Robbie Neilson explains work on new Hearts formations for season starting

Robbie Neilson is preparing different formations for Hearts to use.Robbie Neilson is preparing different formations for Hearts to use.
Robbie Neilson is preparing different formations for Hearts to use.
Fluid systems being tried in bounce matches

Pre-season bounce games have so far witnessed various formations from Robbie Neilson’s new-look Hearts team. Competitive action will be no different as players flip from one system to another, even during matches.

Neilson’s plan to win the Championship involves a fluid set-up where players can adapt to a number of scenarios. Changing from a four-man defence to a three will happen between games but also in-play at times.

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The desire is to dominate opponents and maximise possession of the ball. Neilson is acutely aware Hearts are expected to overwhelm all of the other nine teams in Scotland’s second tier.

He wants to be fully prepared and used recent closed-door outings against Sheffield United, St Mirren and Burnley to lay the foundations of his plan.

Having largely favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation since taking his first steps in management with Hearts back in 2014, he used a 3-4-3 at times in the above games. Other variations of three-man defensive systems are also being trialled.

“It will be an option for us this season. I think it's important we have a few formations we can turn to, whether it be at the start of a game or during a game. There are a couple of systems we think the players can follow,” he explained to the Evening News.

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“At the end of the day, it's about making your players comfortable when they're out on the pitch. I like to get players into their right position as opposed to the opposite way round.

“We will have different systems that we use throughout the season. As the campaign evolves, we will need to adapt and change a little bit as players develop.”

Hearts’ ability to play a back three will rest heavily on who they recruit to deputise for the injured John Souttar. Christophe Berra is still overcoming a calf issue, leaving Craig Halkett as the only fit central defender with any experience.

A left-sided centre-back is the target but those are not readily available. Full-backs Michael Smith and Aidy White, plus teenager Chris Hamilton, have all filled in there so far.

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“When I was here last time, we started with a back four in games,” recalled Neilson. “When we were in possession, then we slid into a three.

“It's good to have that flexibility, especially in the Championship when we are expected to have the majority of possession in most games. Teams will sit in against us so we have to have a degree of flexibility in our formation.”

Full-back is another key area. In order to change instantly from a back four to a back three, full-backs with both defensive and attacking instincts are required. Hearts are grateful that right-backs Smith and Jamie Brandon, plus left-backs White and Ben Garuccio tick those boxes.

“We have some decent players in these positions who are good defenders but also give us a bit going forward,” said Neilson. “We're looking to recruit in the centre-half area with John Souttar being out long-term. That's a key one for us.”

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Arranging official friendlies to test the new structure is easier said than done given restrictions imposed by the Scottish Government. Hearts are testing players and staff for coronavirus regularly but are only permitted to play opponents who are doing likewise.

No team outside the Premiership is testing, though, so Neilson has had to get creative. Bounce games against Sheffield United at Riccarton and Burnley in Lancashire were particularly useful exercises. Beating St Mirren in Paisley also boosted morale.

"We have a few friendlies lined up provisionally but we can't commit to anything until we get the go-ahead,” said Neilson. “We are allowed to play games because we are testing our players, but we can only play against other teams who are testing. That means Premiership in Scotland or teams from England.

“It was good to get the boys out playing against Sheffield United and Burnley so we'll look to get a few more bounce games like that arranged. It’s been five months since they played regularly so it's an unusual thing to deal with in terms of organisation.

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“Usually, you have your pre-season all planned. You know when players are coming back, you've got games lined up and you know when your first game of the season is.

“The problem we have is still getting games. We can't play lower-league Scottish teams because we don't know when they will be allowed to play. They are talking about September 14 being a possibility but it's not certain so we can't really commit to that.

“Things are changing every week so we are constantly having to alter our plans in some way.”

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