The Hearts tactical change with key player back fit ahead of RFS tie

The tactical shape Hearts adopted against Celtic may well be pertinent in the context of Thursday’s Europa Conference League tie against RFS.

Robbie Neilson set his players up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, shifting to 4-3-3 going forward, and managed to plunder three goals against the reigning Premiership champions. Defensive frailties remain but it is reasonable to assume that, with centre-backs Craig Halkett and Kye Rowles fit, Hearts would have taken something more from Saturday's match than a 4-3 defeat.

Latvian champions RFS are next to visit Tynecastle Park and there is a case for employing the very same system given events in Riga six weeks ago. The 4-1-4-1 flipped seamlessly to 4-3-3 when Hearts attacked that night in the Skonto Stadium, earning a 2-0 victory and £436,000 from UEFA for three Conference League points. Three days later, they went to Fir Park and beat Motherwell 3-0 with similar tactics. They haven’t won since.

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Cammy Devlin anchored midfield on both those occasions, although against Celtic he was deployed alongside Robert Snodgrass in the middle as Orestis Kiomourtzoglou shielded the defence. A back four of Michael Smith, Toby Sibbick, Stephen Kingsley and Alex Cochrane offered balance even though the expertise of Halkett and Rowles was evidently missed.

“We had two natural full-backs on either side of the defence, which helps,” said Neilson. “Previously we had been shoehorning people into different positions because of injury problems. Getting Michael Smith back is a big bonus for us because it gives us that natural balance and allows Alex Cochrane to go back out to left-back. Then we have a right-footer and a left-footer in the centre with Toby Sibbick and Stephen Kingsley.

“That has probably been my biggest frustration recently. We have had to chop and change our shape simply because we haven't had enough defensive players to fill the roles we want to.”

At 34 and having just returned from a hamstring complaint, Smith is being used cautiously ahead of the RFS match. “We took Michael off on Saturday because we couldn't take a risk with him,” explained Neilson. “His hamstring started tightening up so, if you keep playing him for another 15 minutes, he could end up out for six weeks [if it tears] and we are back to square one.

“We decided not to take the risk in general with the next block of games coming up. He has just come back, we put him into a high-intensity game, he hasn't done a lot of training, so we need to be careful.”

Hearts coaching staff Lee McCulloch and Gordon Forrest flank manager Robbie Neilson at Riccarton training.

The manager was unhappy with Saturday’s outcome despite certain positive elements within the performance. “There have been periods in games where we have played like that and done well, then other periods where we haven't done it. We are still losing goals we shouldn't be losing. You can't score three goals and lose four in a game. It needs to be better.

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“People are giving us a pat on the back and saying we were unlucky. We should have won that game. We scored three goals against Celtic at Tynecastle, so we need to be better defensively. You want Celtic, Rangers and Hibs to come here and get turned over. We had them on the ropes, had them rattled. They had to turn to their bench and bring on £20million worth of talent to try and get over the line. We should at least have taken something out of the game.”