Following on from the news Kye Rowles had joined from Central Coast Mariners, it was announced that Lewis Neilson would be coming to Edinburgh on a free transfer from Dundee United. But is the 19-year-old one for now? Or one for the future?
The most impressive aspects of Neilson’s game are his passing and confidence on the football. The ex-Tannadice youth product was a midfielder until moving into the centre of defence three years ago, a position he now considers his strongest. As a result, he’s got a poise about him in possession and can effectively pick out a team-mate.
Last season, in an admittedly small sample size having played just nine times for United, he ranked in the top 10 among all Scottish Premiership centre-backs for the accuracy of both his long passes and passes made to the final third. He’s also composed enough to step out of the defence and move into the space in front of him, thereby engaging the opposition and creating passing lanes when the situation demands it.
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This should come as little surprise as he can also operate at right-back, but it’s safe to say his future belongs in the centre. While he does have comfort in possession, he lacks the explosiveness and crossing ability to be anything other than a safe option on the right side of a back four.
He’s got the physical tools to be a strong centre-back. He’s broad, has a decent height and is fairly athletic. Though it’s apparent he’s still got a bit of learning to go in terms of mastering the position at the top-flight level. He posted a 56.76 percentage for defensive duel success last term, which ranked second last among top-flight centre-backs, while his 58 aerial-duel percentage was in the bottom ten also.
By contrast, he’s an excellent tackler, ranking third for slide tackles with 0.62 per 90 minutes and, yet, barely conceding any fouls (0.31 per 90 – second best).
So there is plenty there for Hearts to work with, but as the Gorgie Boys embark on a European adventure and look to solidify their place as the third strongest side in the country, and inch closer to the Old Firm, it’s hard to imagine Neilson starting too much for them next term.
Comparisons have been made with John Souttar, who also arrived at Hearts when he was 19 and immediately hit the ground running. But Souttar had made 73 appearances before moving. And while the Scottish international’s performances at Tannadice were subpar in the season prior to his Tynecastle switch, it was clear he’d become disullisioned in Dundee and needed a fresh start.
If Hearts want to continue with the 3-4-3 system as their default formation for next season, it feels like they still need to recruit another centre-back. Toby Sibbick, while often looking solid in the centre of the defensive trio when deputising for Craig Halkett, appeared a lot more unsure of himself when asked to play on the right of the three.
That’s the position where Hearts can’t afford too much of a drop in productivity following Souttar’s exit. The answer is likely still out there.