Sport Is this how Hearts' 3-4-3 could be more dangerous - Josh Ginnelly, creating better chances and the elephant in the room
Hearts debrief: Taylor Moore's day to forget, tactical regrets, Craig Gordon doing what he does
A look back at another troubling away performance for Robbie Neilson’s side, who were comfortably defeated 2-0 by Motherwell.Craig Gordon. No question. His double save in the second half was outstanding and stopped a 2-0 defeat – as abysmal as it was – from becoming an embarrassment. As for outfield players, Barrie McKay had a strong first half where he created three strong opportunities that Ben Woodburn and Josh Ginnelly wasted, while Cammy Devlin put in his usual endeavour.
Ahead of this weekend’s cinch Premiership clash with St Mirren, Hearts boss Robbie Neilson played down any suggestion of moving away from the 3-4-3.
Win, lose or draw supporters of the Tynecastle Park club have plenty of opinions on the system and the personnel within it. That discussion intensified following last weekend’s 2-0 loss at Motherwell, where Hearts were bettered and battered by the Steelmen.
Neilson, quite rightly, is not going to allow one result to dictate a move way from a formation which has Hearts sitting third on their return to the Premiership.
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Burned by a Hearts team that clicked when they met at Tynecastle last month, Motherwell refused to let Robbie Neilson’s men get into their stride on Saturday. © Barrie McKay in action for Hearts during a cinch Premiership match between Motherwell and Heart of M... With the capital side looking to make the most of Celtic’s cup distraction and move back into second place in the Premiership, they struggled to carve out the kind of opportunities that have been flowing freely at home at times this term.
"You have to make small alterations,” he said. “You can’t be naive and just do the same thing. But we don’t want to come away from something that has been successful for us this season.
"As the manager we have to have a way of playing. You can’t do one way one week and something different the next. You need continuity.”
Quality of chances
One of the criticisms aimed at the formation has been the number of defensive players within it. As well as the three centre-backs, the two wing-backs are full-backs and the central midfield pairing of Beni Baningime and Cammy Devlin are perceived to be destroyers rather than creators.
Therefore it is deemed that a lot of the responsibility to attack, create and score falls on the shoulders of the front three.
Hearts ace Alex Cochrane on his future at Tynecastle, a 'must-win' encounter and showing patience
‘Must win’ is typically not a statement you expect to hear from players, managers or anyone involved in the day-to-day running of a football club, who tend to play down the significance of individual games, especially not when the match takes place in late November and the team in question are easily outperforming pre-season projections.It may seem a little reactionary, given last Saturday’s loss to Motherwell, was only the club’s second league defeat of the season, but the larger message coming out of Riccarton was one of patience and self-belief.
If you split which areas goals arrive from, 47.8 per cent have been scored by forwards, 30.4 per cent by defenders and just 21.8 per cent from midfield.
What can’t be labelled at Hearts is that they are defensive. They are third for shots and touches in the opposition box, fourth for crosses and passes to the final third. Meanwhile, no team is better at winning the ball back in the final third.
Perhaps what could be a concern is the quality of chances created by the team.
While they have been profligate in games, namely in draws with Dundee and St Johnstone, they have outscored their xG (expected goals) – 23 to 17.4 – and, according to FotMob, created just nine ‘big chances’ – a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score. Only Hibs, Livingston and St Johnstone have created fewer.
In terms of consistently providing shot assists it is only Barrie McKay who features highly for Hearts. For crosses, McKay is again the most regular supplier with Josh Ginnelly and Alex Cochrane not far behind.
Hearts ace delighted to see Liam Boyce return even if it's at his expense
The recent absence of Liam Boyce from the starting XI granted an additional opportunity for Hearts’ crowded midfield corps, but even the main beneficiary, Josh Ginnelly, is delighted to see the Northern Irishman back in the starting XI.The switch worked to perfection in the 5-2 victory over Dundee United. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of last weekend's dismal 2-0 loss in Motherwell, where the diminutive front three were overmatched physically and the game was all but over when a half-fit Boyce was reintroduced in the second half.
It is clear more in possession is required from Devlin and Baningime. Both are excellent players out of possession and on the ball in deep areas but at least one is required to be a bit more progressive with the ball going forward.
The elephant in the room is Michael Smith.
The Northern Irishman has been the club's most consistent player since he arrived in 2017 and no player has played more times for Hearts since then.
Criticism earlier in the season appeared slightly harsh and he seemed to provide an answer with a goal in the 3-0 win over Livingston. It is also forgotten how much influence he had in the team's attacking play last season, albeit in the Championship.
He would often find himself on the ball, either in or playing into advanced areas. He was in the top ten for crosses and accuracy and third for passes into the final third.
That attacking impact has waned, somewhat understandably, especially earlier in the campaign when the relationship with Josh Ginnelly looked really promising. In possession, Smith would move infield to give the team another passing option and help dominate the ball, while freeing up space for the winger to a stretch the game.
Why Josh Campbell is helping Hibs cope with absence of Kyle Magennis
Few people could have predicted after his six-minute cameo against Motherwell in the opening game of the season that Josh Campbell would, before the calendar year was up, be an integral part of the Hibs first team. Not because he lacks ability or the required character, but the midfield was performing to such high levels that it would have been folly to change it up unless unavoidable.In the latter stages of the match in Perth he was playing as an auxiliary centre-half to allow Paul Hanlon a free role on the wing and in the middle of the park as Hibs overwhelmed Callum Davidson’s side.
The arrival of Ben Woodburn and Barrie McKay has seen Hearts play slightly narrower with both forwards preferring to move infield and pick up those half spaces behind the opposition midfield and in front of the defence.
Therefore more responsibility falls on Smith to provide width on the right.
In his absence, Taylor Moore delivered an excellent wing-back performance in the 5-2 win over Dundee United. With Craig Halkett out for the Motherwell clash it seemed perfect for Smith to replace him as the middle of the back three – arguably his best position – with Moore and Souttar continuing at wing-back and right-sided centre-back respectively.
That wasn't the case and it didn’t go so well.
Ginnelly the wing-back
Looking at ways to bring more out of Hearts in an attacking sense, could Josh Ginnelly play the wing-back role?
There will be fans wary of the defensive side of the winger’s game but a formation is about balance. You have Alex Cochrane as a natural full-back on the other side, three centre-backs, one of which is Souttar who is comfortable in wide areas, plus the covering of Devlin and Baningime.
In certain games, Hearts could ‘cheat’ the system and allow Ginnelly to play as an attacking wing-back, the same way Hibs and Celtic have done in the past with Martin Boyle and James Forrest respectively.
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Ginnelly would provide directness, pace, dribbling ability and a frequent crossing outlet. His presence would force teams back the way and offer a more dangerous counter-attack threat.
On top of that, he could help get more out of Woodburn and McKay.
Half spaces were mentioned earlier on. They are areas where teams can create more dangerous chances. Research fromshows Hearts are behind Celtic and Rangers as the team who make most use of getting players on the ball in such situations.
Ginnelly stretching play on the right could help create more space for fellow forwards, while offering a different passing angle and threat.
Hearts are prone to dominating the ball at Tynecastle against the Premiership’s so-called lesser sides, therefore there would be less onus on the Englishman defending.
Neilson has talked about minor tweaks. Could this be the alteration which would provide a big pay-off?
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Celtic and Hearts meet for the third time this season as the pair conclude the midweek fixturecard in the cinch Premiership. © Celtic won 3-2 the last time they met Hearts. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group) It is a big game for both clubs with the teams sitting second and third in the league respectively.For Celtic it is about keeping close to rivals Rangers, while Hearts will want to prove they have staying power at the top of the league as they target splitting the Old Firm.Hearts will have to end a long winless run in the league at Parkhead to do so.