To me, one of the most interesting clubs in Europe is Hearts. You often don’t hear “interesting” and “Hearts” in the same sentence, but this recent iteration is worth following for a few reasons. The biggest is new manager Ian Cathro, one of the few top flight managers actually younger than me. He’s a well-regarded protégé of Nuno Santo and Rafa Benitez who has excelled as a tactics and scouting talent at a young age. The club has gone through some extreme hot and cold streaks but with Rangers struggling, a timely hot streak could see them qualify for a European qualification spot.
This weekend saw them facing an Aberdeen team that is playing the best of any club in Scotland not named Celtic. This is the kind of match where if the visitors could get a result, it would be a major boost to their top three chances. Both managers dragged out similar 4-5-1 formations but Hearts shifted early to a 4-2-3-1 with Sam Nicholson and Jamie Walker supporting Esmaël Gonçalves to either side. As often happens, both clubs decided to test the wings early to see if they could link up with their forwards. Aberdeen had the better early possession but on the counter Nicholson had a prime opportunity in front of goal only to sky his shot high. Instead, it was Shane Logan drifting in from the right to head a cross from McGinn (who dominated the left early) to score the first goal.
Aberdeen won the early battle as Goncalves was isolated up top for most of the half. This was due to Aberdeen winning most of the midfield battles and Hearts being unable to control this area of the pitch. Tziolis was a disaster early on which denied the visitors defensive steel in the back of the midfield to roam further. Approaching halftime, with Aberdeen ascendent, the BT Sports camera caught the Hearts Director of Football Craig Levein relaying tactical instructions via an assistant to the players. The big question as the clocks ticked to 45 was would the score remain 1-0 and what adjustments would Cathro make to get his lonely striker some support.
BT Sports reported as the second half kicked off that Levein was in the locker room at halftime, although what suggestions he made were unapparent as Hearts trotted out the same starting XI. Rather than bring on big Bjorn Johnsen immediately (for Tziolis) it took a second Aberdeen goal before the change was made. Instead of the Greek midfielder coming off, it was Djoum who had a poor game but was not sitting on a yellow. The match played out as to be expected, with Hearts using all three subs to try and find a better rhythm but it was all too little too late.
As a whole, Hearts looked second best to an in-form Aberdeen side. This was an important match for the visitors, however. If Celtic does the double, that could up another European place in the standings. Points in matches like these help Hearts qualify for that valuable European position.
The result means Aberdeen solidifies its hold on second while Hearts currently sits at fifth. However, the biggest question is what is the line of authority in the club. Derek Rae pointed out that in some countries the Director of Football sits on the bench. Cathro was hired for his tactical and scouting acumen; he is not a former player. If he is unable to get the tactics correct and needs a babysitter to help him through it, that bodes ill for the new manager. Time will tell if he needs to grow into his position, and the Scottish Premier League is more forgiving than many. However, the biggest outcome of this match may be the weakening of the position of one of Scotland’s brightest young managers.