It's been quite the week for Hearts. Not only did they end their fiercest rival's hopes…
Steven Naismith returning to Hearts is an intriguing topic. Last season when the Norwich player moved to Tynecastle my colleague Niall Murray was exceptionally encouraged by the move, however, come March the buzz had notably died down. Naismith, according to Murray, had been “wholly underwhelming” with just four goals and four assists in 16 games and he was probably quite right.
Yet the former Kilmarnock and Rangers star has agreed to another loan deal with the Jam Tarts and once his current contract with Norwich expires next summer he’ll most likely join the Edinburgh side on a permanent deal. So why does Craig Levein rate the 31-year-old so highly?
The simple fact is that Naismith’s contributions to Hearts are actually quite impressive within the grander context of this squad. And because Levein doesn’t have a huge amount of options – especially after missing out on David Milinkovic this summer – a player like Naismith becomes even more vital to his team.
Naismith only bagged four goals for Hearts last season but his goals per 90 minutes stood at a respectable 0.22. That’s not too far off Hearts’ top goalscorer, Kyle Lafferty, who averaged 0.34 and better than any of the club’s recent recruits aside from Steven MacLean, who averaged 0.4 for St Johnstone last season. So, essentially, Naismith is still one of the better goalscorers in Levein’s squad even if it doesn’t immediately seem like it.
However, where his real talents lie at this point in his career are probably in his ability to link the midfield and Hearts’ lone frontman, Lafferty, from one game to the next. Naismith might not have the pace to skip past players as he once did but he can still wander into pockets of space and create goal scoring chances.
Last season Naismith averaged 0.11 assist per game. That’s more than any other current Hearts player, including the incoming Olly Lee, Ryan Edwards and MacLean. Naismith also tops the chart when it comes to through passes per 90 minutes too, with 1.4 per match. For context, that’s roughly twice as many as younger players like Ross Callachan or Harry Cochrane and again beats all of Levein’s other senior players.
When it comes to key passes (passes that lead to a shot) Naismith is pipped by both MacLean and Lee, but it’s only by a very minor amount. And this still suggests that the ageing Scottish forward was very much at the heart of everything going forward. And for Hearts a very vital cog in Levein’s machine.
Another factor worth considering is the simple fact that Naismith can play across a number of positions that simply aren’t well covered ahead of the new season. As we can see in the heat map above, the 31-year-old tends to play on either wing or indeed through the middle and that’s largely where Hearts have struggled to find quality or even quantity over the past year or so.
As things currently stand, Levein really only has Don Cowie as a right winger, supported by the relatively untested Danny Amankwaa as a backup. And on the left wing, he has the young, inexperienced duo of Lewis Moore and Dario Zanatta. Sure, the Hearts manager has no less than nine central midfielders but when it comes to either wing he’ll be heavily relying on Naismith to fill across the front line when needed.
Whether Levein switches his formation to accommodate his central midfielders or indeed signs more wingers before the start of the season is yet to be seen, but as things stand Naismith is not only one of the club’s top, attacking performers from last season but also a vitally important member of the squad. That’s why Hearts were so keen on bringing him back to Tynecastle for the coming season and while he’ll probably stick around for long after that too.