The numbers behind Josh Ginnelly's improvement as speedster arrives at crucial juncture in his Hearts career

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A couple of high profile departures, a raft of injuries and extra stress placed on the squad due to European football somehow haven’t derailed the Hearts express as Robbie Neilson’s side hold a four-point lead in their so-far-retained best-of-the-rest spot in Scottish football.

The success of the previous transfer window is a huge reason for that. The loss of John Souttar was offset by the arrival of Kye Rowles, Lawrence Shankland’s exploits mean Ellis Simms hasn’t been missed, while additions like Robert Snodgrass, Zander Clark and Stephen Humphrys have proven to be hugely beneficial.

While it’s always good to shrewdly improve a squad through the transfer market, it’s always rewarding to see positive development in an existing player from one season to the next. Alex Cochrane has been getting a lot of plaudits for doing just that and is in the running as Hearts’ player of the year. But there’s another 21/22 regular who has taken his game up a level: Josh Ginnelly.

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The winger arrived prior to the start of the club’s lone season in the Championship. Despite there being nobody in the grounds, Ginnelly was immediately able to wow the Hearts faithful with an excellent goal and performance on his debut against Dundee. He later changed the course of the Scottish Cup final after coming off the bench to lift the underdogs out of a two-goal deficit and eventually scored the equaliser in extra-time which took the match to penalties. Injuries soon ruined his campaign but there was enough to support Hearts’ decision of signing him permanently from Preston.

Josh Ginnelly has managed to make himself a regular in the Hearts starting XI of late, playing up top alongside Lawrence Shankland. Picture: SNSJosh Ginnelly has managed to make himself a regular in the Hearts starting XI of late, playing up top alongside Lawrence Shankland. Picture: SNS
Josh Ginnelly has managed to make himself a regular in the Hearts starting XI of late, playing up top alongside Lawrence Shankland. Picture: SNS

Last season Ginnelly managed to get over his injury issues, but the performances didn’t match what had been glimpsed previously. He had an uncanny knack for inflicting pain on the Tayside clubs but would only be in the running for his side’s man-of-the-match once in every five or six games or so. It used to be quite easy to tell if Ginnelly was going to have a good game because you’d know just from watching him in the first ten minutes.

The player admitted some struggles adapting to the 3-4-3 formation. Hearts had largely played a 4-2-3-1 and, when available, Ginnelly would play on the right wing during the second-tier season, but Neilson decided to stick with the system which saw out the Championship campaign. Being asked to play a bit more centrally as one of the two No.10s as opposed to being a chalk-on-the-boots winger, as he had been his whole career, affected his form.

This season things have been very different. A switch back to the 4-2-3-1 due to injury issues in defence may have played a significant factor in elevating his confidence and making it easier to tackle assignments which aren’t typically in his comfort zone, but even since Hearts reverted back to the three-at-the-back system Ginnelly has continued to thrive. His position as the most advanced attacker has given an extra dimension to the team’s play as his searing pace causes problems for opposing defences and opens up space for top-goalscorer Shankland in which to operate.

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Essentially, he’s been doing a lot more with less. His per-90-minute statistics for crossing, passing, shooting, dribbling and defensive recoveries are all down, but the percentages on them are all up. His crossing has improved dramatically, going from 22 per cent (one of the worst in the league) last term to a respectable 32 per cent this season. His passing is up seven percentage points. His shooting accuracy has shot up from 28 to 40. He’s attempting three fewer dribbles per match but beating his man 64 per cent of the time, which is up quite a bit from 55 per cent last term.

Josh Ginnelly puts Hearts 1-0 up against Kilmarnock in the recent victory at Tynecastle. Picture: SNSJosh Ginnelly puts Hearts 1-0 up against Kilmarnock in the recent victory at Tynecastle. Picture: SNS
Josh Ginnelly puts Hearts 1-0 up against Kilmarnock in the recent victory at Tynecastle. Picture: SNS

Ginnelly’s benefit to the team isn’t just limited to when he’s in possession, however. The 25-year-old can sometimes come across as a little aloof as often his goal celebrations lack the typical euphoric enthusiasm seen from a scorer, but he works tirelessly from the front. His pressing constantly unbalances opposing defenders and he’s become great at winning the ball back in advanced areas. Continuing the theme: his recoveries per match have dropped from 3.06 to 2.49, but the percentage of those occurring in the opposition half has shot up from 58.5 to 74.4 per cent.

For a player enjoying such a strong season and a regular in the starting XI over the past couple of months, it’s a little strange there hasn’t been talk about him potentially getting a new contract. His current deal expires in the summer and he insists he’s open to signing a new one. Yet this is also the time when other teams can come in for the player and offer the option to leave on a free transfer once this season concludes.

Further complicating matters has been the arrival of Garang Kuol on loan from Newcastle United and Yutaro Oda on a three-and-a-half-year contract. Both attackers are similar to Ginnelly in that they can play across the front three and possess the speed to stretch opposition teams. Kuol likely won’t be a Hearts player past the summer but Oda feels like a succession plan for when Ginnelly leaves.

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Of course, that could easily not end up being the case. If he continues playing like he has for a side which continues to win then he’ll keep the other two out of the starting XI. Do that and it’ll be tough – or just daft – for Hearts not to give him an extension.

Josh Ginnelly in action against St Johnstone at Tynecastle Park earlier in the season. Picture: SNSJosh Ginnelly in action against St Johnstone at Tynecastle Park earlier in the season. Picture: SNS
Josh Ginnelly in action against St Johnstone at Tynecastle Park earlier in the season. Picture: SNS

Regardless of whether he remains in maroon for next August, Ginnelly’s career prospects are certainly on the up.

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