Steven Naismith injury update as Hearts test unbeaten run at Arbroath and prepare to change defence
Improvement in Hearts’ defence underpins the eight-match unbeaten run they carry to Gayfield Park tomorrow.
Four goals have gone past goalkeeper Craig Gordon during that period, two of which were penalties. Tightening the rearguard helped build a 15-point lead at the summit of the Scottish Championship.
The Edinburgh club must do without Steven Naismith against Arbroath as the captain is not yet able to train because of a calf injury. He is the only absentee aside from long-term injury victims John Souttar, Josh Ginnelly and Jamie Brandon.
“Will he make Saturday? I don't think he will,” manager Robbie Neilson admitted to the Evening News. “I doubt he will be ready. We will take a look at him with a view to next week.
“It's still just a wee issue with his calf. He is just getting over it and we need to be careful with him. He had the same thing last summer and in pre-season and was out for a while.”
Five wins and three draws in the last eight games place a notably positive spin on some frustrating Hearts performances of late. Defensive resilience is a central factor in that.
Consistency of selection
Gordon is playing behind a settled back four of Michael Smith, Mihai Popescu, Craig Halkett and Stephen Kingsley. The consistency of selection benefits all concerned and Neilson is conscious of needing to keep his back line stable.
A right-back in his playing days, he reached considerably more giddy heights than the Angus coastal town which becomes his place of work this weekend.
In the Hearts halcyon days of the 2000s, he was scoring UEFA Cup winners in Basel, enjoying Champions League qualifying ties and achieving international recognition with Scotland.
All of the above were built on solid foundations. “It's really important that we are solid and strong at the back. We've managed to do that in recent games,” he said.
“We went through a patch where we lost a few goals but we pride ourselves on making sure we keep teams out of our goal to start with, and then scoring at the other end. We have seven games to go and we hope to win them all.
“Defending is a full team effort. We speak about strikers and midfield helping out the back four and the goalkeeper. We do a lot of work defensively, as we do on attack.
“There is a balance between the two. Teams who win the Championship generally have the best defensive record. We need to make sure we have that.”
At the moment, only second-placed Dunfermline have conceded fewer goals than Hearts. However, Neilson must make enforced changes to his defence after this weekend.
Missing two matches
Both Gordon and Smith will miss the next two matches – Tuesday’s Scottish Cup tie at Brora Rangers and the league match at home to Queen of the South four days later – whilst on international duty with Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively.
Striker Liam Boyce will also be absent as he joins Smith in Ian Baraclough’s squad. “The team is always evolving,” said Neilson.
“We've had a settled back four for the last wee while but we will lose Craig and Michael for a couple of games when they’re away on international duty. There will be a couple of changes so we need to get that settled while they’re gone.”
Ross Stewart will step in as deputy goalkeeper, but who fills in for the ever-reliable Smith at right-back is less straightforward. Jamie Brandon is injured and Hearts decided against signing an emergency right-back for cover because they didn’t like the options available.
That will mean someone playing out of position next week. The versatile left-sided full-back Aidy White played on the right in Sunday’s bounce game against Partick Thistle.
“We had a wee look at it. We haven't made a final decision on it but he can play over there,” said Neilson. “It's whether we shift one of the centre-backs out, or put a midfielder out there, or move one of the left-backs over. We will make a decision on it after Saturday's game.”
The immediate concern is getting three points at Gayfield. Hearts won 1-0 there last October before beating Arbroath 3-1 at home in December.
“They always make it difficult,” Neilson pointed out. “Dick Campbell is a very experienced manager and they have an experienced team. Their back four and goalkeeper haven't changed much in years.
“There have been a couple of wee changes in midfield with the lad [Miko] Virtanen going back to Aberdeen. They got Ben Williamson on loan from Rangers and he's been doing well.
“They also have good experience up front with [Bobby] Linn, [Dale] Hilson, [Michael] McKenna and the lad [Jack] Hamilton from Livingston, who has done very well for them. Very rarely does anybody go up there and dominate.
“We're doing fine at the moment. I'm quite happy with where we are in the league and we're looking to win every game through to the end of the season. There are different challenges every week in this league.
“Gayfield is one of them. If it's a nice still day then it will be fine but if you go up there and there's any wind at all then it's a different story. We just need to prepare for it and make sure we find a way to win the game.
“It's a tight pitch, the surface will be okay but it's all dependent on the weather. The boys are in good shape and we almost have a full squad to pick from.”