Hearts analysis: The squad is being stretched too thin and a tough decision may be required

Craig Gordon, Michael Smith, Craig Halkett, Kye Rowles, Stephen Kingsley, Cammy Devlin, Peter Haring, Alan Forrest, Liam Boyce, Barrie McKay, Lawrence Shankland.

You can swap in a Jorge Grant here, a new signing there, but regardless, this is the third best starting XI in the Scottish Premiership. It also underlines the tremendous progress that’s been made at the club since the 2020 premature relegation. Seven of that 11 have been brought to Tynecastle in the time since. Bobby Zlamal, Clevid Dikamona, Loic Damour, Oli Bozanic and Lewis Moore all started the 1-0 loss to St Mirren shortly before the first lockdown. With all due respect to those players, they’ve got nothing on the names mentioned above. But there’s been a number of problems which have prevented Hearts from looking at their best for a number of weeks now.

Firstly, injuries. Every club has them, but Hearts do seem to have been a little unfortunate to begin this campaign, particularly with the members who’ve been effected the most. The team above? There’s only been one match this campaign where they’ve all been fit and available. That was Zurich away. Even then the collective health lasted mere minutes before Craig Halkett was forced off with a hamstring problem and has yet to return. In the time since, Rowles and Boyce have suffered significant injuries with the latter expected to miss most of the campaign.

Secondly: the depth and how the squad rotation is being used. So far it’s been quite aggressive from manager Robbie Neilson. With justification, it should be said. Ascension into European group-stage football combined with a crammed pre-Christmas schedule due to the shutdown for the Qatar World Cup means Hearts are in the midst of a punishing run of fixtures, which they should now get a much-needed breather from with the decision to postponement matches due to the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

A frustrated Lawrence Shankland during Hearts' 4-0 loss to Istanbul Basaksehir in the Europa Conference League. Picture: SNS

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Hearts never get to play that team above, or anything close to it, because there always seems to be a fitness or injury concern. There’s no continuity throughout the team, a particular problem in defence where they’ve looked alarmingly porous. Players are dropping in and out of the starting XI every game, and there isn’t the same quality coming into the starting XI for those who drop out.

Thirdly, this has been partially down to how Hearts assembled the squad this summer. Robbie Neilson talked up the need for Hearts to bolster by three-to-four players on last season’s unit. Five first-teamers left and nine have arrived, so you could say Hearts have done just that. But through either choice or by requirement, they had to wait until the end of the window (and the days which followed) to bring in three players in order to hit their target. It means the squad has been limited through the opening ten games and may still be for a few games yet while the new arrivals – Stephen Humphrys, Zander Clark, Robert Snodgrass and Orestis Kiomourtzoglou, who is still waiting on his visa – get up to speed. The silver lining is that things should improve, and they already sit in joint-third.

Which brings us to problem four: diminishing confidence. Neilson spoke about it prior to the 4-0 loss to İstanbul Başakşehir. The hectic schedule has already drained a bit of the energy from the players’ legs. In order to offset this issue you need a bit of a spark, a bit of verve, a bit of belief for the players to have in themselves and those around them.

Looking at Hearts’ results, three wins in ten, doesn’t make for great reading, though context should be applied. Three loses were to stronger opponents in Europe, while another was Celtic at Parkhead. But here’s the tricky part. Regardless of the quality of opposition, winning breeds confidence and thus makes both teams and players stronger for when the tougher challenges come. Losing has the opposite effect. You get thumped by mightier foes and suddenly taking care of Livingston away or Kilmarnock at home doesn’t seem as straightforward a challenge. Haring, as an example, has been largely excellent in domestic competition in 2022. You wouldn’t be surprised if his performances in Europe so far, where he’s struggled mightily, have a negative impact on the rest of his game.

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From the way Neilson spoke all summer, Hearts were determined to confront the challenge of competing in Europe and remaining best-of-the-rest in the Scottish top flight. But it does seem like the club have underestimated the difficulty. Or perhaps they knew exactly what was required but a slow transfer market has hindered their goals. They chased a number of attacking targets which they didn’t manage to get their hands on, while there’s a couple of players in the squad who have perhaps stuck around only because there were no willing buyers.

In order to effectively rotate in such an aggressive man to keep the team firing in both domestic and European competition, more quality in reserve needed to arrive and it needed to come sooner. Guys like Josh Ginnelly, Gary Mackay-Steven, Nathaniel Atkinson and Andy Halliday, they’re perfectly fine back-ups to bring into a team that’s already clicking. But so many times this campaign the team has looked threadbare and patched together.

It’s clear at the moment stretching the squad this thin isn’t working and could derail their campaign before it even gets properly started. Should they fail to gain the desired result in Latvia next week (providing the game goes ahead) it may already be time to think about prioritising domestic matters over Europe.

Then they can focus on getting third place again, reaching the same stage of European competition and using an additional two transfer windows to build the squad into something capable of excelling in both.

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