"Everything’s turned from gold…into shit!” That’s pretty much how best to summarise Hearts in the 2016/2017 campaign. Before the season began there was plenty to be optimistic about – a relatively settled squad who’d finished third, the prospect of a few rounds in the Europa League, Connor Sammon…
All the ingredients were in place to have a solid, if unspectacular season again but by the time December came around Hearts were staring uncertainty in the face and by May many fans were debating whether or not to renew their season tickets.
When Robbie Neilson departed at the end of November to take over MK Dons many Hearts fans were of the opinion that he’d taken the club as far as he could, that we were an eyesore under his leadership and he’d failed to learn from his mistakes in “big games”. He left Hearts in 2nd place after 15 games, having only lost 3, drawn 5 and won the rest (it’s important to highlight here, when Hearts were 2nd, Aberdeen were 4th, two points behind with two games in hand). For all the complaints some fans had against him, he was getting the very best out of a limited squad. His record at MK Dons has been impressive and the decision to opt for League One appears to be paying off.
This was the point where Hearts season effectively ended. In hindsight many fans, and arguably many players, mentally checked out and it’s where the air of relative positivity was replaced with a shrug of the shoulders and an acceptance that these games were now a write off. Once Hearts exited the cup again at the hands of Hibs it felt like there was nothing really to play for.
The appointment of Ian Cathro made sense. A young and highly regarded coach with a background that included the Spanish, Portuguese and English top flights, able to fit in to the existing coaching structure and who shared the same vision as the club in regards to playing style and mentality. What could go wrong?
Everything it seems.
Within a month Hearts had lost Callum Paterson & John Souttar to long term injury. The loss of Paterson has been devastating to Hearts. His attitude, application and most importantly, goals have been sorely missed and something Hearts may never be able to replicate. Those two blows in defence were exacerbated with the sale of Igor Rossi and Alim Ozturk – most of Hearts defence from the previous season, which had only conceded 40 goals, was now gone. Solidity and consistency were to rarely frequent Hearts defence from January onwards.
The options at the other end of the park were just as thin. Connor Sammon signed in the summer and looked to be more suited to guarding a nightclub door than becoming Hearts much sought after 20 goal a season striker. His work rate shouldn’t be faulted – he ran the channels well and was happy to drop deep, working hard to bring others in, but ultimately when he got near goal you said a quiet prayer for the kids sat in row 17 who were about to be ballooned in the face.
The final hurdle was losing Arnoud Djoum for a month while he went to represent Cameroon at the African Cup of Nations. Hearts were now without one of their best players from last season, their defence was decimated and they had no options up front. One of the first things the club had to do off the back of appointing Cathro was to fill out his squad – this has been arguably the biggest failing of the season.
Hearts are no stranger to a crazy January transfer window. In January of2006 effectively a whole new starting 11 was signed, with many of those signings having as significant an impact as those signed this January. Remember The Bosnian Bullet…
Quality was needed in January. Hearts opted for a mixture of quantity as well as quality. Fatten up the squad and then it won’t be such a perilous situation should injuries arise again. That decision was sold. High calibre signings like Alexandros Tziolis and Andraz Struna, international players who’d played in some of Europe’s hardest leagues were, on paper, excellent additions. Isma Goncalves, a striker who’d played and scored in Scotland before as well as being known to both the management was a no brainer. Throw in another option at left back, another defender and more options in midfield, it now felt “balanced” in the squad again.
It soon transpired that the quality signings of Tziolis and Struna no longer appeared to be up to scratch. Tziolis strolled through his first few games and Struna bombed up and down the flank with purpose. A handful of games later the pair looked like they’d had their feet surgically removed. Tziolis especially gave off the impression of a player who knew he wasn’t going to be here the second the season was over and was doing everything in his power to stay fit and nothing else.
Soon it became evident that the “quantity” signings were not of the desired standard. Leonard Sowah could not hold his position defensively, defender Tasos Avlonitis appeared to be the Greek version of George Weah’s cousin, Malary Martin was in dire need of a pre-season to bring his fitness up to scratch and Moha Choulay, a winger who arrived on loan from Stoke was not cut out for the physical demands of Scottish football, despite being a technically gifted player.
Some of these signings could well be worth keeping on the books and working hard with the backroom staff over the course of a close/pre-season, but other’s should never have been able to put pen to paper.
Then Djoum arrived back from Africa as a cup winner. Something positive at last for the Hearts fans to cling on to. A player who would inject power and drive back into the midfield. A player who could contribute goals…
Sadly, he returned as a completely different, uninterested player, who simply hasn’t been at the races since he returned to Edinburgh. If you know the whereabouts of the real Arnoud Djoum, please contact Hearts immediately.
In the 6 months since he took charge, Ian Cathro has evidently been trying to implement his own style onto this Hearts squad. Where Neilson had his players more geared up to retain the ball in defence, often opting for long diagonals to Paterson or looking to battle for the second ball, Cathro has tried to work the ball from defence to attack, with more emphasis on fluidity, trying to dominate possession and moving with purpose in the final third. At times it has worked;
- 61% possession against Kilmarnock with 18 shots at goal
- 50% possession against Rangers with 16 shots at goal
- 58% possession against Motherwell with 18 shots at goal
- 57% possession against Inverness with 20 shots at goal
A handful of examples in 20 plus games isn’t ideal. There has been a problem in converting these chances into clear cut shots on target and into goals. Hearts have had 275 attempts at goal since Cathro came in, 108 of them on target but that has only resulted in 24 goals – effectively a goal every 5 shots on target.
This change in style hasn’t worked paid off for Hearts yet. It makes for grim reading when you look at results since December;
- Played : 22
- Won : 5 (22.73%)
- Lost : 13 (59.09%)
- Drawn : 4 (18.18%)
Many will argue that if it’s not working, if players can’t replicate what’s being done on the training ground then tactics should change – the cry is often for a flat back four and two up top, but the two best teams in the league this season have both operated with a loan striker but have been able to support them more than adequately from midfield. Too often Hearts main striker has been isolated and by the time they’re able to join in an attack teams have been able to regroup and nullify the threat.
Hearts will argue there is a bigger picture here. There is a need to persevere with this for these 6/8 months, this teething period, so that it comes good when the new season rolls in. Players will be more understanding of the system and will have had more experience of it. It also takes a long time to weed out the “hump it up the park” mentality that is a default for a lot of players, but one of the complaints lodged against Robbie Neilson was unenjoyable football, so if the club are to produce something entertaining on the park, you have to allow for time for that to be implemented.
So where do Hearts and Ian Cathro go from here? Despite the head coach’s claims that they are only looking to recruit a handful of players, this close season requires some major comings and goings. There is far too much deadwood within the current squad which needs to be moved on to a club foolish enough to take them on, or released from their deals. When it comes to new players, Hearts need to ditch the current recruitment process which appears to involve John Murray and Craig Levein sitting at home watching Wyscout videos in their pants, before texting an offer to an agent, in favour of a much more thorough and methodical approach. Using Wyscout can be used to identify a player but there is now time to bring these players in during the close season and work with them closely on the training ground before offering deals. The club needs more signings like Isma Goncalves and less like Juwon Oshaniwa.
There are some talented kids that can be pushed through into the first team squad. Rory Currie and Jamie Brandon have not been phased by their appearances. Dario Zanatta has had a stint on loan in the lower leagues which will stand him in good stead and perhaps the 2017/2018 will finally be the season that Angus Beith appears from the shadows.
There is plenty to be positive about off the park at Tynecastle, but in order to fill the new stand, there needs to be a signal of intent from the club that this season is not the standard expected or accepted by the club and that the coming season is about challenging at the top, not floating around the middle. If Ian Cathro thought these first six months were tough, the next six are going to be ball breakers.