Following the news that Hearts stand-in skipper John Souttar and forward Uche Ikpeazu have been ruled out through injury until well into the New Year, Craig Fowler looks at how the Ladbrokes Premiership leaders can keep their 2018/19 season on track.
Hearts fans can be forgiven for being rather emotional after a sombre Thursday morning. Sitting top of the table, having lost one game all season, with a Betfred Cup semi-final to look forward to, their world was suddenly turned upside down by some surprise and unwelcome injury news.
John Souttar and Uche Ikpeazu, leading centre-back and striker of the current side, will be out of action for at least five months. Added to the long-term absence of captain Christophe Berra and that’s Hearts without three of arguably their five best players. Suddenly the immediate future doesn’t seem so bright. You know what they say, it’s the hope that kills you.
But perhaps not all is lost. Sure, it’s going to be near impossible to keep up the type of form they’ve displayed over the first part of the season, but it doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily drop like a stone and endure the kind of insufferable malaise that was the 2017/18 campaign. There’s enough talent left in the squad that this can still be a successful Europe-qualifying, Hampden-appearing, cup-winning campaign.
Craig Levein will already be past the emotional reaction to this weighty blow and planning his next move. Thanks to the massive influx of summer signings and some canny recruitment, he still has a number of options.
Firstly, Hearts could continue with the same gameplan they’ve used so effectively so far: the narrow 4-4-2 with at least one inverted wide midfielder. When Ikpeazu first went down with the foot injury that would eventually rob him of half a season, this was the system Levein used to record two wins and a draw from three games against Livingston, Motherwell and St Johnstone. For the victories over the latter two clubs, Steven Naismith and Steven MacLean partnered each other in attack. They are a pair that, on paper, aren’t a perfect match for each other. Neither are particularly fast or big, but they’re both incredibly intelligent strikers, capable of creating, scoring and bringing others into play. Hearts netted six goals in those two games where they played together and could have tallied a few more.
Naismith has been moved around the attack so far this season, but without Ikpeazu expect to see him play almost exclusively up front until his colossal team-mate is back fit. That is unless Levein decides to change the formation. The remaining pieces fit quite nicely into a 4-2-3-1 with two natural wingers, or a 4-3-3 with Naismith again moved into a role where he starts on one of the flanks but typically moves inward. Either would allow Peter Haring, Olly Lee and Arnaud Djoum to play together in the centre of the park. If Djoum can get back to top form and the other two continue their excellence from the early part of this campaign, that’s a formidable trio capable of controlling matches from the midfield area.
The 4-2-3-1 would also present another opportunity for Ben Garrucio and Demetri Mitchell to prove they can play in the same team. Garuccio dropped out of the picture after a pair of below-par performances playing on the same flank as the Manchester United loanee, but Mitchell has looked a little shaky defensively since superseding the Australian at left-back.
Fans will also be waiting with anticipation to see if Sean Clare lives up to his billing. The right-sided playmaker was reportedly on the radar of English Premier League clubs and his signature was hailed as quite the coup by his new manager. Callumn Morrison has already impressed on the wing so far this season, but if Clare can take it up a level or two then Hearts will be stronger as a result.
One option that has been mooted by fans is restoring Haring to the centre of defence. The Austrian was signed as a central defender before it was discovered he was one of the best all-action midfielders in the country. His importance in that area, however, would suggest he’ll only be put back into defence as an emergency measure, such as an individual’s loss of form or another serious injury to the centre-back corps. Fellow summer signing Oliver Bozanic can step into the midfield if required, while Harry Cochrane is back in training, but there’s nobody in the squad who can do the work Haring can. He hoovers up second balls like he’s got a sixth sense for where the bounce will take it, and he provides a burst of energy which helps Hearts at both ends of the park.
As a result, Levein will probably shy away from a three-at-the-back system, though he may use it as a curveball as veteran Northern Ireland internationalist Aaron Hughes is back fit. Michael Smith - suspended for Saturday’s clash with Aberdeen - could also be utilised as an auxiliary centre-back, especially with young right-back Marcus Godinho nearing full fitness following six months on the sidelines (are Hearts players allowed to be out for anything less?). Smith, of course, performed diligently at centre-half in the 4-0 win over Celtic last season, albeit alongside Berra.
As we’ve covered though, this is still a strong Hearts squad. The players and management staff would be doing themselves a massive disservice if they allowed everything to fall apart. Tynecastle remains a great equaliser and, even with the three body-blows they’ve suffered so far this campaign, any team coming to Gorgie should be fearful of defeat.
Where these latest injuries will hurt will be in matches away from EH11. To regularly defeat opponents away from home, you need a solid defence, threats on the counter-attack and someone in attack that can make something happen from nothing. Hearts have been sorely hampered on two of those three counts and the resolute nature of this team will be tested to the max on the road now.
For the meantime, there remains three tough but ultimately winnable league fixtures October - Aberdeen at home, Dundee away and Hibs at home - and a Murrayfield semi-final meeting with a Celtic side who still have an air of vulnerability about them. Getting through those matches has not been made any easier for them, but it’s far too soon to be writing off Hearts just yet, even on the back of today’s devastating injury news.