There were concerns Hearts couldn't maintain their impressive start to the season after they lost…
It’s been quite the start to the Scottish Premiership season. Few fans would have predicted that both halves of the Old Firm would be languishing in mid-table at this stage of the season, or anticipated Livingston’s fine start to the campaign. And after a summer where 18 new players were recruited at Tynecastle, even the most optimistic Hearts supporters couldn’t have wished for a better start.
Craig Levein’s side have been setting the pace in the Premiership so far this season and the Jambos have opened up a healthy five-point gap at the league’s summit, after an impressive string of performances where Hearts have only failed to win on a single occasion – a 0-0 draw at home to Livingston a couple of weeks ago.
Even with Christophe Berra ruled out for the foreseeable future after suffering a serious injury, or last season’s top scorer Kyle Lafferty leaving the club, Hearts have consistently responded in the best possible fashion and deservedly lead at this early point in the campaign.
The Jambos’ strong start to the season has raised questions about whether or not Hearts can maintain this level of performance over the course of the season and offer a realistic title challenge. While results over the last couple of months have been impressive, it seems as though Hearts’ next few fixtures could ultimately define the Gorgie club’s season.
Hearts have yet to lose a match in any competition this season and aside from the stalemate with Livi, haven’t put a foot wrong in the league. This impressive start has been widely celebrated – and rightly so – but it’s also the case that Hearts should be winning these games anyway if they want to break into the top four. The win against Celtic is the obvious outlier here, but the Jambos are yet to play against Rangers, Hibs or Aberdeen.
Levein’s team will line up against all three this month – and against Celtic again, this time in the League Cup – in what is surely their biggest test of the season so far. Hearts have undoubtedly shown that they can consistently dominate teams further down the league table: now, Levein must prove that they can mix it with their top-four competitors.
Against lesser teams Hearts have generally had it their way: they average more passes, possession and shots than their opponents, but Levein will surely find that these next fixtures aren’t quite as accommodating. Where before Hearts have enjoyed the lion’s share of the ball, they’re now up against sides who seek to impose their will on a game, and usually do.
Rangers, Hibs and Celtic all average more possession and more passes than Hearts and it will be fascinating to see how Hearts react when the opposition attempts to seize the initiative. The Jambos are likely to be on the back foot for much of this upcoming run and a change in approach is likely required if they’re to be successful.
This weekend’s trip to Ibrox looks especially daunting for Levein’s men. Rangers have certainly struggled on the road this season but for all their faults away from home, the Gers’ home form has been nothing short of outstanding. Hearts are helped by the fact that Steven Gerrard’s team are involved in a Europa League fixture on Thursday night, but there is little doubt that this match will be Hearts’ most challenging fixture this season so far.
Hearts have impressed while in possession this year but the upcoming run of games will test the Edinburgh side’s defensive organisation and ability off the ball. Of course, this was the foundation of Hearts’ tactical approach last season and Levein has shown throughout his management career that he is more than adept at setting up a team in such a manner. But this is a new Hearts team, with new players and there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to perform similarly.
The stats so far this season, however, will encourage Levein. Hearts have one of the best-performing defences in the Premiership this season, suggesting that a change in approach could well be successful after all. Only three teams have faced fewer shots than the Hearts defence this season. Levein’s team are the Premiership’s second-best when it comes to successful defensive duels. Only Livingston manage more interceptions, and there are only two teams who attempt more aerial duels.
What this tells us is that Hearts are already doing all the right things at the back; the question now is whether or not the defence can maintain that level of performance when playing against a higher calibre of opponent. We’ve already touched on the excellent start to the season that John Souttar and Jimmy Dunne have enjoyed and if they can keep up the good work, there’s no reason to think Hearts can’t come out of October as they began it: on top of the league.
October looks as if it could prove to be definitive for Hearts’ season as a whole. After an electrifying start to the campaign, a run of defeats here could see the Jambos plummet down the table and put an end to any talk of a potential title. But if Hearts can make it through this run of fixtures and still be there or thereabouts in November, then they’ll have demonstrated that they’ve got what it takes to seriously trouble Celtic and will have to be considered legitimate title contenders. It’s going to be a big month for Hearts – and one that will define their season.