If Craig Levein’s gut instinct is telling him to stick with the system that’s been working for Hearts so far in this wondrous campaign, there’s plenty of evidence to back it up.
Hearts have largely operated in a 4-4-2 on their way to eight victories from ten league games and just one defeat in all competitions. It is the formation he started with when Celtic came to town in early August – a deserved 1-0 triumph for the hosts – and the same formation he used for his toughest challenge this season, this month’s trip to Ibrox.
If the Hearts boss believes this is the best system to get Hearts into the final of a cup competition for the first time since 2013, expect a similar sort of team that defeated Dundee on Tuesday night to start at BT Murrayfield, but with the likelihood of Peter Haring and Olly Lee restored to the centre of midfield in place of Harry Cochrane and Oliver Bozanic.
Celtic at a neutral venue is a different proposition, however, especially now that Brendan Rodgers’ side appear to have shaken off their early-season cobwebs. They have plundered ten goals in their past two league games and have looked like a fluid, engulfing attack once more. Captain Scott Brown will be absent for the reigning Betfred Cup holders, but in Callum McGregor, Olivier Ntcham and Tom Rogic, they still have a plethora of skilled players in the midfield area.
As a result, the Hearts boss might be tempted to change things up and match Celtic in the centre, three-on-three. It worked to devastating effect when the sides met in Edinburgh for the first time last season, as Hearts ran riot in a 4-0 victory which ended Celtic’s 69-game unbeaten domestic run, so there’s reason for Hearts to be optimistic.
Levein may have tipped his hand with regard to this potential surprise. Against Dundee, Steven MacLean started and played the full 90 minutes in the 3-0 win. Lee was rested from the start, Haring wasn’t risked, Steven Naismith was substituted with around 20 minutes remaining, but MacLean stayed on. At 36-years-old, having started the last two and with an Edinburgh derby against Hibs coming right around the corner, will the veteran striker find himself in the starting XI for four games in 11 days? Craig Wighton is there as back-up, but the young attacker still has a way to go before he’s trusted to help lead the line in a game of this magnitude.
If Hearts do go with a midfield five there are a few options available. In the centre, Lee and Haring are certainties, assuming the latter is fit enough to play. That leaves Bozanic, Arnaud Djoum and Harry Cochrane fighting it out for the final spot. Cochrane only just started for the first time this season against Dundee, so expect him to take a place on the bench, even though he played well. The choice of the other two will indicate Hearts’ attacking intent. Djoum would likely operate as an advanced No.8 with Lee supporting in a 4-1-4-1, while Bozanic would sit deeper alongside Haring in a 4-2-3-1.
On the right it’s hard to see him going with anyone but Callumn Morrison. The young winger has two assists in as many games and gives the team a valuable out-ball. He’s also got the pace to stretch opponents, which could be vital as Celtic seek to pin Hearts in their own half for long periods.
On the other wing it’s very much up for grabs. Djoum has played there in a four-man midfield, drifting inside, though it remains to be seen whether the same tactic would work in a five, where he’d be asked to push forward a little more. Celtic right-back Mikael Lustig is no longer the attacking threat he once was, so it would free Djoum, or perhaps right-footed attackers Sean Clare or Danny Amankwaa to continually cut inside.
The defence has been very solid the past few weeks, though don’t be too surprised to see Ben Garuccio reinstated at left-back. The Australian made a late cameo against Dundee and his presence would allow Demetri Mitchell to be pushed forward, giving the side two natural wide players and a pair of runners on the left to track the pace of Celtic ace James Forrest. However, Levein tried this tactic against St Mirren and Livingston and seemed to go off it pretty quickly.
There is the option of going three at the back. Levein appeared keen to operate exclusively in such a system during pre-season, but the injuries suffered by Christophe Berra and John Souttar, along with fitness struggles of Aaron Hughes, have negated its use to this point. It would be quite the gamble considering Hughes, Jimmy Dunne and Clevid Dikamona have played just 13 minutes of football together.
Levein has got some tactical conundrums, but he’s got a squad that holds the solutions.