Defeat to Kilmarnock last weekend saw Hearts slip from the top of the table for the first time this season. In order to rediscover his side’s mojo, Craig Levein may consider altering the shape of his team for Saturday’s trip to St Mirren, as Craig Fowler writes
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The 4-4-2 worked wonders for Hearts earlier this season. It was one of those rare occasions in football when a team comes together and everything just seems to fit: the players complement each other all over the park and momentum steamrolls as the results rack up. Even after the injury to Uche Ikpeazu it still seemed to have its place. The battering ram, X-factor quality that the former Cambridge United striker brought was an absence still felt, but with Arnaud Djoum coming in off the left flank to work in the same area as Steven MacLean and Steven Naismith, Hearts had three attackers who could all contribute to an intricate passing attack. Bunching those players in that area also left space on the right-wing where, typically, Callumn Morrison would wait to receive the ball before whipping cross after cross into the penalty area.
Since Naismith joined Ikpeazu on the treatment table, things haven’t been the same, particularly from a results perspective. To be fair, two of the four games without victory, or a goal, came against a rejuvenated Celtic side. However, failure to score in consecutive home games against Kilmarnock and Hibs is a worry. As poor as Hearts have been at times over the previous two seasons, they still regularly turned it on at Tynecastle. In fact, you have to go back to January 2014 and Gary Locke’s tenure for the last time they failed to score in successive home matches.
Is a formation change the answer? It may not be. Against Kilmarnock, Craig Levein’s side had an Expected Goals mark of 1.56. Meaning, for their play, they should have scored at least once. Twice if you want to round up. That doesn’t include Steven MacLean’s disallowed goal, which Sportscene analyst Michael Stewart insists should have stood after it deflected off Kilmarnock’s Aaron Tshibola, rather than Hearts defender Jimmy Dunne, on the way through to the striker.
Playing to an expectation of scoring once or twice at home to Killie is hardly the most impressive statistic for Tynecastle readers, but we have to remember that this isn’t your typical Kilmarnock. This is Steve Clarke’s Kilmarnock. They’ve conceded just 12 goals so far this league season - an average of 0.92 per game. So while Hearts may not have played with the attacking verve witnessed earlier in the campaign, their performance was still better than most against the Ayrshire side. Given their injury problems, that’s pretty good going. Replicate that performance against St Mirren this weekend and victory should be a formality.
But sometimes it’s just better to change things up: inject a bit of freshness into the players and the squad in general; give them new roles, responsibilities; let some off the leash while reining back the freedom of others.
One option is a three-man defence. The injuries to Christophe Berra and John Souttar have perhaps negated its regular use over recent months. It appeared 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 would be the formation Levein would lean on the most prior to this season. Instead, the only time such a variation has been seen in recent months was the final 13 minutes of the 2-1 win over Aberdeen. With Berra back in training and both Aaron Hughes and Michael Smith capable of filling in alongside Jimmy Dunne and Clevid Dikamona at centre-back, it could be time to reintroduce it. It may help get the best out of Demetri Mitchell on the left flank. The Manchester United loanee has been solid enough since returning to the club, but has yet to hit the heights of his first spell as it appears he’s much more comfortable at left wing-back than in a four-man defence.
Of course, an issue with either of those is a lack of options in attack. At least one of Craig Wighton, Sean Clare, Danny Amankwaa or Jake Mulraney will need to take up a position up top or on the wing. While there’s still plenty of time to prove themselves, especially Clare and Wighton, these aren’t yet guys who can be relied on to produce consistently just yet.
A system which complements the strength of the available squad is the 4-2-3-1. MacLean’s strengths as the lone frontman lie in his ability to occupy defenders, drop into pockets of space and link with team-mates. If they can get three strong runners supporting him - say Mitchell on left, Morrison on the right, and Olly Lee from the No.10 position - then Hearts can really inject new life into this attack. Djoum would typically be viewed as the furthest forward of the three midfielders, with Peter Haring further back to protect the defence, but Lee gives the attack added power and a greater goal threat. Djoum previously occupied a deeper role in the side last season before his injury struggles, and his poise in possession could be the perfect foil to Haring’s all-action style.
Levein may be hesitant to go with this as he’s tried Aussie left-back Ben Garuccio on the same wing as Mitchell before, in both the St Mirren and Livingston games at Tynecastle, and didn’t seem to be satisfied with the result. But with Garuccio in better form he may be tempted to give it another go. Regardless, there’s plenty for the manager to ponder as he looks to return to winning ways.