team so we’re happy with the three points.”
Injuries have played their part in forcing the Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson to change his defensive line throughout pre-season. Alim Ozturk succeeded Wilson as captain, but is one of several influential players lacking match practice at the moment.
Alexander predicts it will take a few weeks yet for his defence to gel, but is confident they will become a solid unit in time.
“We’ve got a lot of players who haven’t done a great deal of training. They’ve missed a good part of pre-season through injury,” continued the goalkeeper. “We’re also bringing new players in so at this time we don’t have a settled team. Sunday’s back four had never played together.
“It’s going to take maybe four or five games just to get a settled team together. These things take time. With injuries and players coming in and out through pre-season, we never had the chance to play the same team twice. It’s been a changing back four all the time.
“We’re getting more familiar with each other ever day and we work on defending every day. Last season we had a fantastic back four and a great defensive record. That was one of the team’s main strengths. It will take time to get that again this year but I’m sure it will come.”
If anything, last weekend’s scores reflect the chasm between winning the Scottish Championship at a canter and stepping up as the Premiership’s newly-promoted club. Hearts recorded a useful and encouraging victory at home to St Johnstone whilst Dundee, managed by the former Tynecastle idol Paul Hartley, were scoring for fun in Ayrshire.
Both teams carry a goal threat which augurs well for the entertainment value of tomorrow’s meeting.
“I think it’s a good thing that they scored four at Rugby Park. It keeps us on our toes,” said Alexander. “Defensively, we’ve got to be spot on tomorrow because Dundee are very much an attacking threat. We carry that attacking threat as well so they need to be wary of us.
“Getting off to a winning start at home was important for us. Although it was a wee bit harder than we thought, it’s a good start. Dundee got off to a fantastic start at Kilmarnock and by no means are we taking this lightly. We are under no illusions about what to expect in this league.
“Last season we scored a barrel load of goals and we’ve started off really well this year. Scoring generates confidence among the midfielders and strikers.
“Callum Paterson is always chipping in with goals from defence, it was important for Juanma to score on his league debut and I’m sure Osman Sow will contribute. He’ll be disappointed he missed the penalty last week, but he’s got goals in him.
“It bodes well for the season that people are off the mark with goals, so that pressure is off them right away.”