How will Hearts cope with the absence of Steven Naismith?
With Steven Naismith the latest name to be added to Hearts' injury list, Patrick McPartlin looks at how the Jambos can get by without his influence
The absence of Steven Naismith for the best part of two months is the latest blow to hit Hearts this season following long-term injuries to Christophe Berra, Uche Ikpeazu and John Souttar.
Yet despite the loss of influential players Hearts remain top of the Scottish Premiership, have a five-point lead over their nearest rivals and reached the last four of the league cup. Even losing Kyle Lafferty to Rangers during the summer wasn’t viewed as a big setback because of Hearts’ recruitment during the close season and strength in depth.
The next few weeks are crucial; not in terms of holding onto top spot - although that would be a bonus - but in terms of maintaining the upward trajectory the club has enjoyed in recent months.
An Edinburgh derby against city rivals Hibs without Naismith, who netted the winner against Neil Lennon’s side in May, suddenly looks a little daunting. It’s not just the 32-year-old’s goal threat - 11 in 16 in all competitions so far this season - but how he coaches his team mates through matches. “Maybe he could get manager of the month for doing my job on the pitch,” was Craig Levein’s line earlier this month.
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There’s also the possibility of a ban for Steven MacLean following his clash with Eboue Kouassi at the weekend, and the prospect of Hearts having to play Celtic at Parkhead with Craig Wighton as the only available forward.
The Jambos have five forwards out on loan - Rory Currie, Euan Henderson, Aidan Keena, Conor Sammon and Dario Zanatta - but recalling any of the quintet outwith the transfer window isn’t possible, and with David Vanecek not due to arrive until January from Czech side FK Teplice, Levein is likely going to have to shuffle his pack with what’s left at Tynecastle.
For the visit of Hibs, at least, Levein can play three at the back with MacLean and Wighton up front, the 4-4-2 double 6 that has served him well on league duty, or a 4-2-3-1 formation with one striker starting and the other on the bench.
There are several players who could replace Naismith tactically, if not influentially. Arnaud Djoum slotted in behind the front two away to Motherwell, while Harry Cochrane can also operate as a No.10.
Sean Clare is pushing for a start in the derby and his presence in the midfield could allow a player to be pushed into a more advanced role, or Levein might want to use his height further forward.
There’s no doubting Hearts have a strong squad, even with their current list of casualties. Levein’s options in midfield, and even the ability to push Demetri Mitchell forward and slot Ben Garuccio in at left back mean that Hearts have plenty of options for adapting to life without Naismith.