Robbie Neilson tipped to find a way to flex Hearts midfield muscle
One key area was in the middle of the park, where the team lacked the consistent presence of a robust ballwinner and strong physical presence, as Peter Haring’s absence was keenly felt.
The Austrian has been sidelined for well over a year with a persistent pelvic and groin complaint, but after several surgeries, and his return to the Capital for the remainder of his rehabilitation, the 27-year-old is hoping to be ready for the new campaign when it kicks off in October.
But, knowing Neilson as he does, his former Hearts captain Steven Pressley has backed the Gorgie gaffer to have a back up plan to ensure his side is not too lightweight to cope with the challenges ahead, particularly in such an important area of the park.
“If you look at the success that Robbie has had, even in the Championship in the past, he has always signed physical and robust midfield players who can sit in there and break things up, players who have a physical presence and protect the defence in the middle of the pitch,” said Pressley.
“You cannot underestimate, especially in the Championship in Scotland, the importance of winning the physical battle in the middle of the park. You have to win the second balls. People talk about the purity of football but, in that league, you have to win second balls and win the battles. It is really important and Robbie knows that which is why he has always had that kind of player in that position.
“At Hearts he will be hoping he can get that from Haring when he comes back from injury. But he will know he has to strengthen that area because it is an important battleground.”
At Hearts the first time round, Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben provided midfield bite, breaking up attacks and competing for possession. At Dundee United, Neilson had the likes of Calum Butcher.
The Tannadice player has already been linked with a move to Hearts to rejoin his former boss but the combative Englishman is under contract until 2023 and United have made it clear that they are not willing to part with him without hefty recompense.
So far, the Hearts boss has made just one signing, enticing Gordon to return to the capital club and is still looking for pace on the flanks and someone to perform that holding midfield role. With money tight, Pressley believes Neilson will focus on those specific positions and attributes, making it all about quality, rather than quantity.
“Many would argue that Craig has been very unfortunate that he didn’t retain the No.1 position at Celtic,” said Pressley, who operated in front of him for Hearts and Scotland.
“Hearts have got him at a brilliant age and at a time when he is very comfortable within himself. He doesn't just bring stability and reliability, he brings leadership and that is another crucial factor in a successful team.
“You need a number of leaders within that group and I believe Craig will bring that to Hearts. He is a terrific signing and he gives the defenders greater stability and confidence and I think they can all build from that.”
Heading into another Championship campaign as favourite, Pressley believes the man who guided United to the title last year knows that mental strength will be as vital as physical robustness.
“I think on the face of it there is no doubt that they go into the campaign as the strongest team,” added the former Carlisle United manager, who played over 270 games for the Gorgie club. “There will be pressure there and an expectation there but Robbie had that at Dundee United last year when he was expected to win so he has shown that he can handle that and hopefully the players can respond in the right way.”