Hearts' Surrender: How Hearts Wilt in Adversity

Written by: Dougie Wright (@dougie_wright)

For Hearts, 2017/18 was a funny one.

Sacking Ian Cathro on the eve of the first game of the season shelved any talk of a “project” as Craig Levein rolled up his sleeves and took on his first management role since 2012.

On the face of it, the results were fairly decent.

Given the turbulent start, a 6th place finish was reasonable. The club had been one of the worst in the league under Cathro, and Craig Levein was certainly able to arrest the decline.

There were highlights too. Moving into Tynecastle with its brand new main stand, beating Celtic 4-0, then not only knocking Hibs out the Scottish Cup, but ultimately denying them of a crack at finishing second. Furthermore, only Celtic and Aberdeen conceded fewer goals than the Edinburgh side.

Yet there was something really, really weird about the Hearts team of 2017/18: when they went behind in a game, they just completely lost it.

Most teams in the league attack more when they go behind.

It’s as logical as it is obvious: you need to score to get back in the game, while your opponents will probably become more defensive as they try to protect their lead.

Here’s what happened to Hearts on the 15 occasions they went behind last season:

  • They were outshot by a ratio of 2:1. When losing, Hearts conceded 127 shots and only took 65. The only team to crawl into more of a shell last season was Partick Thistle when they were winning (and only marginally so):
Screen Shot 2018-05-26 at 10.08.58.png

 

  • They created the worst chances in the league. Expected goals measures the quality of chance a team creates looking how many goals went in from similar situations in the past (location on pitch, defensive pressure, whether it was a header/shot). When they’re losing, Hearts take shots that usually go in around 8% of the time. Just for visual clarity, here’s what one of these 8% shots looks like:

Usually from outside the box and under pressure. You might hit it really sweetly and see the ball nestle in the back of the net, but this is certainly not a reliable way to score goals.

When the going got tough, Hearts got bombarded and could only create really terrible chances. In simple terms, Hearts’ attack basically died when they started losing.

This is borne out in their points total. They fell behind on fifteen occasions in 2017/18, and they clawed back a point just twice. Again, the worst in the league.

So what’s happening to them?

Put simply, Hearts are a one dimensional team.

Chance creation maps show you where on the pitch teams set up their chances from. Here are some examples of teams from around the league:

Kilmarnock:

Killie Chance Creation.png

 

Aberdeen:

Aberdeen Chance Creation.png

 

Hibs:

Hibs Chance Creation.png

All of the above may have focal points, but they’re generally fairly spread out right across the top of the penalty box. These sides have it in their locker to come in through the left, right, or the centre.

Here’s Hearts’ map:

Hearts Chance Creation.png

 

This is bad because:

  • This small bubble means it’s predictable where Hearts’ attacks will come from.
  • It’s still from pretty far out the penalty box.
  • It proves that Hearts barely ever get “in behind” out wide.

It’s stale and predictable. And when Hearts are losing, it’s the easiest thing in the world for a team to plonk their defensive line behind it and mop up this one dimensional play. Hearts simply don’t have the collective creativity up front to consistently stretch a defence.

The good news for Hearts fans is that they don’t go behind often. As soon as they lose the ball, the drawbridge goes up. The defensive line drops deep and they look to bring everybody behind the ball, clogging up the central corridor of the pitch as best they can.

However there is a chronic reticence to bring their fullbacks and midfielders forward, even when they’re losing.

This resulted in only Partick Thistle and Dundee scoring fewer goals than Hearts last season.

Nobody needs an explanation of how vulnerable this makes the Tynecastle side.

If teams start finding ways to beat their defence more regularly, Hearts will drop down the table like a lead balloon. With the best keeper in the league, Jon McLaughlin, moving on in the summer, you cannot take for granted that Hearts will be able to replicate their defensive performances next time around.

Unless Hearts fix this, they’re in big trouble indeed.

This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.