Tactical analysis: How Hearts and Rangers will play in the Scottish Cup final
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Robbie Neilson has prepared for weeks at Riccarton, while Giovanni van Bronckhorst and his team only returned to Glasgow on Thursday after losing the Europa League final on penalties.
Neilson will instruct Hearts to frustrate their opponents and capitalise on any fatigue from Wednesday night’s exertions in Seville. In that sense, ball retention will be central to his tactics.
He has a major decision to make in central defence regarding whether to start Craig Halkett and/or John Souttar after injury. Further ahead, Peter Haring’s composure and vision will be vital.
The Austrian is re-established as a vital component of Neilson’s team and is expected to be partnered in central midfield by Andy Halliday or Cammy Devlin.
Both teams have favoured 4-2-3-1 formations recently and, while a surprise cannot be ruled out, they are unlikely to deviate much.
Van Bronckhorst must choose his starting line-up wisely to inject fresh energy after a punishing 120 minutes midweek. Expect Scott Arfield to be restored in midfield, with Kemar Roofe or perhaps even Fashion Sakala involved in attack.
Joe Aribo scored from the “false nine” position against Eintracht Frankfurt, although he is more effective making marauding runs from midfield. Haring and Co must be alive to those periodic gallops and track them in order to help their defence.
Left winger Ryan Kent remains a constant menace with a mixture of pace and trickery. Rangers will want him to isolate opponents one-on-one whenever possible. After a troublesome back injury, Hearts will need Michael Smith at his best to deal with the Englishman.
The Hearts system is a more fluid one than Rangers’. Their 4-2-3-1 easily flips into a 3-4-2-1 when out of possession as one of the wide attacking midfielders drops back into a wing-back role.
A full-back in the back four then slides inside to form a three-man central defence, allowing Neilson’s side to configure a back five and use the greater numbers to stifle opposition attacks if under pressure.
Nathaniel Atkinson could be asked to start further forward in front of Smith with this tactic in mind. His attacking run drew the foul from which Stephen Kingsley arced that outrageous free-kick against Hibs in the semi-final. Alternatively, Josh Ginnelly, Gary Mackay-Steven and Alex Cochrane have performed wide man/wing-back duties previously.
In the final third, Hearts will hope Ellis Simms’ recent groin issues don’t inhibit his running power. The on-loan Everton forward also scored a stunning goal in the semi and will cause Rangers problems if given ample service. Which is where Barrie McKay comes in.
By far Hearts’ most creative outlet, McKay is enjoying a terrific first season at Tynecastle Park. His assist tally is into double figures across all competitions and it was his instinctive through pass which teed Simms up for that semi-final screamer.
The final should be a tight affair either way. Set-pieces might play a part – Kingsley on one side and James Tavernier on the other. It promises to be a fascinating contest.