Why Hearts are all-systems-go for a new formation next season
Hearts’ tactics can be a touchy subject at times but two invigorating displays against Celtic in their final two games of the season contain one common denominator: A 4-3-3 formation.
Manager Craig Levein deployed his side in the same shape using different personnel for both the Premiership defeat at Parkhead and the Scottish Cup final at Hampden. He was rewarded with two energetic performances which matched Celtic despite Hearts losing both fixtures 2-1.
Those games will give him plenty to ponder ahead of next season, particularly given the 4-3-3 set-up was influential on both occasions. Levein’s side succeeded in stifling the Treble Treble winners for long spells whilst also forming dangerous attacks of their own. Indeed, it could be argued that such a formation suits the squad at Tynecastle Park even if it was rarely used beforehand.
Players, coaches and fans will have noted the upturn in Hearts’ performances in those final two games. The stereotype people attach to Levein is that of a more defensive-minded coach whose teams are built around a solid foundation aimed at not giving goals away. Yet there is evidence that the modern 4-3-3, executed properly, permits both defensive solidity and forward menace.
The system traditionally contains a flat back four, three midfielders to dominate the central area of the field, plus two wingers and a centre-forward. Its most famous exponent was Johan Cruyff in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, however it has been tweaked to suit 21st-Century football.
Hearts used it to good effect in the last two weeks. The back four, when under pressure, is aided by the central midfielder dropping in as an extra centre-back for reinforcement. This works perfectly with Peter Haring in that anchoring midfield role as the Austrian previously played in central defence.
Full-backs are required to defend first and foremost but also get licence to attack. Michael Smith is extremely adept at both, while young Aaron Hickey was excellent in both those Celtic matches despite being a tender and slender 16-year-old.
They supported their team’s wingers in the final by doubling up on Celtic’s full-backs when possible. At the same time, they restricted opposing wide men James Forrest and Mikey Johnston to precious little time and space, forcing them on to the game’s periphery.
Hearts’ midfield at Hampden was industrious, energetic and reasonably creative. Ryan Edwards lined up to Haring’s right and scored the final’s opening goal, while Arnaud Djoum to the left enjoyed an assured afternoon.
With Haring marking Tom Rogic to keep the Australian quiet, Djoum and Edwards harassed Celtic’s sitting midfielders Scott Brown and Callum McGregor respectively. That prevented Neil Lennon’s side – who used a 4-2-3-1 shape – finding a passing rhythm.
Whenever Celtic full-backs Mikael Lustig and Jonny Hayes moved forward, Edwards and Djoum shuffled out to help their own full-backs and prevent the doubling-up scenario.
The same diligent midfield work was undertaken the week before at Parkhead by teenagers Connor Smith and Andy Irving alongside Edwards.
Up front, a 4-3-3 ensures plenty bodies in the final third – something Hearts lacked this season. Djoum and Edwards got beyond Brown and McGregor to support Hearts’ central striker Steven MacLean during the final, with Sean Clare to his right and Jake Mulraney left. Uche Ikpeazu did not start due to fitness and Steven Naismith was ruled out completely. They will be major characters next year – Naismith is due to sign permanently – and both could fit into a 4-3-3 easily. Naismith can play up front centrally or out wide, while Ikpeazu prefers to lead the line.
Mulraney may become a more integral left winger next year, although Levein will certainly vary his tactics to avoid becoming predicatable.
New signing Craig Halkett will be involved in a back three at times, there will be a flat 4-4-2 and perhaps even a diamond on occasions. Levein can now add 4-3-3 to his list of effective systems to implement.