Robbie Neilson discusses leaving Hearts players out due to 'night and day' change
Increased quality and competition makes the manager’s job more difficult when selecting matchday squads, however he relishes that challenge after signing eight players since winning promotion from the Championship in April.
Ross Stewart, Josh Ginnelly, Alex Cochrane, Beni Baningime, Ben Woodburn, Taylor Moore, Cameron Devlin and Barrie McKay all arrived over the summer months to strengthen the first-team group at Riccarton.
Following a comfortable 3-0 win over Livingston on Saturday, Hearts sit joint-second in the cinch Premiership alongside Edinburgh rivals Hibs – both just a point behind leaders Rangers.
Leaving players out of his 18-man matchday squad is awkward each week but Neilson stressed that the competition is driving his team to new heights.
“It's night and day compared to last season,” he said. “We now have two goalies competing, plus 18 first-team players who are all top-end Premiership standard. That makes my job quite difficult because at times I need to leave two of them out.
“However, it brings competition to training and lifts the standard of training. On the pitch, you need to play well enough to stay on the pitch because we have options.
“On Saturday, we brought on Armand Gnanduillet, Gary Mackay-Steven, Andy Halliday and Peter Haring. We still had Aaron McEneff sitting on the bench, Jamie Walker on the bench – both top-end Premiership players who can change a game for you.”
Defender John Souttar and winger Ginnelly sat out at the weekend due to niggling injuries. That did not affect Hearts’ performance as they overwhelmed Livingston with goals from Michael Smith, Liam Boyce and Cochrane.
Neilson’s side are unbeaten after seven Premiership fixtures, belying their status as a newly-promoted club, and delivered one of their strongest displays of the campaign to date at the weekend.
The manager felt they potentially played better the previous week in the 2-2 draw at Ross County as he analysed the game.
“We went up to Ross County and I thought we played really well – probably better than against Livingston – but we got done by two goals in the transition. We dominated a lot of the play against Hibs at home, had chances but didn't get the goal,” he explained.
"On Saturday, we got the first goal and that allowed the game to open up a wee bit. We spoke before the game about how we would start. Livingston had played Sunday and Wednesday in tough games against Celtic and Rangers.
“We wanted to show energy and movement and, to the players' credit, I thought they did that. We had some good opportunities and took three of them.
“The good thing for us is we are second in the league and we now have a massive game against Motherwell this week. They will fancy their chances coming to Tynecastle after a brilliant start to the season. We want to keep putting pressure on the teams round about us.”