Following a winless run that stretched from the end of August until the middle of October, Hearts appear to have turned a corner, both in terms of results and defensive solidity.
Despite winning their first five games of the season, Robbie Neilson’s defence appeared somewhat porous, until last week having only kept one clean sheet all season. A second came last Sunday at Tannadice, and the Tynecastle club made it two in a row after Saturday’s 2-0 win over Ross County with goals in either half from Calum Paterson and Osman Sow.
That it was achieved after playing nearly the entire second half with ten men will have been doubly pleasing for Neilson after Blazej Augustyn was shown a straight red for bundling over Liam Boyce when in on goal following slack play from Igor Rossi. Neilson however, had no argument with Alan Muir’s decision to dismiss his captain.
“It was difficult to say at the time without seeing it but it’s all dependent on Igor Rossi” he explained. “The referee makes his decision and you need to stand by it but it’s just one of those things. He had to try and make some sort of tackle and the player gets in front of him and goes down. If he’s the last man then fair enough.”
The Hearts head coach had previously been in hot water for revealing that his team practised playing with ten men ahead of a 3-2 defeat by Hamilton, but that work was evident on Saturday when his players not only held firm against Ross County, but increased their lead in the second half.
Neilson was pleased with the manner in which Hearts stifled County’s attempts to get back in the game. “I’ve said before, and it got me into trouble, but we do practise with ten men,” he said. “It’s just about keeping our discipline. We kept our shape, we were compact, dealt with the crosses into the box and hit them on the counter attack. It was a good performance.
“Everyone wants to keep clean sheets, especially the defence and the goalkeeper – it’s great for them. Not just the defence, but the whole team worked hard. Osman Sow played 90 minutes working side to side, 40 minutes without a strike partner so the whole team worked together to get three points.”
Jordan McGhee’s versatility was again put in to practice as the teenager was handed his first league start of the season at left back in place of Juwon Oshaniwa, who was forced off in the second half of last week’s 1-0 win at Tannadice.
Arnaud Djoum was also given his first start since joining on a short-term deal, the Belgian anchoring midfield alongside Prince Buaben in what was his maiden outing in front of the home support in Gorgie. Jamie Walker’s inclusion made it a trio of changes for Neilson, hoping his creativity could help the Jambos score a first goal from open play since the 3-2 league cup win at Kilmarnock last month.
That objective was achieved after just 15 minutes. Sam Nicholson twice tried his luck from the edge of the area and twice saw his attempts blocked. The second fell nicely for Paterson, on a trademark surge forward from right back, and he only had one thing in his mind when he stepped forward and unleashed an unstoppable first-time drive that flew into the far corner, leaving the diving Gary Woods without a prayer.
“In games it’s one of my best but in training I score goals like that all the time,” joked Paterson afterwards. “It was a bit of a fluke the way it fell to me but happily I put it in the back of the net.”
Walker was another returning player looking to make his mark, and forced Woods to parry a low curling effort soon after as Hearts went in search of a second. He was even closer five minutes before the break when he exchanged a one-two with Nicholson before hitting a dipping volley that Woods acrobatically tipped over the crossbar.
It seemed the second half would produce more of the same when the same two combined again only for Walker to fire wide. Failure to score a second up until that point looked like it would prove costly when Rossi’s error resulted in Augustyn taking one for his teammate in fouling Boyce, ending his afternoon prematurely.
With most inside Tynecastle expecting a long, nervy afternoon from then on, Hearts unexpectedly doubled their advantage.
Sow’s physical presence, pace and trickery had proved troublesome for County, and the Swede broke down the left before helping the ball on to Walker. He in turn picked out Sow’s run into the box, and after a poor first touch looked to have thwarted him, he managed to force the ball home after Woods failed to gather for a deserved goal.
That seemed to sap any belief County may have had, with substitute Mark Curran’s miss-of-the-season contender from two yards the only real scare as another rejigged Hearts backline dealt with everything Jim McIntyre’s men came up with, which admittedly wasn’t all that much.
If anything, the home side looked the more likely to add the scoreline on an afternoon when 2-0 certainly didn’t flatter the ten men.
Neilson was also encouraged by full debutant Armand Djoum’s performance in natural central midfield berth.
The Belgian impressed not only with his ability to break up County’s play, but showed good feet and a willingness to get Hearts going in an attacking sense.
“I thought he did well,” Neilson said. “He’s played for the under-20s and his fitness is coming on. He’s still not quite at it yet but he’s a good player. He played top flight in Holland for six years, in Poland and Turkey as well so I expected to get a good performance from him.”
Hearts are now looking ahead again, still very much involved at the top end of the Ladbrokes Premiership with league games against Partick (away) and Hamilton (home) to come.