Hearts deservedly defeated a toothless Hibernian side in the first Edinburgh derby of the season. Even though the football on display was not of the highest quality, it was an intriguing ninety minutes with plenty of commitment from both sets of players.
Paulo Sergio made eight changes from the 0-0 draw at White Hart Lane but only one change from their previous league outing. Ian Black returned from suspension and took his place in centre midfield alongside David Obua and Adrian Mrowiec. The inclusion of Obua suggested a 4-2-3-1 formation, however, the Ugandan international was deployed in a more reserved role in a tight central midfield three, meaning that the home side lined up 4-3-3.
Colin Calderwood made three changes from the league defeat to St. Mirren last week, dropping David Wotherspoon, Viktor Palsson and David Stephens in favour of Sean O’Hanlon, Junior Agogo and new loan signing Richie Towell. There was also a change in shape for the Easter Road side as Matt Thornhill was moved out to the left of midfield in a 4-4-2 formation.
The respective shapes meant that Hearts enjoyed an extra man in the centre of midfield. Further, their full-backs pushed on at every opportunity, forcing Thornhill and Ivan Sproule into defensive duties for most of the first half. The result was that Hearts edged possession.
Hearts focus down the left but get joy down the right
It is clear that the new manager is trying to instil a pass-from-the-back approach at Tynecastle, equally clear that some of the players aren’t suited to it and are finding it difficult to shake off their old habit of lumping the ball down the channels.
Club captain Marius Zaliukas, no stranger to the odd howler, was guilty of a few stray passes in the first half and Andy Webster, his central defensive partner, hit a few high, inaccurate passes in the direction of Andy Driver.
The exclusion of John Sutton, even from a place on the bench, is further evidence that Sergio is sceptical of fielding a target man as his lone striker and that he wishes his side to retain possession and create opportunities through passing moves, as opposed to feeding off knock-downs and second balls.
Conversely Hibernian took a direct approach, choosing to field two big strikers that they were all too happy to hit with long, direct passes. Agogo would look to drop off into space but his movement was tracked, more often than not, by Mrowiec.
The Hibs front two pressed the Hearts defenders, forcing them into the mistakes referred to above, although the rest of the side failed to follow suit. This meant that large gaps appeared between the Hibs front two and back eight, another reason why Hearts made better use of their possession.
Hearts attempted to play the ball to Driver at every opportunity and get him running at Towell. He rarely got the better of the Hibs right-back however, as Hearts struggled to create anything clear cut.
The teams had largely cancelled each other out – with Hibs missing the best chance of the half through Garry O’Connor – until around five minutes before half-time when a mistake allowed Hearts to take the lead.
Callum Booth tried to pick out Thornhill inside his own half. The pass wasn’t the greatest but the recipient was also at fault and allowed Jamie Hamill to disposes him before exchanging passes with Ian Black and cutting the ball back for Ryan Stevenson who finished from seven yards.
Further blame can be thrown the way of Isaiah Osbourne who made little attempt to track Stevenson’s run.
Hibernian emerged from the second half a different side. Calderwood moved Sproule to just behind the front two and Thornhill to the right in a midfield diamond formation. With the Hibernian full-backs pushing on for the first time in the match, they now enjoyed a man advantage in the midfield zone.
For the best part of ten minutes they had Hearts on the ropes, however, as soon as the home side created their first chance of the half, the momentum again swung their way. From then on there was only ever going to be one winner.
The advantage of enjoying an extra man in the centre of midfield, via a diamond formation, was outweighed by the formation’s major flaw. The narrow nature of the midfield means that the full-backs become exposed when defending. With the wide players Hearts possess, and the attacking nature of their full-backs, along with the poor form of Callum Booth so far this season, it was no surprise that Hearts created several opportunities down the Hibs left-hand side.
Three chances in quick succession were created down this side: Booth was nowhere to be seen when Stephen Elliott forced Graham Stack into a save; Stevenson then got in behind the same player to cut back for Elliott, who this time hit the post; and finally Hamill wasted an opportunity by electing to shoot when he should have cut the ball back for a tap in.
Calderwood responded by withdrawing Sproule and Agogo for Akpo Sodje and Leigh Griffiths on the hour mark, moving to a 4-3-3 formation. The difference between the 4-3-3 formation of Hearts and that of Hibernian was that Hearts’ wide players are more naturally wide players/midfielders who looked to track back. Hibernian’s were strikers who stayed in attack waiting for their side to work the ball forward.
Hearts increased their lead minutes later when Webster headed in a Hamill corner, an attack that again originated down the Hibs left side, although on this occasion the blame cannot be directed towards Booth.
Yet another comfortable victory for Hearts in the Edinburgh derby. The home side certainly weren’t at their best but were up against a side devoid of confidence and, it seems, any kind of coherent strategy.
Against Kilmarnock, two of the four goals Hibernian conceded were a direct result of crosses from the right and in this match; it was again their main weakness. Booth was partly at fault for the opening goal but his second half performance was as much down to his manager’s decision to leave him exposed after the change in formation.
After all the pre-Towell talk of Hibernian requiring a right-back, it now seems that the opposite side needs to be addressed.
Hearts’ new approach under Paulo Sergio is beginning to take shape although it is yet to be seen whether or not the players’ mentality can be altered to fit how he wants the side to play. The centre-backs are not the best ball-players and the lack of a deep-lying playmaker to aid transitions to attack may also be detrimental.
Obua was played in a deeper role and had a decent match but has failed to hit anything near a good run of form in his three years at the club. Scott Robinson may possess the required attributes but is still largely untried as a first team regular.