Why missing out on a player like David Milinkovic
is a huge blow for Hearts

Why missing out on a player like David Milinkovic
is a huge blow for Hearts

By Niall Murray

While there haven’t been any big name or marquee signings, Hearts have been partaking in what seems like their own version of Supermarket Sweep this transfer window. Craig Levein has brought nine, yes nine, players to Tynecastle so far this summer and more look to be on the way.

 

It’s hardly a surprise that this squad is essentially being torn up and rebuilt. Levein was vocal about bringing in numerous players and Hearts have conducted their business early. That said, whilst new faces have arrived there are still many areas of this Jambos side that need addressing. It’s no secret that Hearts lacked creativity, flair and a general cutting edge last season, therefore it’s surprising no wide players have been brought in yet.

 

Sure, Ryan Edwards could be a good addition as an attacking midfielder and Levein seems to have added depth in defence, central midfield and up front. However, they still seem light when it comes to creative players, particularly in the wider areas. In the ex-Scotland manager’s defence, he did attempt to change that by making an approach for the darling of the Gorgie faithful, David Milinkovic. The latter became a fan favourite and it’s not hard to see why. He’s an exciting player and offered a glimpse of what Hearts severely lacked last season.

 

The bad news is that despite Hearts and Genoa agreeing on terms, the deal is dead in the water due to the winger’s wage demands. It now looks very unlikely that he’ll be playing in a maroon shirt next season. The bottom line is, Hearts need him or someone similar to him next season, and this is why.

 

Why Hearts need a player like David Miliknovic

 

Missing out on a player like Milinkovic is undoubtedly a huge blow for Levein and Hearts.  As it stands, they don’t have many wide options at all. New signing Jake Mulraney from Inverness is very much a shot in the dark at this level. Similarly, Danny Amankwaa hasn’t impressed since arriving in Scottish football. Without a player like Miliknovic, you wonder where the creativity lies in this squad. Perhaps Levein won’t play with wide men, more on that later, but surely it would be good to have the option?

 

It’s clear from the graph above just how much Hearts struggled in the attacking third last season. They scored just 39 goals; to put that into context, only Dundee (36) and Partick Thistle (31) scored less. What’s even more startling is their expected goals (xG) rate is actually lower than the number of goals they scored. This suggests they found the back of the net last season from opportunities that weren’t clear-cut and they’d have been forgiven for missing.

 

This only drives home the point that Hearts didn’t have enough players creating key goalscoring opportunities. Again, you only have to look at their touches in the box last season. Levein’s side comes near the bottom of the pile (417) with only Hamilton touching the ball less in their opponent’s box (371). In essence, a player of Milinkovic’s nature could be just what the doctor ordered.

 


Milinkovic is the only Hearts player that made the top thirty in the league when it comes to key passes. In fact, he made the top 15 overall when it came to passes of this nature. In case you weren’t aware, a key pass is one that leads to a shot on goal. Milinkovic played 11 of these last season which is among the best in the division.

 

However, it’s his key passes per 90 minutes that’s truly impressive. Only Scott Allen (0.74) and Daniel Candeias (0.71) had a higher key pass average per match than Milinkovic (0.64). Behind him, Hearts’ next player in this metric is defender Michael Smith with five key passes. This only serves to emphasise how they are calling out for a player of Milinkovic’s nature to play that killer ball. Similarly, when it comes to assists last season Milinkovic chipped in with four. Again he’s the only one in a maroon jersey that makes the top 30 in this metric in the Scottish Premiership.

 

This final graph again shows that why failing to sign a player like Milinkovic is surely detrimental to Hearts going forward. In terms of taking on opponents, he was by far the best at Tynecastle last season. The 1v1 dribbling metric in the graph above highlights this as Milinkovic came out on top overall (123), but also on the average number of dribbles per game (7.1).

 

What’s perhaps more striking in this table is the number of players who are no longer at the club. For example, Esmael Goncalves and Jamie Walker are both in the top five for this area. That’s hugely concerning given the latter left very early on in the season and the former in January. Furthermore, two of the other top performers here, Milinkovic and Mitchell, are also no longer at the club.

 

When we glance at the crossing stats it’s a similar story. Milinkovic is again in the top three for both overall number of crosses (47) and crosses/90 (2.7). The two players ahead of him overall are Don Cowie and Michael Smith. Cowie is a dependable player but perhaps doesn’t have the overall guile or creativity that Hearts require from an attacking perspective. Moreover, Smith is a dependable full-back but hardly the answer to Hearts problems in the final third.

 

The bottom line is, they might not get Milinkovic but there’s most definitely a gap needing to be filled. In fact, the gap was there when the French-born winger was still at the club, now that it looks like he’s gone for good Levein needs to act to find a replacement of a similar ilk.

 

What does it tell us about how Levein will set up next season?

 

Perhaps Levein isn’t going to play with wingers. After all, he’s brought in numerous central midfielders and also strengthened up front. Then you have to ask if his plan wasn’t to play with wide men then why did he attempt to sign Milinkovic? Sure, they’ve already signed nine players, but Levein is acutely aware his team are lacking in that department.

 

 

Conversely, Levein may be looking to play a diamond in midfield or a 3-5-2 or any other formation that doesn’t rely heavily on wingers. Although surely he’d like to have a couple of wide players in his squad so he has the option to change it up if necessary. We saw him try a number of different formations last campaign with varying degrees of success. One of the main issues was that they would struggle to play 3-4-3 or a flat 4-4-2 due to the lack of quality they possess out wide. As things stand this hasn’t changed.

 

It could be that Levein is aiming for a side that are no thrills, solid and a hardworking unit. For example, if he were to play a 3-5-2, he’s spoiled for choice when it comes to his three central midfielders. Moreover, he has more striking options than last season and of course it takes away the pressure of having out-and-out wingers. Instead of attacking wingers the two full-backs will make up the midfield five.

 

You just have to ask, if they weren’t to sign any more players this summer would you be confident Hearts would be more of an attacking threat than last campaign? The answer seems to tilt towards no. It’s all well and good playing a formation that doesn’t rely heavily on wingers and creative players, but surely there has to be a happy medium? Simply put, it didn’t work well for them last season.

 

Levein’s business in this window isn’t finished yet, but he’ll have a significant job on his hands gelling this new squad together before the season kicks-off. What Hearts don’t want is to start the new campaign with new players, but the same old, lingering problems on the pitch. Bottom line, their lack of creativity needs to be addressed and frustratingly someone like Milinkovic is the answer.

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