Analysing how Hearts come alive when the ball is dead
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Written by: Blair Newman (@blaz_ftbl)
Heart of Midlothian are perhaps the most interesting team in the Scottish Premiership when it comes to attacking set pieces. They specialise in dead ball situations, and in this article I will analyse their most intriguing and consistently used routines. Before we get into that point, it’s worth noting the key individuals in Hearts’ attacking set plays.
Firstly, the takers. Olly Lee is excellent from corners and free kicks, while Michael Smith and Oliver Bozanic’s long throws offer a chance to hit the opposition penalty box from distance. Secondly, the receivers. Christophe Berra is an aerial threat, John Souttar is developing in this respect, while Steven’s Naismith and MacLean offer an alternative target through their ability with back to goal.
Now let’s look at the routines that make Hearts so dangerous (and fun to watch) from attacking free kicks, corners and throw-ins.
Hearts sealed a big win away to Kilmarnock recently, though they wouldn’t have picked up the three points were it not for a cleverly designed free kick. Already 1-0 up, they win a free kick near the Killie penalty box. Their setup involves three players around the dead ball – Smith, Sean Clare and Jake Mulraney – while Naismith positions himself on the end of Killie’s defensive wall.
Two of the players standing around the dead ball make runs towards the left-hand side of the wall. One, Mulraney, runs into the penalty area while the other, Smith, stops at the wall and helps Naismith to ensure the Killie players don’t have a clear path to Mulraney.
Thanks to some astute blocking, Mulraney is not closed down and is free to receive Clare’s pass deep inside the box. With nobody near him, the Irishman delivers a cut-back across the face of goal that Naismith prods into the net.
This wasn’t the first time Hearts made use of this free kick template. They did the exact same thing at home to Dundee two matches prior. Once again, there were three players around the dead ball – Lee, Smith and Demetri Mitchell. Once again, there was one player – Aidan Keena – on the edge of the opposition wall.
Smith again runs to join the edge of the wall and helps block the Dundee defenders from getting out to close down Mitchell, who runs round the outside of the wall and receives Lee’s pass in the penalty box.
Mitchell then has more time and space to deliver a cross into the six-yard box.
It appears that Hearts took inspiration for this move from Northern Ireland, who used the exact same routine (albeit with fewer runners and two players set up on the edge of the wall from the get-go) in a win over South Korea in March 2018. For evidence of this, check out the first goal in that game below. It’s worth noting that Austin MacPhee is assistant coach for both Hearts and Northern Ireland, so he may deserve the credit for this particular play.
Another free kick routine Hearts make regular use of involves a fake run. An example of this can be seen against Hamilton below. Two Hearts players stand over the dead ball, while Hamilton are keeping a high line.
One Hearts player, Lee, makes a run and pretends to be upset not receiving a pass from the other. While they ‘confer’, notice that two Hamilton defenders (circled) have strayed deep, deceived by Lee’s run.
The dropping back of two Hamilton defenders creates an opportunity for Peter Haring (circled) to break Hamilton’s line and make a run into the box. Lee loops back and crosses towards the Austrian.
While the cross was blocked, Hearts’ fake out meant they were at least able to manipulate the opposition’s line and open up a good crossing opportunity into a dangerous area.
Hearts used a new free kick routine at home to Livingston recently. While it hasn’t been seen regularly this term, it is interesting and future opponents may want to keep an eye out for it.
Once more, there are three players standing around the dead ball. One is a decoy and runs away from the situation into a deeper position, while another runs towards the edge of the opposition penalty area. This leaves Lee to take the kick. Meanwhile, on the far side of the box, three players have grouped together, indicating the area they occupy may be the target zone for Lee’s delivery. Clare hangs back from this cluster, preparing to make a run behind them.
The cluster of three make diagonal runs into the box as the kick is taken, dragging their markers with them. This creates space on the far side of the area, where Clare runs. Lee plays a lofted ball towards this area for Clare, who is in a 1v1 with forward momentum on his side, to contest an aerial duel. The intention appears for Clare to direct his header towards the cluster in the centre of the box.
Hearts are good from free kicks, but they really come alive in corner kick situations. Thanks to data from ORTEC, we are able to analyse where they put most of their corners, and how successful they are in these particular moments of the game.
Below is an example of the diagram ORTEC uses to show receiving locations of corner kicks. I have broken this down into four sections, which I will refer to when analysing Hearts’ corner preferences and comparing them to their league rivals. The four sections are labelled: short; near edge of penalty box; centre of penalty box; far edge of penalty box.
The data, along with the aforementioned labelling, correlates with what I have seen from watching Hearts’ attacking corner kicks. They tend to focus on balls into the centre of the opponent’s penalty box, or play on the ground to the near edge of the penalty box: 71.6% of their corners go to the centre, while 15.6% of their corners go to the near edge. In both cases, the percentages are higher than any other Scottish Premiership team.
You won’t see Hearts play many short corners – only 4.59% per ORTEC data and my labelling – while they are last for corners to the far edge of the penalty box, as they also hit this area just 4.59% of the time.
What these numbers tell us is that Hearts keep their opponents guessing with reasonable variety from corner kicks, focusing heavily on two different areas. Furthermore, they are one of the most effective teams when it comes to turning corners into shots. Only Celtic average more goal attempts per corner kick (0.35) than Hearts’ 0.34. Clearly, their variety works. Let’s go through some of their routines and techniques.
Hearts like to get the ball to feet as much as possible from corners. They regularly use pre-planned manoeuvres to find a player in the box with a pass along the ground, as opposed to constantly crossing it in the air.
Blocking is just as valuable to Hearts from corners as it is from free kick situations. It enables them to free up a man to receive, to feet, in the opposition box. Below, Berra (circled) isn’t even looking at the ball as it comes in from the right-hand side. Instead, he focuses on two Livingston players.
By getting his body in the way Berra is able to ensure Mulraney can get free from his marker and receive the pass un-marked.
Below is a more sophisticated example of Hearts’ subtle obstructions in the opposition box. Berra (circled) is again not interested in the corner kick itself. Rather, he gets his body in the way of two Dundee players, one of whom is supposed to be marking Clare. Keena, meanwhile, makes a run to the near-side edge of the six-yard box to receive the pass from the corner.
Clare has peeled off to the centre of the penalty box. Thanks to Berra’s help, he is absolutely free. Keena plays a first-time, no-look flicked pass to the Englishman. This is obviously rehearsed.
Berra’s efforts mean there is less pressure on the ball for Clare, whose marker can be seen trying, and failing, to sprint in and get in the way at the last second. There are still a lot of bodies between Clare and the goal, explaining why his shot was ultimately blocked, but the victory here is that Hearts were able to work a controlled finish at close range from a corner kick.
In the very same game, Hearts showed their variety even when deploying simpler corner routines. Here they overload the front post, with four players running into this area (circled). Simultaneously, Souttar peels off towards the back post, where Berra is also stationed. By overloading the front post, Hearts isolate two of their biggest aerial threats 2v2 at the far post, where the corner kick is aimed.
Up against teams that almost exclusively man-mark when defending corners, Hearts make use of sudden runs from their fastest individuals. Man-marking is reactive, and the runner always has the advantage of knowing what he’s doing before his marker does. This gives him time which, along with his pace, makes it difficult for the man-marker to keep up with him, making him free to receive in the penalty box.
At home to St Johnstone, Mulraney (circled in white) was the runner. Initially he entered the six-yard box, giving no indication whatsoever that he would be receiving to feet. But then he quickly darts out and around the congested area, freeing himself from his marker, Ricky Foster (circled in blue).
Having created extra time and space for himself, Mulraney receives to feet in the box and goes 1v1 against his opposite man.
A quick shimmy throws off Foster and allows Mulraney to work space for a dangerous low cross across the face of goal.
A similar movement was performed by Smith against Hibernian in the most recent derby. Below he stands idly in the opponent’s six-yard box, seemingly waiting for an in-swinging cross.
Then, one quick dash away from the congested area later, Smith finds himself completely un-marked in the Hibs penalty box. Receiving the corner kick to feet, he has time to control, look up, and flight a cross/shot towards the far post that is unconvincingly parried away by the goalkeeper.
Another ploy Hearts used against St Johnstone’s man-marking at corners involved grouping five players together in a very congested area of the opposition penalty box, as seen below. It’s difficult for each individual St Johnstone defender to maintain close man-to-man contact when the Hearts players are grouped together like this.
From this grouping, four Hearts players make forward runs on completely different lines, hitting the edge of the six-yard box at different points. Meanwhile, Arnaud Djoum moves backwards from the grouping and settles at the edge of the penalty box. From here he looks to latch onto any loose balls, continuing the attack or getting a shot off.
Here’s another fairly simple routine that Hearts made use of against Livingston recently. Mulraney sprints out towards the corner flag, suggesting he will receive a short corner from Lee and Hearts will try to work a cross from a better angle. This prompts two opposing defenders to rush out – one to cover Mulraney, the other to close down Lee – which in turn creates extra space in the centre of the penalty box.
Lee ignores Mulraney and doesn’t go short. Instead, he crosses towards the centre of the box, where extra space has been made for three Hearts players to run into and try to win a header.
After winning throw-ins deep in the opposition half, Hearts long throwers allow them to access the opposition penalty box without needing to set up a cross or cut-back. One play that has been utilised consistently this season involves a long throw into the box while two players run in from positions near the touchline, gaining momentum and facing goal, with the aim of picking up the second ball or shooting after the aerial duel.
Hearts’ long throw capacity offers an attacking opportunity, but they don’t always use it. Sometimes they threaten the long throw only to trick the opposition and throw short to feet. Below, Callumn Morrison sets up near the touchline as usual, seemingly with the intention of running in and attacking the second ball off the long throw.
However, having dragged his marker inside with him, he quickly pivots and sprints back towards the touchline. His pace and pre-knowledge of the routine means he can move quicker than his marker and work space to receive.
Below, Hearts again fake to throw long with their usual setup of four players in the box to challenge for the aerial duel and two players near the touchline looking to run in and secure the second ball or shoot. However, while one player runs in from the touchline, taking his marker with him, the other fakes before turning back and receiving to feet. As Livingston didn’t expect the short throw, this movement creates a 2v1 for Hearts.
Occasionally, Hearts will simply empty the touchline, leaving space for one player to move towards the touchline and receive the short throw. From here the receiver looks to combine with the thrower in a 2v2 to work a cross or cut-back. Below, Naismith receives the throw from Marcus Godinho before playing a through-ball for Godinho to run onto and cross into the opposition penalty box.
Naismith, like MacLean, is excellent at receiving with his back to goal. Both have good control and use their bodies well to hold off markers before laying off to teammates. Hearts make full use of their qualities from attacking throw-ins, constantly providing support in the form of at least two runners looking to receive the lay-off. While not a routine, these runs following the path of the throw-in appear deliberate.
Below, Naismith receives from a throw-in and two players run towards the area the throw is directed at. From here they offer an option for a lay-off. And, even if a continuous attack is not possible, they can at least offer support in picking up the second ball or instantly pressing the opponent.
Corners, free kicks and throw-ins may not be why most of us turn up to watch football, but they are important – and often overlooked – aspects of the beautiful game. With organisation and imagination, Hearts have managed to turn these moments into attacking opportunities. So, a word of advice to any team taking on Craig Levein’s men: when you put the ball out of play, do not switch off.
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