Hearts v Aberdeen

Match Analysis
Graeme Ellis

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Graeme Ellis

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There was no shortage of intriguing sub-plots as Hearts hosted Aberdeen in last weekend’s Scottish Premiership Match of the Day. With development of Tynecastle’s new stand ongoing, the Jambos relocated to the home of Scottish rugby, BT Murrayfield. It was Craig Levein’s first match of a second spell as Hearts’ manager, after he was appointed by….er, Craig Levein.

Hearts welcomed Aberdeen to Tyne, Murrayfield, with the Dons defending a 100% record that saw Derek McInnes’ side top of the league after four matches.

Line-ups

Levein made four changes to the side that lost to Motherwell in Jon Daly’s final match as interim manager, with Hearts set up in a 3-5-2 (3-5-1-1) formation.

Derek McInnes’ unorthodox version of 3-5-2 prompted Twitter user @euangtaylor to caption this BBC graphic, “When you play FM drunk.”

Width

Much had been made of the vast Murrayfield playing surface in the build-up. To offset this, Hearts had the pitch narrowed to the same dimensions as Tynecastle, a notoriously tight ground.

Shay Logan, normally a right wing-back, was utilised on the right of an unorthodox three-man Dons defensive line. In the image above, Logan’s starting position is already slightly advanced of his defensive colleagues as Dominic Ball dropped deep to take posession. Logan pulled out to a more familiar position on the right touchline to provide width. The space he and Ball had to move into is clear to see. Aberdeen then looked for the switch of play to drag Hearts players out of position.

On the opposite flank, Scott Wright provided the width, keeping Hearts’ right midfielder Connor Randall occupied. Clever movement from Stevie May gave Aberdeen their first scoring chance within two minutes. The Dons striker ran towards Kenny McLean in possession. John Souttar, on the right of Hearts’ back three, showed his inexperience by being drawn out with May. The youngster also got too tight to the Dons hitman, allowing May to spin and run into the space he had vacated. McLean dinked the ball over the top, and I think May was attempting to lob the ‘keeper, rather than cross to Adam Rooney. As it was, his ball almost made it to Rooney. Goal-side of Christophe Berra, Rooney was unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty as the Hearts man wrestled him to the ground.

Dons decision making

Aberdeen started well, pushing Hearts back as the Jambos resorted to fouls to disrupt the Dons’ rhythm. Perhaps in response to that early Dons chance, Randall moved to right back to give Souttar more support as Hearts now defended in two banks of four.

In the image above, Ryan Christie is on the ball with three passing options. All the space is in wide areas again. May is running into the shaded box into which Logan can also progress on the right. On the left, Scott Wright is in acres of space. But Christie took the wrong option and passed into a congested area where Hearts had numbers.

Aberdeen high press triggers

Aberdeen’s game plan was clear – wait for triggers to press high up the pitch and force turnovers in the offensive half.  On this occasion (pictured below) McLean won the ball and filtered it left. With Grzelak slow to get back, this was again the wrong decision as the space was all on the right. Aberdeen eventually recognised this and looked for the switch. As they did, Djoum failed to cover and the Pole was left in a 2v1 situation. Christie fed Logan on the overlap, which led to a dangerous crossing opportunity. This laboured build-up play from Aberdeen would become a feature of the match.

Hearts overload midfield

After a good start, Aberdeen began to lose their way as Hearts grew into the game. It was all beginning to look uncharacteristically disjointed from Derek McInnes’ men. This was, in no small part, thanks to Hearts compactness in midfield. In the example below, the Hearts back three have the Dons’ front two covered and there are no open passing channels to service them.

That’s because Jamie Walker had given Hearts six across the midfield. You can see from the lines cut in the grass that the action is tightly packed into a 12-yard vertical column stretching the width of the pitch. This was effective for Hearts despite Aberdeen also having six players in and around that zone. The maroon shirts were positioned such that they could easily adjust to double up on any Aberdeen player able to receive the ball.

Aberdeen were forced backwards and eventually resorted to an aimless long-ball. This was Hearts defending comfortably, giving themselves a foothold in the game from which to launch attacks of their own.

NB. It’s not like Craig Levein to have six in midfield  – thank goodness he at least left Isma up front this time, banishing memories of that 4-6-0!

Jambos transition

In stark contrast to Aberdeen’s slow and indecisive play, Hearts’ transition from defence to attack was swift and decisive. In this still, Christophe Berra is stepping out of defence, advancing into the middle third in possession. The landscape he is presented with is quite different to what we saw with Aberdeen. Berra has at least four potential passing options, admittedly of varying degrees of difficulty and efficacy.

However, the one thing that stands out is the space Hearts’ attacking players found themselves in. Isma, playing off the shoulder, got himself in between two defenders. With Logan tending towards his natural wide-right position, Considine was forced to follow Isma who was advancing on Anthony O’Connor’s blind side. With no Aberdeen left back on the pitch, Berra had huge spaces to aim for. The speed and directness of Hearts (this move began with the ball at the goalkeeper’s feet) allowed Connor Randall in behind the Dons defence after Berra’s excellent long, diagonal pass. It came to nothing on this occasion but was a sign of things to come.

Hearts coast to coast

The passage of play above shows Hearts going from box-to-box with three passes in eight seconds. An Aberdeen move broke down and Hearts’ sitting midfielder Arnaud Djoum was on hand to take control. By now Aberdeen’s attempted high-press was, quite frankly, shambolic. In image 1, Rooney, May and Graeme Shinnie all converge on Djoum from the same 180-degree axis, making it easy for the Hearts man to evade the press.

A one-two of sorts with impressive debutant Ross Callachan advanced Hearts into the midfield third. From there, Aberdeen’s midfield press was completely disjointed and mistimed. Djoum therefore had a wide-open vertical passing channel into the offensive third.

Worse still, Aberdeen’s disorganised press left no fewer than seven Dons players out of the game. By image 3 Hearts have a 3-on-3 situation with attackers goal-side of defenders in the sub-optimal position of running back towards their own goal.

It was from a similar scenario on the half-hour mark that Joe Lewis in the Aberdeen goal pulled off one of several outstanding saves that would earn him man of the match.

Maroon momentum

Hearts had clearly taken confidence from how they annulled Aberdeen’s early threat in the first half. The Jam Tarts began the second half much more aggressively without the ball. Their press – non-existent out of a low-block prior to the interval, now began much higher up the park.

In the example above, four Hearts players were involved in the press. Shay Logan was forced into an error, playing the ball straight out for a Hearts throw. Don Cowie, the instigator of the press could be seen applauding his teammates as Hearts affected the turnover and began to assert territorial dominance.

This next example (below) shows Hearts in control. Leading from the front, Isma starts the press. As soon as the ball is played inside, two Hearts midfielders converged on the pass receiver from different angles. The Aberdeen player has no choice but to knock it first time back to his defender, who was forced into a hurried clearance.

Off the woodwork

Pressure from Jamie Walker on a dithering Dominic Ball had Hearts flooding forward again soon after. Walker fed Isma, 40 yards from goal, and it was clever running from the impressive Callachan that created the opening for the Portuguese. The ex-Raith Rovers captain burst a gut with a 50-yard sprint on the overlap that allowed Isma to cut inside and unleash a shot that cannoned off the bar.

Has anyone seen Aberdeen’s shape?

Into the closing stages and you would be forgiven for not knowing which of these sides came into the match top of the league and which spent the opening months of the season in turmoil. Aberdeen were all over the place. This would be the most worrisome aspect for Derek McInnes on watching the game back.

Have a look at the image above and see if you can work it out – I couldn’t! What’s it supposed to be? There is no discernible structure to the visitors’ play by this point.

  • Two at the back: out of shot and denoted here by blue squares.
  • Deep-lying midfielders that look like a back four playing a ridiculously high defensive line.
  • A non-existent midfield: the Hearts players in the circled area probably wondered if aliens had abducted their opposite numbers.
  • Four players up top: showing precious little movement thus allowing defenders to mark them out the game.

Nevertheless, credit must go to Hearts and Craig Levein. I was a fan of Ian Cathro’s appointment, however, this game alone highlighted the difference. In 90 minutes under Levein, the same players arguably showed more tactical nous than was evident during the young pretender Cathro’s entire ill-fated tenure.

Levein’s lesson in teamwork

Hearts continued to work hard and showed great hunger and desire, even late in the game. Their attitude would suggest Levein has already laid down the law on the training ground. Aberdeen could do with studying their opponents’ teamwork before the weekend to see if they can pick up some tips.

Hearts were disciplined and waited for the right time to trigger their press. When they did, there was much to admire about the synchronicity with which they went about their task.

This passage of play was quite simply superb from Hearts. McLean received the ball from the throw-in, looked up and saw that a switch of play to Logan was about his only option with the Dons midfield posted missing again. (On 78:55, three of Aberdeen’s midfielders are standing in a line, 12 yards apart, tight to the touchline.)

As the pass is played, Grzelak and Cowie have recognised the trigger. Both were on the move to close Logan down before the ball even left McLean’s foot. Cowie saw that Grzelak would get to Logan first and covered in behind to screen Ryan Christie. Grzelak’s press forced Logan to pass.

That triggered Lafferty to press O’Connor. Again, before the Aberdeen player had even released the ball, Hearts substitute Manuel Milinkovic was on his bike – sprinting 25 yards from the halfway line to press Andrew Considine. The defender worked the ball out to the right touchline to Kenny McLean and Aberdeen were right back where they started. Except this time Ross Callachan and Milinkovic converged in a double-press. Connor Randall gratefully accepted the subsequent gift of possession from McLean.

It really was magnificent pressing from Hearts and they were equally adept in possession after successfully forcing the turnover. One and two touches and quick, incisive passing allowed Callachan to measure a cross for the unmarked Kyle Lafferty in the box. Lafferty should perhaps have taken the shot on, first-time, but to criticise would be harsh. Instead, he elected to take a touch and Logan was able to get back and clear the ball for a corner.

Conclusion

It was not a bad match for a 0-0! Lots to learn about both sides. Aberdeen, the league leaders at kick-off don’t forget, have goalkeeper Joe Lewis to thank for escaping the capital with a point. Derek McInnes was by far the happier of the two managers with the draw, and admitted as much in his post-match interview.

I would stop short of saying this was a tactical masterclass from Craig Levein. After all, Hearts could and possibly should have won the match. What Levein has done though, is immediately toughen the Jambos up, making them a much more daunting proposition for the teams yet to face them.

Aberdeen had an undeniably bad day at the office. In truth, they have flattered to deceive in all of their five matches to date. Despite this, they still have their unbeaten record intact with four wins and a draw. That speaks volumes for the character, not to mention the ability, within the squad that Derek McInnes has assembled at Pittodrie.

Interesting times lie ahead, but the future looks bright for Aberdeen and Heart of Midlothian.

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