Hearts head to Pittodrie on Saturday looking to bounce back from the disastrous defeat to Livingston. Craig Fowler looks at what’s in store for Craig Levein’s men in the coming weeks.
Hearts: “Good news everybody! Steven Naismith is in line to make his return from injury against Aberdeen!”
Hearts fans: “Great... Can he play centre-half?”
The Scottish international’s return should give a struggling Jambos side a shot in the arm. They’ve desperately missed his quality and leadership in the final third as things quickly went from bad to worse while he’s been out. He’s the missing link that manager Craig Levein has been searching for, and largely failing to find, in his absence. It might not happen immediately, but things will get better when he pulls on a maroon jersey again. Unfortunately for his boss, the attack is no longer the only problem with the team at this moment in time.
Over the course of the last nine games, including the Betfred Cup semi-final where Naismith limped off after just a few minutes, Hearts have conceded 21 goals; a dreadfully poor average of 2.3 per match. Remember, this is a club, under the same manager, who broke a club record for consecutive clean sheets last season.
Injuries haven’t helped with John Souttar out until January at the earliest and Jimmy Dunne possibly out for the rest of 2018 also. As well as being part of the problem, this also hamstrings any possible solution with Clevid Dikamona also joining them on the sidelines. It leaves Levein with two fit first-team centre-backs: captain Christophe Berra and 39-year-old Aaron Hughes. The former is still getting up to speed after returning early from a torn hamstring, while the latter... well, the less said about his showing at Livingston the better.
Hughes was signed to a one-year deal to be a presence in the dressing room and a “break in case of emergencies” option. Regrettably, It was found in West Lothian that this particular fire extinguisher did not contain sodium bicarbonate but, instead, petrol. It’ll now be for Levein to decide whether he feels he can rely on Hughes to fill in over the next three games: away to Aberdeen, home to Hamilton and then an Edinburgh derby at Easter Road.
If he doesn’t then there’s the option of dropping Peter Haring back from centre-midfield. The Austrian was initially signed as a defender and should be able to cover there seamlessly. But Levein has already talked of his reticence over hauling the player out of the engine room as he finds his ability to break up play and devour second balls to be too important. The only other option would be to use Michael Smith as a makeshift centre-back. While hardly ideal, especially with youngster Marcus Godinho still feeling his way back from long-term injury himself, Smith has produced two of his more eye-catching performances during his Tynecastle career in the centre of the defence: the 4-0 win over Celtic last season and the recent victory over Motherwell.
A change at the goalkeeper position may also be considered. Zdenek Zlamal looked to have bounced back from his trio of errors against Celtic, Kilmarnock and St Mirren. He made a terrific save against St Johnstone from Scott Tanser, kept a clean sheet in the win over Motherwell and then produced two excellent first-half stops in Almondvale to keep his side in the game. But his indecision at coming for a high ball ended up costing Hearts a penalty against Livingston. Craig Halkett tucked it away and the roof soon caved in.
Levein sees the two experienced stoppers in training every day so he’ll have a better idea than anyone of whether bringing in Colin Doyle to give Zlamal some time away from the spotlight could improve the side’s fortunes on the park. The 33-year-old’s status as a Republic of Ireland international would suggest he’s more than capable of stepping into the fold, though the same was presumed of Viktor Noring when he sat on the bench as Jack Hamilton struggled in goals during Ian Cathro’s tenure. Noring was eventually given his shot and proved to be an even poorer option than the embattled youngster.
Further forward, it’s hard to think of what Levein can do that he hasn’t tried already to inject some life into the attack. This writer pushed for a Ben Garuccio-Demetri Mitchell partnership down the left flank, but there wasn’t much in the first half in Almondvale to suggest that was the perfect solution for the attacking problems.
Though Naismith will make things better there’s only so much one man can do. Mitchell, Callumn Morrison, Olly Lee, Steven MacLean, these were all attack-minded players in good form when Naismith went down. The latter is now returning to see the exact same players performing well below those previous heights.
Confidence is now a major problem and it’ll be interesting to see if the decision to cancel the squad weekend away in Prague was the right call. The players, not management, chose to stay at home and work on their game rather than drinking cheap lager in the Czech capital. From a PR perspective it’s undoubtedly the right thing to do. Supporters are disillusioned right now as their once promising season heads down the pan. One errant social media post revealing joyful hedonism from the same players responsible for such disillusionment would result in uproar.
But is staying in Edinburgh - freezing cold, miserable, grey, December Edinburgh - actually any better? Taking their mind off their current malaise and bonding as a squad may have been the perfect tonic.
They’ll have to come up with something, dig deep within themselves and arrive at Pittodrie next weekend in a much better place than they were at Livingston. Defeat on Saturday could conceivably see them drop six points behind their hosts in the league table, something which seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago - Hearts sat 13 points ahead of Derek McInnes’ men after Naismith’s last league appearance in October. And, regardless of the result against Hamilton, defeat at Easter Road would cause a disgruntled fanbase to turn mutinous.
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