They are a football manager's cockpit. The point from which they view all. That doesn't…
There are some within the confines of Scottish football who cannot wait to stick the boot into Craig Levein – be it following a sub-par Hearts performance or after an otherwise innocuous utterance, labelled controversial. The catalyst for days of hysteria.
It’s safe to say Levein does not have his enemies to seek in the media, though he does appear to be held to a different standard at times and there are certainly cases of dislike clouding judgement.
What seems to have been overlooked is that the Hearts manager has been deploying a scattergun approach to trolling recently, with several of his targets giving him exactly what he wants.
The recent episodes involving a back and forth between, firstly Scott Brown and Brendan Rodgers, and more recently Neil Lennon, were blown out of proportion by those more interested in stirring up controversy than reporting accurately.
Many seemed oblivious, or wilfully ignorant, that Levein had delivered his initial comments about the Celtic captain with a wry smile, for instance. The “natural order” comments were as mistimed and as ill-judged as a Jamie Carragher greb – and led to a comical photograph of him on the pitch at Easter Road after another painful derby defeat – but were again blown massively out of proportion.
Even the appointment of Levein for a second spell as Hearts manager in August was lambasted. After the Ian Cathro risk failed, the Hearts board, which includes Levein, embarked upon a one-month search for a replacement before turning to the man already sitting upstairs.
“Levein appointed himself” accusations ensued, when in reality it was chairwoman Ann Budge who had pushed for the former Scotland manager, keen for a safe pair of hands given the inexperience of the previous incumbent. In the end, few could argue with the appointment, it was the optics of the situation that didn’t sit well.
Levein inherited a severely imbalanced squad lacking in pace and creativity. The crop of players were gathered to fit his predecessor’s 3-4-3 system, which meant a number of full-back options but few options in advanced wide areas. Even though Levein himself is partial to a back three, he was left putting square pegs in round holes when using a back four.
This was only partially addressed during the recent transfer window with the addition of speedy winger Danny Amankwaa. However, the Dane joined lacking fitness and is still getting up to speed. The promising Demetri Mitchell was also recruited, though suffered a season-ending injury, a theme of Hearts’ season, while the addition of Steven Naismith promised so much but has perhaps been the most underwhelming signing of the season.
This all left the side in the same position as before the window had opened: lacking pace, creativity and options in forward areas – especially with the departure of Jamie Walker added to the mix.
Levein’s current reign began with a credible 0-0 draw with Aberdeen at Murrayfield – denied victory only by outstanding goalkeeping from Joe Lewis – and he lost just one of his next five. A run of three consecutive defeats followed. Hearts remain undefeated in front of their new main stand, however their return began with frustrating draws against Partick Thistle, Ross County and Hamilton.
Then things started to click. David Milinkovic started to hit form, Christophe Berra headed everything that came within close proximity of the Hearts penalty area, and Jon McLaughlin’s goal became impenetrable. A club-record of eight consecutive clean sheets was set, which included emphatically stopping the Invincibles in their tracks. Hearts went on to lose just once in 16 matches, that single defeat coming at Celtic Park.
It is not surprising given the clean-sheet run that Hearts boast the second-best defensive record in the division. However, Levein’s side, unsurprisingly, also rank low on a number of attacking stats. Only Partick Thistle have scored fewer, while Hearts rank in the bottom half for number of shots and number of key passes (passes that lead to a shot). Unsurprisingly given the lack of width in the side, Hearts sit bottom when it comes to number of crosses.
Most damningly, at around 31.5 for the season, Levein’s side have the second lowest xG in the league.
The clean sheets were always going to dry up, further pronouncing the lack of goals at the other end. That has shown recently and the side are currently on a run of five matches without victory, including yet another derby defeat and an exit from the Scottish Cup. They are in danger of dropping out of the top six, while Europe seems an unreachable destination.
It’s stodgy football but stodgy football can bring results. Some of the world’s top coaches over the years have played defensive football – from Helenio Herrera and Arrigo Sacchi to Diego Simeone and Jose Mourinho.
There are examples closer to home too in the form of Walter Smith, who took Rangers to the Uefa Cup final deploying Walternaccio tactics, and more recently Steve Clarke at Kilmarnock, who is currently on an excellent run of results that involves not seeing much of the ball.
It’s not all sit in, block the centre and filter opponents down the side. Levein has shown tactical astuteness and flexibility on occasion, none more so than the 4-0 victory over Celtic when he aped Anderlect’s strategy and deployed a high press.
But there have also been some eyebrow-raising selections and set-ups. His willingness to field players as young as 16 is to be admired, though Lewis Moore was an odd selection for the recent derby, while bringing on Euan Henderson and switching to a compact 4-4-2 while in a comfortable position away at Ross County allowed the home side back into the game.
As mentioned, injuries have hampered him and forced his hand – Arnaud Djoum snapped his achilles in that match in Dingwall – but Hearts’ season pretty much ended when Carl McHugh smashed a volley past McLaughlin in the last minute of the Scottish Cup quarter-final two weeks ago.
A win ratio of 34% is fine, and no more, given the state of the side when Levein took charge, but deficiencies were not adequately addressed in the transfer window. He does deserve another, along with a pre-season, to shape his squad though there is a feeling of what could have been this campaign when compared to their neighbours across the city, or with the likes of Kilmarnock.
Levein may not always provide us with entertainment on the field but he’s certainly provided plenty off it.