Robbie Neilson explains why there won’t be a set first XI this season as Hearts prepare for Europe

It is always tempting at this time of year to think about what may be the best starting XI for the season ahead. Robbie Neilson isn’t thinking like that.

With a gruelling schedule of matches ahead in a condensed first half of the season, the Hearts boss knows he will have to rotate his squad regularly.

The Jambos will play a minimum of 26 matches in 106 days between the cinch Premiership kick-off against Ross County at Tynecastle on July 30 and the league match at home to Livingston on November 12 when the World Cup shutdown begins.

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It’s an average of about one game every four days, which means regular assessments will need to be made on who is rested when. With more games, injuries are more likely too, and the transfer window remains open until the end of August. Things will inevitably change.

Hearts manager Robbie Neilson is preparing Hearts for a gruelling schedule and says he won't be shaping a fixed starting XI. Picture: Mark Scates / SNS

Neilson sees little point, therefore, in trying to shape and mould his best starting XI at this stage. That’s why he has been using so many subs and moving players into different positions during friendlies against FC Europa, East Fife, Spartans and Bonnyrigg Rose.

“This season it is not going to be a set XI,” he explained. “We’ve got so many games that we will be moving players in and out, so we’re just trying to get them all as fit as we can during pre-season.”

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Having faced part-time opposition so far, Hearts are now stepping it up. Tonight’s trip to Tranmere Rovers is the first of four games against English opposition in 11 days, with Crawley Town, Preston North End and Stoke City still to come.

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“We’re building it up gradually, but the next four games are back to back,” added Neilson. “We want to build up the standard of opposition, but also build up the fitness levels. We’re going to have to do that during the season, play Thursday, Sunday, Thursday, Sunday in two blocks of six weeks. We need to get used to it.”

That’s exactly why Hearts are away to Tranmere and Preston in midweek and at home to Crawley and Stoke on Saturdays.

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It’s not just about preparing the players and the team on the pitch. It’s about preparing everyone on staff for what happens off the pitch too.

The logistics of when to travel, when to sleep, when to eat, when to train, when to rest and recover, when to hold meetings, when to schedule days off and much more are all being factored into the next two weeks as a trial run.

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The upcoming schedule will mimic what will happen during the Europa League or Europa Conference League group matches coming up, when games will come thick and fast on Thursday-Sunday-Thursday-Sunday.

Hearts are leaving no stone unturned. On the pitch, Nathaniel Atkinson is expected to start at right wing-back tonight in what will be his first run out after being granted an extended break due to his World Cup play-off exploits with Australia.

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Barrie McKay will also start after recording from a minor niggle which restricted his game time last week.

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Tonight’s match at Prenton Park kicks off at 7.30pm.