The key tactics behind Hearts' early success in Scotland's Premiership
Three is indeed the magic number at Tynecastle Park just now. Hearts’ new-look defensive system is prospering and Premiership opponents are struggling against it.
The three-man back line plus imperious goalkeeper Craig Gordon were pivotal to Saturday’s 2-0 win at Dundee United, which kept the Edinburgh club joint-top of the table with city rivals Hibs.
Evidence of the 3-4-3 formation’s importance lies in their last two matches. Quite simply, Hearts look far more vulnerable when they flip to a back four. It happened in the second half against Aberdeen and a 1-0 advantage quickly became a 1-1 draw.
On Tayside, the same alteration midway through the second period helped United regain control of a match the visitors had dominated. Within 15 minutes, Robbie Neilson reinstated the back three and his team instantly looked comfortable again.
A fact underlined by Armand Gnanduillet’s late second goal, which supplemented Liam Boyce’s opener and completed a useful victory.
Hearts installed a three-man defence for the final five matches of last season in the Championship. They have yet to lose a league match since doing so. John Souttar, Craig Halkett and Alex Cochrane were the triumvirate at Tannadice and didn’t put a foot wrong.
Stephen Kingsley will return after illness, new arrival Taylor Moore savoured the final few minutes against United as a substitute, while Michael Smith can also fill in there if necessary. You could say the defence is as strong as the old castle rock.
“We were good today and you could see how we were trying to play. We were trying to keep the ball, move the ball, and pass the ball,” explained Souttar. “They came into a little more in the second-half but we got them on the break and scored a good goal.
It’s a result which keeps Hearts joint-top of the Premiership alongside Hibs entering the international break with ten points from the first 12. Domestic business resumes with the Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle a week on Sunday.
“We couldn’t ask for more. We have to build on it now,” said Souttar. “It’s a big game against Hibs at home. We have started well but have to continue this. It is two teams playing well and any derby is a good game.”
Young Cochrane, the Brighton loanee, enjoyed his finest performance to date in maroon, while Halkett and Souttar alongside him were similarly dominant. Aided by wing-backs Michael Smith and Andy Halliday there was a considerable barrier for United to break.
They struggled creatively but when they did get through, Gordon demonstrated why he will be Scotland’s first-choice goalkeeper for this week’s World Cup qualifiers. He produced three crucial saves to thwart Ryan Edwards, Ian Harkes and Charlie Mulgrew.
“People don’t actually appreciate how good he is,” said Souttar. “You think he’s good until you are with him every day. He’s the best goalkeeper in Scotland for me and he shows it week in, week out for us. He brings a calmness we maybe didn’t have last year. I run out of words to say.”
Dundee Utd (4-4-2): Carson; Smith, Edwards, Mulgrew, Robson; Mochrie, Levitt (Butcher 53), Fuchs, Sporle (Watson 68); Clark (Harkes 53), McNulty.
Hearts (3-4-3): Gordon; Souttar, Halkett, Cochrane; M Smith, Baningime, Haring, Halliday (Moore 82); Woodburn (Ginnelly 60), Boyce, Mackay-Steven (Gnanduillet 68).