As a cultured continental midfielder, it is surprising to hear Arnaud Djoum state that Scottish football’s ferocity is actually making him a better footballer. You almost want him to repeat himself just to be absolutely certain he said it.
The Cameroon-born Belgian is still adjusting four months since joining Hearts, but feels the intensity of football in Scotland is improving his game. His performances quickly persuaded the Tynecastle club to convert his initial four-month contract into an 18-month agreement, and Djoum is thriving in amid the blood and thunder of winter in the Ladbrokes Premiership.
Others have arrived on these shores and bemoaned what is often perceived as a kick-and-rush style. However, Djoum enjoys the energy and fervour of games like Saturday’s at Rugby Park. Hearts fell 1-0 behind, recovered to lead 2-1 before reluctantly settling for a 2-2 draw on a hectic afternoon.
Djoum, 26, has played in Belgium, the Netherlands, Turkey and Poland without experiencing anything like the tempo of Scotland’s top flight.
“It’s always like this. I think you have two teams who like to play football but the rest like to play the long ball, to fight, to attack. That is a big difference for me but I like it,” he said in an exclusive Evening News interview.
“You always try to score goals and you enjoy trying to do it. I like this type of football. In other countries when I played, it is more keep the ball and not too much attacking. It is slowly, slowly, but here it is higher [tempo].
“This is better for me. I think that’s why I started well in competition here. I just have to keep going and work hard to help the team win more games.
“For sure, it is making me a better player. The intensity and the level of football is good. It is very fast and the other countries I played in were really slow. That’s why I’ve learned a lot playing this kind of football. I prefer to play this way.
“On Saturday, we controlled the game for the first 70 minutes because we had more of the ball and we tried to play football. We made good actions to score goals and they played more long balls.
“We scored to make it 2-1 and then Kilmarnock brought on another striker. They put some long balls and they got a lot of corners, so for the last 20 minutes we didn’t have any control of the game. It was difficult for us so we have to learn to keep the ball and play football.”
He is learning that, in an environment as competitive and cut-throat as the Premiership, that is far easier said than done. Hearts fans immediately noticed Djoum’s impressive technique, passing range and eye for goal after he joined the club last September. He scored three goals in his first six appearances, including one against Celtic, but has since been in and out of the side as head coach Robbie Neilson rotates his midfielders.
The player explained that he may have brought added pressure on himself by making such an instant impact. “The expectations from the people are more. I think a lot of people expect me to give even more to the team now. I will keep going and give Hearts the most I can. My target is to play a lot of games, to help the team and hopefully win as many games as possible.
“I have settled well, Edinburgh is a nice city with nice people. Since I signed my new contract, I feel very well. Now I just have to keep working hard and help the team.
“Our target for this season was top-six. Now we are doing better. We just have to focus on our game and not watch the league too much. If we do this, I think we can have a good season.”
Indications are Hearts are headed for European qualification if they sustain the form they showed in the first half of the campaign. Neilson’s squad is not exactly huge, hence the arrival of both Djoum and Danny Swanson to reinforce the midfield just weeks into the season. Now, options in the so-called engine room are plentiful and all protagonists are having to show a degree of patience.
Djoum started Saturday’s match alongside Prince Buaben in central midfield but, with the experienced and highly capable Morgaro Gomis and Miguel Pallardo on the bench, more rotation seems inevitable.
Neilson explained that having four central midfielders ensures plenty competition and is happy for those concerned to fight it out.
“We’ve got Morgaro, Prince, Pallardo and Djoum fighting for the two centre midfield positions,” he said. “Three weeks ago, Morgaro was champing at the bit trying to get into the team. He got in, then Pallardo was waiting, earlier in the season it was Buaben waiting for a chance. It’s good to have that competition and the players understand that the guys playing in those positions are good players.”
Djoum believes intensity like that can enhance his game and, with Hearts ready to go full-throttle in pursuit of European football, the second half of the season could become even more fierce than the first.