Joel Sked gives his take on Hearts’ 5-0 Betfred Cup victory over Cowdenbeath which keeps progression to the knockout stages in their hands.
Work in progress
You restart your computer so it can install the recommended updates. You come back an hour later only to see the loading icon staring back at you and the update holding at 18 per cent. That is Heart of Midlothian at the moment.
Across 270 minutes of Betfred Cup action against a Highland League side, a full-time team who failed to gain promotion from the third tier and the team who finished bottom of League 2, Hearts have impressed for around 90 minutes, 45 of which came against ten man Cowdenbeath.
The intensity at which the team played with against Cowdenbeath, the pace of the passing, especially in the first half, was in keeping with a particularly tedious update.
The Betfred Cup has proved problematic to Ladbrokes Premiership sides. Hearts and former boss Ian Cathro know only to well from last year’s experience. This season Dundee, Hamilton and St Mirren have made it extremely difficult for themselves to progress.
As did Hearts. The Andy Irving situation, whereby the club were deducted two Betfred Cup points and fined for fielding the ineligible player, has not helped with the pressure put on the side from fans. With so many new players it was always a risk that they won’t gel and with it judgements being jumped to.
Aside from the general struggles in the Betfred Cup, there are further similarities to last season. There has been extensive recruitment drive undertaken with the aim to set the team out in a 3-5-2 formation, and early signs have not offered a huge amount of optimism. Yet, there are positives.
In recovering to earn a draw against Raith Rovers and turning a frustrating evening against Cowdenbeath into a comfortable one, Levein switched from the back three to a back four with Anthony McDonald emerging from the bench on both occasions.
With a deep squad and a number of options it is only natural that Levein uses the pre-season and competitive cup games to formulate a plan on what he thinks is the best team in the best structure. And, unlike last season under Cathro, Levein has built a more balanced team with greater flexibility.
The proactive change to bring McDonald on in the first half and switch formation against the Blue Brazil is certainly progress from 12 months ago.
A burgeoning strike partnership
Much of the positives against Cowdenbeath have to come with the caveat that the League 2 side played for nearly an hour with ten men after former Hibs player Martin Scott was correctly sent-off for a dangerous tackle on Christophe Berra.
However, Steven MacLean and Uche Ikpeazu both delivered encouraging performances in attack. Throughout the match the experienced Scot offered himself as a focal point to play off, showing his intelligence in linking play, flicking balls around the corner or out-wide. He also had the determination to get into goalscoring positions.
MacLean linked well with Ikpeazu when the 23-year-old replaced Kyle Lafferty after the Northern Irishman had another nondescript outing as he gets up and running ahead of the league season.
By that point Cowdenbeath were providing the game with more physicality but Ikpeazu got the Hearts fans on his side immediately when he challenged Cowden goalkeeper David McGurn for a high ball, much to the anger of the visitors.
It was soon followed by an excellent turn and finish from the edge of the box. By the end of the game fans were very much behind the powerful striker who caused mayhem with his size, strength and pace.
The midfield conundrum
A look at the Hearts line-up before the game suggested Michael Smith would return to the centre of midfield alongside Andy Irving with Steven Naismith supporting the two strikers. In reality it was very different with centre-back Peter Haring pushed into midfield. The Austrian and Naismith played in front of Irving.
With a host of central midfield options going forward into the coming season it was confusing for the home support to see a centre-back in such a position, often the most advanced of the midfield, and Naismith so deep.
Haring offered glimpses of why he would be of benefit in such a position, mainly breaking into the box to get his head on crosses as well as winning aerial battles in the midfield. He wasn’t scared to put himself about or get on the ball but too often he tried a cross field pass which ended in the stands rather than with a team-mate.
It didn’t suggest a long-term solution but a possible in-game solution if Levein wants to change formation.
As for Naismith, in the second half he was often dropping very deep to get the ball from the defence and start attacks with the suggestion Levein sees him as a midfielder rather than forward.
There is no question he has the tenacity, experience and knowledge to play a midfield role but it will be interesting to see how Levein frames a midfield with extensive options such as Olly Lee, Oliver Bozanic, Harry Cochrane, the returning Arnaud Djoum and Ryan Edwards who has seldom been seen.
The problematic left hand side
Jake Mulraney displayed his pace in the first two Betfred Cup fixtures. Against Cowdenbeath it was a the turn of Australian Ben Garuccio.
The 23-year-old has predominantly played as a left-back but adapted well to the more advanced role early on before returning to his more natural habitat.
He was sharp and positive in what he did, offering a good attacking outlet in deep positions and a willingness to cross.
Early signs but Garuccio should be a positive addition.
Still a pathway for youth
With so many new faces there could have been a fear that the club’s young talent would drop down the pecking order and find the pathway into the first-team a harder task.
That doesn’t seem to be the case with academy talents playing both a supplementary and important role.
Callumn Morrison was the most promising outlet for breaking down a resolute defence in the first half. With the arrival of Anthony McDonald he was switched flanks and wasn’t as involved. McDonald took on the baton and looked to get involved at every opportunity.
Both have played with a freedom which has not been replicated throughout the whole team.
The likes of McDonald and Cochrane won’t be relied upon nearly as much as last season but there are promising early signs that youngsters will be given the opportunity to contribute.
• READ MORE: Six things we learned from Raith Rovers 1 - 1 Hearts
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