Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Turning water into wine: A reappraisal

After reading Stuart Bathgate’s piece in the Scotsman this morning, I thought it appropriate to write a follow up of the article I wrote for the Terrace Scottish Football Podcast recently.
Bathgate’s views are markedly more pessimistic than my own, although he was writing in the wake of an utterly inept Hearts performance at McDiarmid Park on Sunday, whereas my own views were put forward after a five match unbeaten run in the SPL, which saw the club climb to within a point of third place Motherwell.
It is an age-old, perhaps justified, criticism of football journalists and commentators that the performances of smaller sides are often overlooked after defeating a supposedly superior side.  The same reproach may be directed towards me after what follows (especially if Angus reads this), but the focus of my opinions in what follows solely regard Hearts.
The defeat by St. Johnstone on Sunday, Paulo Sergio’s first defeat in six SPL matches, sparked an explosion of knee-jerk responses on forums and comment sections.  Whereas a week ago most disgruntled Hearts supporters were calling for a change of style, the consensus amongst this particular group now seems to be for a change in manager.
This would be drastically premature, however. 
Sergio has barely been in the job two months and is currently working with a group of players that are not his own.  I remember a time when managers were afforded at least three or four years to assemble a squad and implement their ideas, and I’m not that old!
In his first spell as Hearts manager, I recall Jim Jefferies asking for patience (years, in fact) as he sorted out the mess he inherited from the previous incumbent.  Three years later he brought the Scottish Cup back to Gorgie for the first time in forty-two years.
I am not claiming that Paulo Sergio is going to eventually be the first manager outside the Old Firm to win the Scottish Premier League title since Alex Ferguson in 1985, nor am I trying to assert that Sergio inherited a mess from Jefferies, but the facts are that the side were on a terrible run of results – relegation form, to be frank – and he has turned this around already.  Furthermore, changing something as fundamental as the playing style, in such a dramatic fashion, will, without doubt take some time.
The strategies he wishes to implement are high risk, however, when mastered can be the most devastating.
As has been well documented, the players at his disposal are not suited to the patient build up play he desires and he has, as yet, had little room for manoeuvre regarding signings.  The timing of his appointment didn’t suit his change in style, but this is no fault of his own.
He will, at least, require two transfer windows before he will have anything near the squad required.
In saying that, until then, he would do well to adopt a more pragmatic outlook, for certain encounters at least.  John Sutton remains the club’s top scorer this season with two goals, despite not being involved in the last seven fixtures.  Reservations of fielding a target man may need to be put on hold until he has the types of players able to effectively work intricate passing moves from deep positions.
The match on Sunday is a perfect case in point.  St. Johnstone set their stall out to sit deep and break with speed after regaining possession.  The intelligence of Francisco Sandaza and the pace of Cillian Sheridan were able to exploit the high defensive line of Hearts, after the away side conceded possession cheaply, and the pair linked up again in similar fashion for the second goal.
After taking the lead, the home side were then able to sit deep, squeeze the space between the lines and look on as Hearts’ play grew more and more frustrated.  Adapting to the circumstances, i.e. bringing on a target man that at least gives you the option of going direct, would surely have served Sergio better than stubbornly insisting on instructing his side to pass the ball across the backline and wait for a good passing option ahead.
A dearth of movement from middle-to-front, coupled with lack of a midfield player to drop as deep as the centre-backs, collect the ball and then spark attacks, meant that Hearts rarely enjoyed possession in the final third of the pitch.
Target men are almost designed for matches where the opposing side are intent on defending deep, when your own patient passing approach is failing and the ball won't stick in advanced areas.  Even some top sides across Europe use knocking the ball direct to a target man as an option, not just clubs in the SPL.
But even though it is apparent Sergio’s methods aren’t quite working, another change in manager at this stage of the season is not the answer, and I find it rather amusing that some supporters who are calling for the manager’s head are the same ones who berate the owner for his apparent lack of patience.  One defeat - two, if you include the cup exit to Ayr United on penalties – and the usual mob are chucking their scarfs and kicking their hats.
It is certainly time for Sergio to give some of the others in the squad an extended run in the first team, along with adopting a variance in approach - at least during matches when the current one is so obviously failing – but time for another manager it is not.

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