Which areas of the Hearts squad require the most urgency with regards to new signings?
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Michael McGovern is the only player to arrive to this point, but even though the 39-year-old does fill a void within the squad as the team needs a reliable back-up at the goalkeeper position with Craig Gordon still recovering from a broken leg and Zander Clark already picking up an injury in pre-season, it hasn’t pacified supporters demanding a fresh injection of talent into the team.
Even if a tear-down and rebuild isn’t necessarily required, with Steven Naismith saying they’ll only be looking to bring in three to six players (departures depending), there are still areas of the team which need urgent attention.
A centre forward (with pace)
The return of Liam Boyce from long-term injury gives Hearts two very good forwards at this level as he rejoins last season’s leading goalscorer Lawrence Shankland. However, there’s a similarity to both players which would suggest they’re not suited as strike-partners. Primarily, neither player has pace and is therefore much of a threat running in behind opposing defences.
Josh Ginnelly was excellent doing so in the second half of last season and he’s exactly the kind of player Hearts need to be recruiting. Even when Ginnelly wasn’t at his best, his presence alone caused problems for the opposition. He was always looking to make runs in behind, or even going to the corners to give the option of an out-ball whenever Hearts were under pressure.
The 2-1 win over Aberdeen toward the end of the season was a good example of Hearts with and without him in the team. Yes, he scored an incredible effort which brought his side back on level terms, but even putting that to one side, there was a marked difference following his second-half substitution due to injury. Aberdeen immediately pushed 20 yards further up the park and a game Hearts had been dominating suddenly flipped on its head, with the visitors putting the hosts under considerable pressure as the game drew to a close.
Opponents squeezing Hearts in their own half, hindering their efforts to win the territorial battle, is something which will happen regularly if they don’t get a pacey forward in the door.
A centre-back (who can head it)
Regardless of profile, a centre-back is required as James Hill’s exit and Craig Halkett’s injury means Hearts will be going into the campaign with only Toby Sibbick and Kye Rowles as experienced first-team centre-backs.
At 24 and 25, respectively, both are also still quite young for central defenders. And while there’s a natural coalescence of sorts with one being right-footed and the other a lefty, there too exists an issue here with both players being a little too similar. They are each comfortable on the ball, are solid defensively in some aspects of the game – speed for Sibbick, anticipation for Rowles – but neither are physically dominant at this level. Sibbick is better in the air of the two, but none of them hold a candle to Halkett, and the latter has been hugely missed since his ACL tear with Hearts becoming a complete liability at set-pieces in his absence.
A right-back (who is defensively sound)
Nathaniel Atkinson was given a reprieve under Steven Naismith after Robbie Neilson seemingly lost all faith in the Aussie right-back, and he repaid the then-caretaker boss with some strong performances leading up to the end of the campaign.
He may now be ready to live up to the initial promise he showed when arriving from Melbourne City and be the first-choice right-back across the course of the campaign. But even if he is, a back-up is required, particularly one who could rotate in for Atkinson when facing tougher defensive assignments as the Socceroos international hasn’t always looked the most reliable at that end of the park.
A centre midfielder (who can graft)
Hearts are reportedly on the verge of concluding a deal to sign Australian centre-midfielder Calem Nieuwenhof, who would fill their need for a centre-midfielder after Orestis Kiomourtzoglou was sold back to his native Germany and Robert Snodgrass was frozen out in the latter stages of the campaign before his contract expired.
Nieuwenhof is described as a combative player who typically prefers to operate as the more adventurous member of a sitting central-midfield duo, much like Cammy Devlin but he reportedly has better poise and passing range when in possession.
With Peter Haring, Beni Baningime and Andy Halliday also on the books, this may not seem like a priority on the signing front, but Baningime is coming back from a long-term injury, Haring has had his issues on that front throughout his Hearts career, and Halliday, by his own admission, didn’t play well under Naismith as co as last season drew to a close. It’s also likely Hearts will routinely line-up with two sitting midfielders to balance out having two wingers, so adding another option makes sense.
A centre midfielder (who can score)
Shankland or Boyce will likely play as the No.10 once a pacey striker is signed, while there’s also Jorge Grant in the squad. Therefore, another attacking midfielder is far down the list of priorities. However, it is a bit of an issue that Hearts don’t have many midfielders capable of scoring between seven and ten goals across the course of the season.