Hearts recorded their first league win of the season with a comfortable victory over a poor Aberdeen side.
Paulo Sergio lined up his side in a 4-2-3-1 formation with David Templeton and Arvydas Novikovas deployed as inverted wingers. Scott Robinson started alongside Adrian Mrowiec in central midfield due the suspension of Ian Black. Ryan Stevenson started as the more advanced of the central midfield three but as the first half progressed, Stevenson took up increasingly advanced positions, making Hearts’ shape resemble more of a 4-4-2.
Craig Brown made three changes from his side that lost at St. Mirren Park last week, bringing back Fraser Fyvie and Youl Mawene after their recovery from injury and Rory McArdle at the expense of Pater Pawlett, Clark Robertson and Josh Magennis. They lined up in a narrow 4-4-2 with Robert Milsom and Fyvie, the widest of the midfield four, as auxiliary midfielders as opposed to wingers. Wingers, and thus a certain amount of creativity, are what Aberdeen lack at the moment and this was evident throughout the ninety minutes.
Hearts use width, Dons lack creativity
Hearts began the match attempting to play the ball out from the back but due to Aberdeen’s pressing and the lack of movement further up the pitch, for example, midfielders dropping deep to collect the ball from the defenders, they were forced to knock the ball long more often than not.
Aberdeen started the brighter and were unlucky not to open the scoring on eleven minutes when a Kari Arnason header crashed off the bar. Aberdeen included three centre-backs in their back four plus the likes of Scott Vernon and Arnason, meaning they were a big, physical side. Hearts struggled to cope when defending set-pieces and were lucky not to concede from any of them.
Unfortunately this was the only department where Abderdeen were threatening. The set-up of their midfield relative to Hearts’ was strange. Isaac Osbourne and Arnason, both defensive midfielders, started in the middle, with Fyvie and Milsom, two more creative players, either side but still narrow.
With Stevenson often positioned beyond Aberdeen’s two central defensive midfielders and Scott Robinson and Mrowiec always behind the ball, Hearts didn’t possess too much threat through the middle. Where they did possess a threat was down the flanks: Novikovas and Templeton are tricky players and were often offered support by their advancing full-backs.
Further to this, the Aberdeen full-backs failed to provide any width. Rory McArdle, normally a centre-back, isn’t the type to advance, and even so he was pinned back by Templeton, and Richard Foster, naturally a right-sided player, always looks to cut inside on to his right foot.
The narrow nature of Aberdeen’s midfield played to Hearts’ strength and it was no surprise that two of the three goals came from wide areas. The first saw Mawene knock on a Danny Grainger cross into the path of Novikovas, who cut inside and on to his stronger foot – one of the benefits of inverted wingers – before finishing.
Hearts increased their lead ten minutes before half-time when John Sutton tapped in a Templeton cross. The lack of a challenge from McArdle when Templeton advanced with the ball allowed the young winger to head for the byline and knock the ball across goal.
Both sides made changes at the break. Aberdeen replaced Darren Mackie with Pawlett, who took up a right-sided midfield role, with Fyvie now playing must off Vernon in attack. Rudi Skacel was introduced for the home side after Novikovas picked up a knock. Stevenson was moved out to the right with Skacel taking up a central position. The change saw Hearts return to more of a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Hearts added a scrappy goal seven minutes into the second half when Robinson prodded the ball through to an unmarked Sutton who beat the advancing David Gonzalez to the ball to claim his second of the match.
The goal all but ended the match as a contest although things could have been different had Fyvie done better with a few opportunities that fell his way in his now more advanced role. The eighteen –year-old found himself in plenty of space after a Milsom cross but could only fire wide. Around a minute later Fyvie was found in the box once more by Milsom, this time via a reverse pass, but his ball into a crowded area was a poor one.
Ryan Jack was introduced for McArdle, possibly with the intention of providing more impetus and width from full-back, and Josh Magennis replaced Scott Vernon but both failed to make any impact on proceedings.
The match then entered a phase of endless long balls. Aberdeen’s strategy from the off was direct in nature but they failed to make the ball stick in advanced areas. It appears that Hearts have been instructed by their new manager to build from the back – they started the match attempting it and at one point Sergio could be seen shaking his head after the umpteenth punt up-field from Kello – but it seems alien to them. The centre-backs don’t seem the most comfortable at this approach and, as noted earlier, there was a distinct lack of willingness from the midfielders to drop deep and collect the ball from them.
Not the best performance Hearts will ever put in but a comfortable victory against a poor side nonetheless. In wide areas they have players who can beat men and whip in dangerous balls and there seems to be the potential for goals from many areas of the pitch.
The victory instead must go down as a poor performance from the away side. They defended abysmally, lacked creativity in midfield and their narrow set up – both in terms of their midfield four and the lack of width provided by their full-backs - merely played to the strengths of Hearts.