Joel Sked gives his take as Hearts kicked off their Betfred Cup campaign with a 2-1 win over Highland League side Cove Rangers in the first competitive game at the recently-opened Balmoral Stadium.
This season’s style
It is clear that the 3-5-2 system is the formation going forward. The centre-backs and full-backs were worked hard in the warm-up recycling the ball from left to right and vice versa.
In new boy Peter Haring and John Souttar, who was played in the centre of the three, Hearts boss Craig Levein has two composed passers of the ball at his disposal in defence.
The stereotype of Craig Levein teams and Hearts in general is big, strong and physical, content to play it long. Yet, the former Scotland manager has clearly recruited players who can take care of the ball.
In Olly Lee, Oliver Bozanic and Bobby Burns, Levein has technicians in midfield. The latter two want the ball at feet, happy to take possession in tight areas and build the play. All three were confident in possession and should give fans comfort in the way they spread play to the wing-backs accurately and efficiently.
The midfield were utilised throughout as Hearts attacked Cove with pace down the flanks by getting the ball to the feet of the wing-backs or by cutting through the Highland League side with quick interchanges in the centre, looking to involve strike pairing Steven MacLean and Kyle Lafferty.
Following on from the previous point an issue raised as the game progressed at the Balmoral Stadium was a lack of creativity. Levein talked positively after the game about the creativity, which was on show in the first half as Hearts dominated.
However, when play slowed and Hearts weren’t getting the ball wide as frequently it was difficult to see where chances were coming from.
At one point in the second half the centre of midfield consisted of Bozanic, Burns, Michael Smith and Andy Irving before Uche was brought on to support a tiring Lafferty. But with the pressure mounting as Cove came back into the take Hearts ran out of ideas, leaving the strikers to create something out of nothing.
It was enough to raise slight concerns about how Hearts would adapt against stronger opposition who were more robust in the centre of the pitch, albeit with the caveat that this was the first competitive outing with a host of new players still building relationships.
Olly Lee could be the new Paul Hartley
The midfielder signed from Luton will be replaying one moment over and over in his head in the coming days. Exchanging passes with Steven MacLean, following some slick build-up play, Lee was put through on goal. Rounding the goalkeeper he could only hit the post from a matter of yards, if not inches.
There is no other way to put it than it will be one of the worst misses of the season.
However, it shouldn’t take away from a commanding performance. Stationed at the tip of the midfield three, Lee wants to get the ball and play forward or spread the ball to the wing-backs in advanced positions. From which point he looks to support the play at every opportunity. That was seen in his goal where he ran into a Kyle Lafferty lay-off and finished expertly, as well as the chance created by MacLean.
He had previously showed in pre-season he is a fine striker of the ball. Only early showings, the Englishman could be in line for double figures this season, becoming the sort of talisman like Paul Hartley or Bruno Aguiar.
Levein was often lamenting the lack of options he had on the bench, especially towards the end of the previous campaign. He can have no such complaints this season.
After an extensive recruitment drive the first-team squad is now 33 strong which discounts Malaury Martin, recent signing David Vanecek, as well as Daniel Baur, Euan Henderson and Kelby Mason.
Ryan Edwards didn’t make it off the bench against Cove, while the squad didn’t include Arnaud Djoum, Steven Naismith, Anthony McDonald, Harry Cochrane, Ben Garuccio, Danny Amankwaa, Don Cowie and Ross Callachan, with goalkeeper Colin Doyle set to join.
It can be looked at in a number of ways. But after the disjointed and undermanned squad last season it is a much needed change which should provoke healthy competition.
While the team may lack the quality which exists at Aberdeen or Hibernian, the squad depth is certainly much stronger. These options allow Levein to be more selective with the minutes for the talented young players with the hope that their development won’t be stifled by the sheer numbers.
Pace and width
Ask Hearts fans what was missing from last season’s squad and you would have been met with a number of responses. The main words being ‘pace’ and ‘width’. In Jake Mulraney Levein has found a player who falls into both categories.
Eyebrows were raised when Hearts’ interest in the player became known. The Irishman was far from a prominent player in his two seasons with Inverness CT and Levein admitted that his signing was low-risk.
Eyebrows were further raised when he played left-wing-back during pre-season. Yet, against Cove, he looked very comfortable.
Defensively he put in a sound performance. But going forward he excited fans with his positivity and pace. Cove’s No.2 was made to look as if he was stuck in a vat of jam as Mulraney constantly motored past him.
With the physical attributes in place, Levein will look to work on his end product which proved erratic. He, however, could have a similar impact in the top tier as Martin Boyle did when making the step up from the Championship with Hibs.
Eight players were handed their competitive debuts against Cove, including the previously mentioned Olly Lee and Jake Mulraney.
In goals Zdeněk Zlámal, nicknamed ‘Bobby’, had little to do with no chance at the goal, but he did make an impressive triple save, although the striker was flagged offside. He is very vocal presence behind the defensive line, something which irked John Souttar at one point.
Peter Haring played with composure on the right hand side of the back three, while proving his worth in the air. Oliver Bozanic complemented an impressive work-rate and combative approach out of possession with a level head with the ball. Bobby Burns was very similar, possessing a cultured left foot.
Steven MacLean scored his goal and contributed outside the box even if he was loose with the ball at times. However, the surprising aspect was that he played on the artificial surface having not done so latterly at St Johnstone. Uche Ikpeazu, in his cameo, provided sheer chaos. Cove players were merely bouncing off him when the ball was at his feet.
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