Sergio’s dilemma: too many options

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THERE aren’t many other sides in Scotland – probably none – outwith the Old Firm who could make eight changes from a side that drew away to Tottenham and still run out convincing winners over an SPL rival just a few days later.

It says much, therefore, about the strength in depth of the Hearts squad at present that that was exactly the luxury manager Paulo Sergio was afforded as he juggled saving face in Europe last Thursday with earning derby bragging rights in Sunday’s 2-0 win over Hibs. After their superb display in North London last week, all eight who dropped out could arguably have remained in the team without eyebrows being raised. Certainly, it was a surprise to many that David Templeton and Rudi Skacel dropped to the bench. Likewise, Scott Robinson and Eggert Jonsson did plenty at White Hart Lane to suggest they might have remained in the side. Of the other four drop-outs, it wasn’t a great surprise that, despite fine contributions against Spurs, Arvydas Novikovas, Gordon Smith and Jamie MacDonald made way for more established team-mates in the derby.

But the move which offered the biggest indicator of the raft of options available to Sergio came by virtue of the fact the burgeoning Ryan McGowan, described by Evening News columnist Gary Mackay as “the best player on the park” last Thursday, didn’t even make the bench. Also left out of Sunday’s squad altogether were Suso Santana and recent arrivals Mehdi Taouil and John Sutton, with the latter, despite being Hearts’ most-eagerly awaited summer signing, having now played only four minutes of the last three games. The sidelining of the former Motherwell targetman has lent credence to the notion that Sergio may favour mobility over physicality in attack.

Yet, despite all these changes, it was good, established players who came into the side for Sunday. Ian Black, Adrian Mrowiec, Marian Kello, Stephen Elliott and Ryan Stevenson were all integral to the side that finished third last season; new arrival Jamie Hamill already looks to be Sergio’s first-choice right-back; Andrew Driver’s ability is common knowledge to everyone in Scotland; and David Obua, after three seasons of struggling to convince fans, is now beginning to prove himself worthy of a place in the side.

There would have been an almighty backlash had this eightsome ruined the feelgood factor generated last Thursday by flopping in the derby. But the fact they made light work of their city rivals, allied to the prospect of some new additions to further bolster his pool before the transfer window closes tonight, means Sergio can enjoy the international break safe in the knowledge that he has an abundance of options at his disposal. This depth – and relative quality – of squad Hearts are carrying is the reason that, despite being five points adrift of Motherwell, they remain odds-on bookies’ favourites to finish best of the rest for a second successive season.

There’s a temptation to suggest Sergio almost has too many bodies to work with, and he may well feel that way privately, especially as it is only natural for any new manager not to fancy some of the players left behind by his predecessor. However, while the Portuguese may be keen to streamline his squad a little as he gets his feet under the table after a whirlwind start to his reign, all Hearts supporters know only too well that, given their club’s tendency to run up a lengthy injury list over the past few seasons, there is no harm whatsoever in being a tad overloaded with options. There has been an ongoing joke about the Hearts team of the past few years carrying in excess of 60 players, and, while there’s no doubt they have had too many on their books, the truth is that nowhere near that amount ever came close to establishing themselves as options for the first team. Now things are different and much of the credit for rectifying the balance of the squad must go to previous manager Jim Jefferies. When he first took over in January last year, he had plenty of players to pick from. The only problem was that this number included the likes of Christian Nade, Larry Kingston, Dawid Kucharski, Jamie Mole and David Witteveen, who, for one reason or another, weren’t going to be part of any long-term plan. Jefferies’ rebuilding work means that his successor now has excellent strength in depth, as well as spirit and character, right through the squad.

A quick glance at the Hearts roll call reveals that every position is well covered, perhaps with the exception of left-back, where Danny Grainger is the only obvious candidate. However, Skacel, Jonsson, Obua, Hamill and McGowan could all do a turn in the No.3 berth if required. And herein lies a further benefit of the squad which has been so carefully cultivated: it is loaded with versatility to the point where most players can operate in more than one position. Some will argue that footballers should have one specialised position, but there’s a more sensible train of thought that says good players can play anywhere.

By that logic, Hearts are suitably well off. Jonsson is “King Versatility”, having played pretty much everywhere apart from goalkeeper; likewise Obua, who can operate in defence, midfield or attack. Mrowiec, Hamill and McGowan can all play in midfield or defence; Stevenson, who is fast emerging as a big-game player after his latest derby goal, and Skacel can play anywhere in midfield or attack; and the wingers are all comfortable playing on either flank or even behind a central striker.

Speaking of central strikers, we haven’t even mentioned the injured Kevin Kyle, whose absence was pinpointed as the main reason Hearts’ title challenge faltered last term. It’s safe to say Sergio is going to have a few headaches picking his team in the upcoming months.