One of the most intriguing transfer stories to pop up as we hurtle towards the…
It’s been quite the week for Hearts. Not only did they end their fiercest rival’s hopes of finishing in second place, but they also managed to get the whole of the Scottish press focussing on how long a blade of grass is. A new pitch is now being laid at Tynecastle, but it’s not just the surface that is changing over the summer in Gorgie; the playing squad is changing too.
It’s been a rather tumultuous campaign for Craig Levein and the maroon side of Edinburgh. The ship had to be steadied following the sacking of Ian Cathro and that it was. However left behind were a number of players unwanted by Levein and a squad that wasn’t up to scratch. Some of the holes were plugged in the January transfer window but there are undoubtedly going to be big changes in personnel over the summer.
Hearts have a number of players who are out of contract and whose loan deals expire. Some of these won’t make much difference to Levein & Co. but others will be a huge loss to them. Add to that the possibility that their best players may be targets for other clubs and you soon realise that the Hearts team lining up next season could look completely different to the one we see before us now.
There are some players that look certain to leave the Tynecastle club. Goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin has been exceptional in between the sticks this season but it appears that he’ll be moving onto pastures new. He only signed in the summer but he’s made quite in the impact in that time.
Hearts have one of the best defensive records in the league and a significant part of that is down to their goalkeeper. Not only does he give those in front of him confidence, he’s also an excellent shot-stopper and it’s no surprise he got his first Scotland call-up earlier in the year as a result.
As the numbers show only Craig Gordon (0.68) concedes fewer goals per 90 minutes than McLaughlin (0.92). What must be taken into consideration here is that Gordon is likely to face fewer shots given he plays in a Celtic team which are usually on the front foot. This is highlighted in the shots against and saves per 90 graphs.
It’s worth noting that no keeper in the Premiership has made more overall saves (129) or faced more overall shots (161) than the Hearts keeper. This also translates into his averages per match as McLaughlin makes 3.70 saves per 90 minutes, which is significantly more than Gordon (1.84). It’s also more than the other four keepers with the fewest goals conceded per 90. What’s even more impressive is that he faces more shots per game (4.62) than these keepers too. In essence, replacing McLaughlin is no enviable task, but one Levein will have to do successfully given how much Hearts currently rely on their goalkeeper.
The Jambos also have problems at the other end of the pitch. Their lack of goals has perhaps been masked by Kyle Lafferty who has impressed during his time in the capital. That said, Hearts list of top goalscorers makes for grim reading. After all, the Northern Irishman has scored nearly a third of the club’s overall league goals this season.
After you take Lafferty out of the picture, Hearts’ other top scorers consist of two players who are on loan and one that has already left. David Milinkovic and Steven Naismith have scored ten goals between them but both are on loan deals which expire in the summer. Similarly, Isma Goncalves scored six goals for Hearts but left the club in January. Simply put, this is very worrying reading for Levein.
Whereas keeping goals out has been their strength, this Hearts side have struggled to find the back of the net. They are the third lowest scorers in the league behind Dundee and Partick Thistle. However, they are shockingly the lowest when it comes to expected goals. Which tells us that, without someone like a Lafferty who takes difficult or half chances, they could have been worse off this season. It also tells us they are struggling to create goalscoring chances, but more on that later.
Were Lafferty to have his head turned or leave this summer then Hearts could find themselves in a difficult situation. And Levein has already said he’s worried that if a serious bid comes in for the Nothern Irishman then they might not be able to reject it.
The Tynecastle side have already brought in Steven McLean from St Johnstone and Uche Ikpeazu from Cambridge United to bolster his attacking options. McLean might bring something to the table in terms of experience and providing more assists, but he isn’t going to bang in 15 to 20 goals a season. Similarly, Ikpeazu is unknown at this level although he may well hit the ground running and turn out to be a prolific scorer. Conversely, it’s a lot to expect from a young player who has never played in Scotland before.
Undoubtedly Hearts need another option up front. They’ve struggled in games where Lafferty has been missing and need a replacement who presents as much of a goal threat. Of course, players like these don’t grow on trees but given their abject scoring record this season Levein must make it one of his priorities.
Hearts have not only been short on goals but also creativity in general. Naismith has scored a few important goals but perhaps hasn’t brought as much as many would have hoped to this Hearts side. Moreover, the Jambos never really replaced Jamie Walker who despite not having the best of seasons before departing was certainly a creative force within the team.
Levein seems keen on keeping Naismith and says he’s “brought something to the group.” And in the former Rangers star’s defence, he has started to find his feet a bit as the season has rolled on. That said, the one shining beacon of creative hope in this Hearts team has been Milinkovic. In fact, they’ve only lost one game when Milinkvoic has started and that was against Celtic at Parkhead. Extending Milinkovic’s loan deal should certainly be a priority.
The graph above shows just how significant Milinkovic is to this Hearts side. He averages 0.56 key passes per 90 minutes – this is a pass that leads to a shot. That’s significantly more than Adao (0.36), Danny Amankwaa (0.33) and Naismith (0.23) who are the next best after him.
Similarly, the winger also comes out on top when we focus on the number of crosses and dribbles per 90 minutes. Only Rafal Grzelak (3.05) has a better rate of crosses per match than Milinkovic (2.66). He also tops the charts in the number of 1v1 dribbles by quite some distance with 7.04; the closest player to him is Lewis Moore with 5.04. Therefore, it’s evident that Milinkovic is a much-needed creative spark within this Hearts team.
Even if Hearts were to re-sign him it’s not enough. They need more players of a similar ilk to add the creativity and flair necessary to succeed at this level. The concern for Hearts fans is that they lose Milinkovic and not replace him. This really is an unthinkable situation for Levein.
Adao is another star whose loan deal expires in the summer. He’s shown glimpses of being a very useful player for the Gorgie side. He’s a powerhouse and if he could show more consistency he would be a real threat in the Premiership. Conversely, whether Hearts can secure a deal to keep him at the club is unknown.
There’s no doubt new signing 18-year-old Bobby Burns is an exciting capture, but Hearts need to mix youth with experience in their midfield. In essence, he’s a good prospect but not the answer to all of Heart’s woes. Levein may have started his summer shopping spree early, but this is only the start of a very busy transfer window at Tynecastle.