is a huge blow for Hearts
While there haven’t been any big name or marquee signings, Hearts have been partaking in…
It’s been a busy old summer at Tynecastle. No fewer than 13 new faces have joined Craig Levein’s Hearts squad ahead of the new campaign as they look to improve on last season. If the uninspiring performances last term hinted at the squad needing to be overhauled, then finishing 18 points behind rivals Hibs guaranteed that action had to be taken.
Levein wasted no time in dipping into the transfer market and has barely stopped since. We’ve seen a plethora of new faces arrive, many of whom we don’t know too much about. Hearts must, at the very least, close the gap on the clubs above them. Let’s take a look at whether the players they’ve recruited will help them achieve that this season.
Hearts main issue last season was a complete lack of creativity. They relied heavily upon a resolute defence and excellent goalkeeper in Jon McLaughlin; who has since left the club. Jamie Walker was never really replaced and if it hadn’t been for Kyle Lafferty’s contribution in front of goal, the Jambos may have struggled further.
Only Dundee and Partick Thistle scored fewer goals than the Tynecastle side last season. However, what makes slightly more alarming reading for Hearts is that their expected goals (xG) tally was lower than this at 33.8. Simply put, they actually scored slightly more goals than they were expected to; based on the quality of chances they created. This xG tally was the lowest of any side in the Scottish Premiership.
This can partly be put down to Kyle Lafferty being the club’s only real goal threat, but it’s also a consequence of a lack of creativity in the final third. Steven Naismith improved as the season went on but wasn’t the threat in the final third that many perhaps hoped he would be. That said, there’s every chance he could hit the ground running and become that player this term.
Similarly, David Milinkovic was arguably Hearts best creative player. Nobody in a maroon jersey completed more key passes or one-on-one dribbles than the winger. Despite Levein’s best efforts, he failed in his attempt to re-sign him permanently. The wings are an area where Hearts certainly lacked options and they also missed a box-to-box midfielder who could add real potency in attack. In essence, the main issue Hearts had last season was a lack of creativity and goals.
A few players have left Tynecastle in this window such as the much-maligned Conor Sammon going out on loan again; this time to Motherwell. Jack Hamilton also left the club to sign for Neil McCann’s Dundee. However, it’s the departure of goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin that will be really felt in Gorgie.
The keeper was Hearts’ standout performer last season and without him, they would have been significantly worse off. Sure Christophe Berra and John Souttar had excellent seasons at the heart of the defence, but it was McLaughlin that was arguably the most important of the three. Hearts conceded 39 goals last season but their xG against was 49. Moreover, when you look at McLaughlin’s individual stats you see just how impressive he was in between the sticks last term.
Not only did McLaughlin face more shots than any other keeper last season (161), but he was also the goalkeeper that made the most overall saves in the Premiership. That’s pretty incredible given he was playing a top-six side. It’s hardly surprising that the likes of Hamilton’s Gary Woods and Partick’s Tomas Cerny are near the top in these categories given how often their teams came under attack. This graph gives you a brief insight into just how effective McLaughlin was for Hearts.
Furthermore, when we look at saves made per 90 minutes for these five keepers McLaughlin once again comes out on top. The former Hearts stopper saved more shots on average per game than anyone else last campaign. This suggests that the Jambos will be unlikely to rely on their resolute defence as much this season. They’ll need to score more goals and show more going forward if they are to offset the effect of McLaughlin’s departure.
Where to start? Let’s start up front as that’s one of Hearts’ main problem areas. There was perhaps an over-reliance on Lafferty last season so Levein has brought in a couple of forwards to hopefully ease the pressure on the Northern Irishman. Uche Ikpeazu has already gained a cult-like status from Hearts fans in the short time he has been there. He’s like a wrecking ball up front and will cause a number of defences huge issues. Whether the former Cambridge United man can finish with a goal tally in the double digits is another matter entirely though. Steven MacLean could also prove to be a shrewd bit of business from Levein.
Similarly, David Vanecek was brought in from Czech side HET Liga. He’s relatively unknown but did score 12 goals in the Czech First League, so you know, take that for what it’s worth. Levein also re-signed Steven Naismith on a season-long loan. He still has the potential to be a very important player for Hearts and certainly brings experience to them on and off the pitch. The main issue will be whether he’s given enough freedom in Levein’s system to really perform to the best of his abilities. That said, he’s showed glimpses of what he is capable off and is certainly a good acquisition for the club.
Moving back to midfield now where we have a veritable smorgasbord of new faces. Stefan Bienkowski recently wrote a piece outlining why he thought Olly Lee could be the pick of the bunch. He’s looked decent enough in the few appearances he’s made so far. Similarly, Levein signed Ryan Edwards from Partick Thistle who is also an attacking midfielder. It’s a step up for the Australian to go from a team fighting relegation to one which is aiming for, at the very least, a top six finish. On paper, he’s very much the type of box-to-box player the Jambos need, but whether he’s good enough only time will tell.
Elsewhere the Tynecastle side also signed Oliver Bozanic and young Bobby Burns from Melbourne City and Glenavon respectively. A lot has been made about Burns and his potential so it will be interesting to see if he is thrown into the first team the same way Harry Cochrane was last season. In perhaps his strangest signing Levein brought in winger Ryan Mulraney from Inverness Caley Thistle. The 22-year-old didn’t have a particularly memorable season in the Championship with the Highland club last year. He scored just two goals and provided three assists.
Hearts have only brought in a couple of defenders. Centre-back Peter Haring arrived from Austria but he’s actually ended up playing the middle of the park in the League Cup. A perhaps more interesting signing is 23-year-old Benjamin Garuccio from Adelaide United. He’s represented Australia at under-20 level and could potentially be looked at as a replacement for Demetri Mitchell who was one of Hearts’ best players last season.
If you need a microcosm of Hearts’ scattergun approach to the transfer market then look no further than the position of goalkeeper. In the hope of filling the void left by McLaughlin, Levein has signed no fewer than three, yes three, goalkeepers. Zdenek Zlámal arrived from FC Zlin in the Czech Republic as did Republic of Ireland international Colin Doyle. Meanwhile, they also signed American Kevin Silva. At the moment Zlamal looks like Levein’s first choice.
The bottom line here is that Levein has brought in numerous players. The main issue, however, is that it’s a bit of a scattergun approach. There’s no telling at the moment whether he can get his team to gel and whether the quality of his signings will be enough to significantly improve this Hearts side.
The main one has to be cementing a top six place and closing the gap on the clubs above them, namely Hibs. For Hearts to finish 18 points behind their Edinburgh rivals will be viewed as completely unacceptable. Of course, a good cup run is another way to get fans onside, so that’s certainly something Levein and Co. should also be aiming for. Aside from this, it’s of great importance that they keep hold of Lafferty as they really can’t afford to lose him.
It’s hard to say how Levein’s squad will come together. His scattergun approach in the transfer market may prove a stroke of genius. Alternatively, we could see a number of players failing to perform to the required level and Hearts still struggling in the final third. It’s likely they’ll improve on last season, but whether they can seriously challenge Aberdeen, Rangers and Hibs remains to be seen.