Hearts firmly established themselves as Celtic’s bogey team last Saturday afternoon when defeating the reigning…
On Saturday Hearts overcame a stubborn Dunfermline side by a solitary goal to nil. In the 79th minute new signing Olly Lee stepped in to knock the ball home with a right-footed shot after an acute assist from fellow newbie Steven MacLean. One goal was all that was needed on the day as Craig Levein’s side made it seven wins from seven.
On the face of it, not much had changed for the Tynecastle side. A single goal proved enough to split a game in which Hearts had done well to keep a clean sheet. Levein’s team have since become famous – or rather infamous among rival fans – for their defensive tactics and that was what has set them off this season, right?
Well, in a sense, yes. Last week Blair Newman expertly ran through a notable, defensive system from Levein’s side that put Celtic to the sword in Edinburgh. But to describe this Hearts team as simply more of the same as last season would do a great disservice to the excellent work that the Hearts manager and his backroom staff have done over the summer. Hearts are going to be far more attacking this season.
This has primarily been down to Hearts’ tremendous transfer window. Sure, the club took a rather scattergun approach to signing players but within the general cover of numerous, dubious signings, there were some specific, attacking recruits that look as though they fit the bill.
Steven MacLean has arrived from St Johnstone, while relatively unknown quantities in Uche Ikpeazu and Jake Mulraney have hit the ground running alongside the return of Steven Naismith. In almost each case, these players have been tasked with supporting – or replacing entirely – the solitary goalscoring of Kyle Lafferty and so far they’ve done a stellar job of it.
After eight games Hearts have scored no less than 19 goals. Lafferty’s contributions thus far have been limited to that solitary, special goal against Celtic which means he’s chipped in with just 5% of Hearts’ total goals. Last season the Northern Irish goalscorer laid claim to a massive 37% of Hearts’ goals.
Of course, if Lafferty sticks around at Hearts this season then we may see him claw back to the top of the club’s goalscoring charts but we can say for sure at this moment in time that the club’s superb start to the season has been largely without the help of the man they built their entire team around last season.
Naismith has already scored four goals, MacLean and Ikpeazu both have three and new midfielders Lee and Peter Haring have five between them. Suddenly the uber-defensive team that relied on a sole goalscorer are finding goals all over the pitch.
And this isn’t just down to racking up goals in an easy League Cup group, either. When we look at Hearts’ Scottish Premiership form we see their newfound attacking acumen standing tall and in many cases outperforming the rivals they’ll be challenging for a European spot come May.
After two games – admittedly a tiny data set – Hearts have more goals than any other team in the division. That’s not entirely impressive, but what is worth noting is that Levein’s side are averaging more shots per game than any team in the division aside from Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic side. A sizeable stat when we consider one of those two games was against the current league champions.
Indeed, when we explore these shooting stats we are once again reminded of Levein’s new, multi-layered attacking line up. Eighteen of the 34 shots Hearts have hit in the Premiership thus far have come from outside the box and when we break down individual attacking shots we find that Haring and Naismith currently sit within the league’s top 10, while MacLean, Michael Smith and Lafferty aren’t far behind. For comparison’s sake, it’s worth noting that Lafferty was the only Hearts player in the Premiership top 30 for total shots in the league. This season Hearts currently have five.
When we couple all of this with the fact that Hearts have only conceded three goals in their opening seven games – and managed to completely shut down Celtic – we find ourselves looking at a team that can defend and attack in equal measure. And one with the means to do some serious damage in the Premiership this season.
While Aberdeen, Rangers, Hibernian and Celtic have stole the headlines with their European qualifiers over the late, summer months Levein and his team have been hard at work slowly constructing a team on the platform of last season’s defensive behemoth. Now the Tynecastle side can seemingly attack as well as they can defend and they’re ready to challenge for a top four spot.