On the face of it, last night was another good victory for Hearts. Liam Boyce’s penalty three minutes into the second half sealed a third consecutive league victory and temporarily moved the Edinburgh side twelve points ahead of closest challengers Dunfermline – although that’s before they play their game in hand today.
Dig a little deeper, however, and we find that this was actually a relatively worrying performance for Hearts. They lacked any sustainable form of creativity and looked disjointed throughout. In a season which Robbie Neilson should be using to prepare his squad for Premiership football, this style of play offers little in terms of hope.
Hearts, on paper, set up with a 4-2-3-1 system. Gary Mackay-Steven was on the left, Jamie Walker started on the right and Liam Boyce interchanged with Armand Gnanduillet in the striker and number ten positions. In theory, this talented front four should be among the most fluid in the Championship.
Instead, the system just didn’t seem to work. Ayr United, to their credit, got their first half tactics spot on; they gave Craig Halkett and Mihai Popescu time on the ball at the back, and initiated their press as soon as passes were made to Hearts’ full backs or double pivot. After fifteen minutes, Tom Walsh pressed well, won the ball back for his side and should have scored. Twenty-three minutes in and Cameron Smith closed down Andy Irving in a central area, dispossessed him and fired just wide of Craig Gordon’s post.
Ayr’s press was well organised, but it was made all the more effective due to Hearts’ lack of an effective out-ball. Liam Boyce worked his socks off and performed an admirable ball-carrying role, but was closed out of the opening forty-five minutes relatively well. Why? Because Hearts’ attacking play was far too narrow.
Jamie Walker may have been deployed on the right flank, but seemed discontent to stay there. He naturally drifted inside far too often, taking up both Boyce’s and Gnanduillet’s space. When either of the three received the ball, there was rarely a passing option on the right flank; Walker was too narrow and Michael Smith wasn’t playing high enough at full back to offer an overlapping run. With no out-and-out winger to worry about on their left side, Ayr were able to crowd Hearts out in central areas.
So surely Hearts, naturally, would turn and attempt to find Gary Mackay-Steven on their own left side? Alas, no. Mackay-Steven, strangely, seemed to be playing rather narrowly himself. The 30-year-old appeared intent on operating in the half space, cutting inside and trying to make things happen. As you can expect, this merely created more problems; Neilson’s side now found their entire front four trying to play in the same central areas. Not only were they crowded out by Ayr’s defensive lines, but they were crowded out by themselves.
Hearts were lucky with their goal in two ways. They were lucky to be awarded the penalty to start with, with the ball bouncing off Jack Baird’s thigh before striking his arm. Steven McLean, nevertheless, pointed to the spot and Boyle duly converted. They were also lucky that Boyle did score, because they didn’t look like finding the back of the net otherwise. Ayr’s press wavered in the second half as they tired, with Hearts dominating possession. Still, however, they failed to fashion any real chances of note. They were still playing too narrow, and they were still too easy to defend against.
The introduction of Gervane Kastaneer in the 66th minute made a notable difference. The Curacaoan, making his debut after joining on loan from Coventry City, immediately received a long ball in Hearts’ right channel. He controlled well, beat one man and retained possession for his side. Five minutes later, he fired a well-aimed cross into the Ayr penalty area which would have resulted in a tap-in had a teammate been in the right position. With fifteen minutes remaining, he controlled a long ball from Gordon, drove to the by-line and won a corner. The extra width he provided resulted in an immediate improvement in Hearts’ overall play, with more targets to aim for spread out across the pitch.
Kastaneer may not have directly created any big chances, but he certainly had a profound impact on his side’s play. By staying wider, he opened up more space across the pitch for the rest of his team. There was now more time for players in central areas and Hearts therefore bypassed Ayr’s tiring press more easily. The fact they still failed to create a wealth of chances will worry Neilson and fans alike, but it highlights the improvements they could make with their wide men doing what their job says on the tin – staying wide.
This was by no means a disaster for Hearts; they got the win, took the three points and travelled back to Edinburgh basking in the glory of further extending their lead at the top of the Championship table. However, they will need to find a more sustainable way of creating chances if they are to prepare for a higher calibre of opposition next season – and utilising the wide areas could be one way to do that.