Exclusive: Why Hearts' second half against Ross County changed Robbie Neilson's thoughts on break

With two consecutive victories under their belts for the first time since early October, the winter break could be seen as coming at a bad time for Hearts.

By Craig Fowler
Tuesday, 28th December 2021, 8:00 am
Hearts boss Robbie Neilson shakes hands with Jordan White after the 2-1 victory over Ross County at Tynecastle. Picture: SNS
Hearts boss Robbie Neilson shakes hands with Jordan White after the 2-1 victory over Ross County at Tynecastle. Picture: SNS

They will no doubt be looking to ride their current momentum and tighten a stranglehold on third place in the cinch Premiership, but head coach Robbie Neilson insists the showing against Ross County demonstrates the need for the top flight to shut down until mid-January.

His side defeated Malky Mackay’s visitors on Boxing Day with Michael Smith and Ben Woodburn scoring in an impressive first-half performance, but things were considerably different after the break with Jordan White pulling a goal back and County forcing a good few heart-in-mouth moments as the match drew to a close in front of an empty stadium.

The men in maroon would have been gearing up for a home contest with struggling St Johnstone before facing Hibs in the Edinburgh derby on January 3. However, government restrictions on crowds due to the increased spread of Covid-19 encouraged the top flight club to bring the winter break forward.

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"If the fans were here I’d say it was a shame we were having to go into a break off the back of two wins,” said Neilson, “but it’s not great without the fans, is it?

“If you’d ask me a week ago I would’ve said let’s just play these games, but having endured that second half, the flatness of it, we need the fans here.

“If you score after four minutes at Tynecastle the place is rocking and that energy carries you through the whole game. Even if you lose a goal at 2-1 the energy comes again, but it was just flat.”

The break does give time to stop and reflect on the season so far and from a Hearts perspective it could have scarcely have gone any better. In their first campaign back after promotion they sit third in the table with a five-point gap over nearest challengers Motherwell.

Most of the success has been built around a 3-4-3 formation which has allowed the side to control matches in the centre of the park and create enough opportunities in the final third to win matches, even when they’ve been a bit wasteful in the final third.

“Last season in the Championship we did a lot of 4-4-2, getting our good players in one-v-ones,” said Neilson. “But once we were back in the Premiership we looked at getting in the players that’ll suit the 3-4-3 and build the club up from there.

“It’s the job of myself and Joe [Savage] to get better players at each position. We’re bringing in Nathaniel Atkinson and hopefully a striker as well.

“The central-midfield two are very important. They need to give you balance. They need to get forward as you seen with Mick scoring against County. Sometimes if you play with just two sitting them you don’t have enough up front.

“We’ve been trying to get Cammy Devlin and Beni Baningime to do that as well, and to be fair they have. It’s about trying to develop them.

“I'm pleased with the system and we’ll continue to add to it with wee bits and bobs here and there, but the consistency is important for us.”

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