under Craig Levein
Craig Levein struggled to hide his relief on Saturday following a somewhat laboured 2-1 win…
Hearts signed off 2017 in style, embarking on a club-record run of six fixtures in which they didn’t concede a single goal. Not to mention their resounding 4-0 thrashing of Celtic, becoming the first (and so far only) Scottish side to defeat Brendan Rodgers’ team.
Inconsistency dogged the beginning of their campaign until the Jambos returned to Tynecastle; since then, Hearts have looked a more solid prospect, conceding on just four occasions in eight home matches since the completion of their new stand.
Since Hearts boss Craig Levein swapped the director’s box for the dugout, the former Scotland manager has made tightening the defence his top priority, with great success. Hearts have gone from having one of the league’s sloppiest defences to the league’s best. One question remains: how?
Murrayfield was clearly part of the problem. Hearts played four ‘home’ fixtures there but struggled to get to grips with the larger pitch at the rugby stadium, only scoring three goals during their time there. Levein’s defensive tactics require a tight pitch with little room to manoeuvre – something Murrayfield simply does not offer.
But their return to Tynecastle has coincided with an upturn in form. The Edinburgh stadium has a far more intimidating atmosphere for visiting teams than Murrayfield – it’s perhaps this, in tandem with the smaller pitch, that has helped the Jambos create a defensive fortress.
Levein has brought a level of consistency to Hearts unseen during Ian Cathro’s ill-fated spell in charge. Levein’s preferred centre back partnership of Christophe Berra and John Souttar looks to be one of the league’s best – Berra in particular has impressed, yet to miss a Premiership fixture this campaign.
We’ve already touched on Berra’s brilliance this season – let’s look at Levein’s decision to play Souttar ahead of the experienced Aaron Hughes. On paper, they appear to do most things about as good as each other, but with one crucial difference: Souttar takes part in almost three times as many defensive duels (that is, attempting to win the ball off an opposition player) than the Northern Ireland international.
This could be down to Souttar’s superior athleticism – the former Dundee United defender is far quicker than Hughes, allowing him to cover more ground when challenging an opponent. Equally, playing alongside an experienced international defender like Berra will be of tremendous benefit to the youngster. Their relationship on the pitch is reminiscent of that of Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique – one an old school, aging centre back barking instructions to his younger, faster protege, who fulfils them to the letter.
The most important change, however, has been in reducing goalscoring chances against them. It might seem obvious, but opposition teams are struggling to break down an increasingly-stubborn Hearts defence. A quick look at Hearts’ opponents’ expected goals (xG) data reveals the stark improvement at the back.
In the six matches before they returned to Tynecastle, Hearts’ average xG against – how many goals they could reasonably have expected to concede – was 1.73. Over their last six fixtures, that figure has dropped to 1.4. Had it not been for an off-day against Aberdeen (where Hearts left with a goalless draw but the Dons had great chances to win it), Hearts’ average xG against would have been 1.09.
This highlights the impressive work that the entire Hearts team, not just the nominal defenders, are doing to restrict opposition chances. By reducing teams to shots with a low probability of finding the net, Hearts have cut out the sloppy goals that have blighted them earlier in the campaign.
All being said then, Levein’s defensive organisational abilities are to be lauded. The Hearts back line has improved dramatically with his input – all that is required now are a few more goals at the other end and Hearts can fulfil their potential as one of the country’s biggest clubs.