The sharp improvement of the Hearts defence - Souttar undroppable, Halkett stats, formidable Cochrane, reliable Kingsley and Smith

A nightmare five-day spell back in March has helped shape this Hearts side into what it is now, specifically the defensive resilience, fortitude and solidity.

Tuesday, 10th August 2021, 6:09 pm
Updated Thursday, 12th August 2021, 4:40 pm
Robbie Neilson has worked on the 3-4-3 shape over pre-season. (Photo by Paul Devlin / SNS Group)

Few fans will forget the double whammy of losing to Highland League side Brora Rangers in the Scottish Cup, followed by a 3-2 loss at home to Queen of the South in the Championship.

The club and the team have, however, moved on from that.

Hearts are currently on an 11-game unbeaten run, have won their last eight, including the first six of this campaign, while giving up just two goals.

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That loss to the Doonhamers at Tynecastle Park was a turning point.

Of the back four who played that day – Craig Halkett, Mihai Popescu, Christophe Berra and Aidy White – only one remains in the first-team picture and two have left the club.

It prompted a rethink.

A short-term solution was found in Shay Logan, signed on a loan deal from Aberdeen, which lasted five games but was necessary.

Alex Cochrane has been a shrewd signing. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

Then, with John Souttar regaining fitness to start, Hearts went from a back four to a back three. So far it has served the team very well.

Collectively, it has formed the foundation of the 3-4-3 system.

Restricted: Opposition chances

The team have looked far more solid, giving up fewer high quality chances. That can be seen in the team’s xGA (the number of goals Hearts were expected to have conceded). Only once since the switch to the back three has it crept above one.

John Souttar and Craig Halkett have been solid this campaign. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

Unsurprisingly that arrived against Celtic who recorded an xG of 1.39 from 18 shots – for context Hearts’ was 1.68 from ten shots. It shows the team have been better at making it difficult for the opposition, making them work a lot harder to get good chances.

On Saturday, St Mirren were restricted to just three shots on target.

Neilson has spoken about the work on the training ground over pre-season working on the formation. It is something which is still being worked on and tweaked. The team haven't reached their attacking potential, but defensively they are in fine shape.

Hearts were always going to be worked harder in the Premiership than they were in the Championship. But there is a clear organisation and defensive shape at work.

Christophe Berra is now at Raith Rovers (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

As the game progressed against St Mirren, the home crowd were getting increasingly frustrated with each thoroughfare they turned down, congested and ultimately a dead end, until Joe Shaughnessy took advantage of a second phase of play to get in between Armand Gnaduillet and Halkett.

It was one momentary lapse in a largely excellent defensive performance.

At times in the second half, Hearts were on the back foot as they were against Celtic but the back five became a barrier which St Mirren couldn’t overcome.

Defensive balance

Within the team collective there have been strong individual performances, aided by a balance of qualities at the back.

In Souttar, there is a defender who can progress the game really well with his passing. Halkett is strong and imposing and reads situations well. As for Stephen Kingsley, he gives the back three flexibility due to his experience at full-back, an ability to defend the wide areas competently as well as the capacity to step out with the ball.

On Saturday, Kingsley’s absence, Alex Cochrane continued his burgeoning start to his Hearts career, not looking out of place up against two experienced Premiership forwards.

“John is a really good defender but also on the ball he brings real quality and composure, passes the ball,” Neilson said.

"I thought all three of the back three did really well.

“Alex Cochrane. Asking a young kid to play left centre half against two really good strikers with physicality and he dealt with it really well. And Halks was just a colossus towards the last ten minutes, heading everything."

Neilson has spoken about adding to the backline before the transfer window shuts but it would be quite the signing to come in and replace one of the four who have started at centre-back.

Souttar and Halkett – the bedrock

Souttar is simply undroppable. He is in the shape of his life and is becoming a totemic figure for Hearts. The voice and leader of the defence.

His defensive qualities were there to see in the first 15 minutes, covering behind Halkett and Cochrane to sharply intercept before Eamonn Brophy could break into the box.

A Scotland return is a case of when, not if.

Then there is Halkett. He's a player who, it wouldn’t be unfair to say, splits opinion amongst supporters.

True, he has not reached the heights many expected following his move from Livingston. But this season, there have been suggestions he is about to get there.

As Neilson said he was a colossus towards the end of the St Mirren game.

He’s in his natural environment in the middle of a back three. That’s where he impressed so much against Livingston.

It allows him to act as a spare man almost. Steeping across to cover, placing himself in the areas to cut out crosses, make blocks and clearances.

Two games is a very small sample size but he’s won 85.7 per cent of his defensive duels, 76.9 per cent of his aerial battles and 81.8 per cent of loose ball duels so far. Compare it to his last Premiership campaign. Those three metrics were 63.6, 56.6 and 51.1 per cent.

A significant improvement, aided by the fact he has been set up to succeed with the system.

Hearts are currently in such a strong shape defensively. Michael Smith, Alex Cochrane and Stephen Kingsley are formidable and reliable defenders. The type which are very, very rarely going to let you down. Halkett and Souttar are the bedrock.

Chances are shaping up to be at a premium for opponents. And when they do get one, they only have to try and beat Craig Gordon.

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