Thursday, August 2, 2018

2018/19 Premiership preview - Hearts

Heart of Midlothian FC logo.svg

LAST SEASON: Sixth, 49pts

NOTABLE INS: Oliver Bozanic (Melbourne City), Bobby Burns (Glenavon), Colin Doyle (Bradford City), Ryan Edwards (Partick Thistle), Ben Garuccio (Adelaide United), Peter Haring (SV Ried), Uche Ikpeazu (Cambridge United), Olly Lee (Luton Town), Steven Maclean (St. Johnstone), Jake Mulraney (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Kevin Silva (Rutger Scarlet Knights), Zdenek Zlamal (FC Zlin), Steven Naismith (Norwich City, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Angus Beith (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Jack Hamilton (Dundee), Jon McLaughlin (Sunderland), Ally Roy (Derry City), Rory Currie (East Fife, loan), Euan Henderson (Montrose, loan), Andy Irving (Falkirk, loan), Lewis Moore (Forfar Athletic, loan), Conor Sammon (Motherwell, loan), Joaquim Adao (Sion, end of loan), David Milinkovic (Foggia, end of loan), Demetri Mitchell (Manchester United, end of loan), Connor Randall (Liverpool, end of loan), Prince Buaben

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): McLaughlin, M. Smith, Berra, Souttar, Mitchell, Cowie, Adao, Djoum, Milinkovic, Lafferty, Naismith

This year's Hearts preview can't go any worse than last year's. Within 48 hours of me publishing it Ian Cathro was sacked, making the whole thing utterly irrelevant. Fingers crossed nothing happens to Craig Levein in the next couple of days.

That's the same Levein, of course, who as Director of Football was tasked to find the best available person to replace Cathro and ultimately appointed himself. You can't say he's short of self-belief.

But a lot of last season was spent largely undoing his predecessor's mistakes. Too many players were either not good enough or only suited to Cathro's system. Only now can it be said that the evidence of that disastrous spell has been largely wiped away.

Which in turn means Levein has no excuses if Hearts don't improve, particularly on their travels. At Tynecastle they looked comfortable, confident, capable of beating anyone. Away from home they were timid, unambitious and apparently concerned only with keeping the score approach which seemed to be encouraged by the dugout.

But this year's Jambos should be of a completely different vintage, not least because a remarkable twelve new players have been signed, along with a further loan deal for Steven Naismith. And they've been signed with a particular plan - 3-5-2 - in mind.

Which made it all the more concerning that the early League Cup games were a struggle; in all three the original formation had to be ditched at some point for one that would be more effective. Only in the final match, a 5-0 thumping of Inverness, could positive signs be found.

Of course, one inevitable issue that arises from so many newcomers is that finding the strongest XI can take time. With centre-back Peter Haring and forward Naismith both spending time playing in midfield, it's fair to say Levein has been experimenting. He could do with finding the right blend ASAP.

Amongst the few certainties is that Zdenek Zlamal is the new goalkeeper, though it will be a tall order to emulate the outstanding Jon McLaughlin. His centre-backs will be John Souttar, Christophe Berra and probably Haring, while 38 year old Aaron Hughes is back for one more season and will provide depth. With Berra showing no signs of slowing down and Souttar continuing to gradually improve, this should provide an excellent backbone.

Michael Smith, too often shoehorned into a midfield position he was ill-fitted for last year, should hopefully return to his natural right wing-back spot. It seems like youngster Calumn Morrison, previously seen as an attacker, is now being groomed to back up Smith.  On the other side, Australian Ben Garuccio looks like a good find, not least because of his dead ball prowess. Northern Irish starlet Bobby Burns is another decent option on that side of the park.

If Naismith's future is indeed in midfield, then there are plenty of options for the two positions alongside him. Fingers crossed Harry Cochrane and Anthony MacDonald get more first team action as they look like wonderful prospects. New boy Olly Lee looks like he'll be a first choice though, and there's the all-action Ryan Edwards, formerly of Partick Thistle, looking for a game too. Add in another Ozzie, Oliver Bozanic, and the imminent return from injury of Arnaud Djoum and there's certainly plenty of competition for places.

Note we haven't even mentioned the likes of Don Cowie, Ross Callachan, Danny Amankwaa or Malaury Martin so far; those four seem unlikely to play in the maroon again.

Up front, the situation will be more clearly once Kyle Lafferty's future is decided. The Northern Irishman did score an impressive 19 goals last year but, facetious as it sounds, did absolutely hee-haw else. His link-up play was rotten, his workrate erratic and too often he shot when he should have passed. But still, those goals.

If he was to leave for Rangers though, that would mean Levein could move forward with a combo of veteran Steven Maclean - the antithesis of Lafferty when it comes to link-up play - and the very impressive-looking Uche Ikpeazu, an absolute battering ram of a striker who terrorized League Cup opponents and looks like he could do the same in the league. And there's always Naismith.

Surely there's a decent team here amongst all these players. The trick will be finding it, and quickly. If they can, then Hearts will be much, much closer to the likes of Aberdeen, Hibs and even Rangers...maybe even in amongst them.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1997 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Colin Doyle, Kevin Silva, Zdenek Zlamal
Defenders: Daniel Baur, Christophe Berra, Jamie Brandon, Bobby Burns, Ben Garuccio, Marcus Godinho, Chris Hamilton, Peter Haring, Aaron Hughes, Cammy LoganLiam Smith, Michael Smith, John Souttar
Midfielders: Danny Amankwaa, Oliver Bozanic, Ross Callachan, Harry CochraneDon Cowie, Arnaud Djoum, Ryan Edwards, Olly Lee, Anthony MacDonald, Malaury Martin, Jake Mulraney, Alex PetkovConnor SmithDario Zanatta
Forwards: Uche Ikpeazu, Aidan KeenaKyle Lafferty, Steven MacLean, Leeroy Makovora, Calumn Morrison, Steven Naismith


Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

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