This season Rangers Report will run a series of Match Previews entitled, the Big Three, prior to each match. Rather then write in generalities about teams I rarely see – we will ask people who follow the opponent on a daily basis to provide some insight on their club. Their task is to identify a Big Three — three aspects of their club that Rangers supporters should keep an eye on.
Hearts have undergone a transformation over the last year since their financial collapse threatened the club’s existence. They emerged from administration in June and have a new owner, Ann Budge, with long-term plans to hand over control to the fans’ group, Foundation of Hearts. They also have a new director of football, Craig Levein, and head coach, Robbie Neilson. Eight new players have arrived and they are determined to nurture both players and coaches as part of a new philosophy. Relegation was confirmed in May after a 15-point deduction for entering administration last summer. They knew for some time that they would spend this season in the Championship and have had plenty time to prepare accordingly.
Hearts of Midlothian: The Big Three
1. Key Players
Former Rangers goalkeepers Neil Alexander and Scott Gallacher have joined Hearts. Striker James Keatings arrived from Hamilton, Prince Buaben from Carlisle United, and Soufian El Hassnaoui from Sparta Rotterdam. However, Hearts’ most influential players will be striker Osman Sow, midfielder Morgaro Gomis, and centre-back Alim Ozturk.
Sow arrived as a free agent after leaving Crystal Palace and has scored four goals in four games this summer. His pace and physical presence at 6ft 4in tall make him a huge goal threat. He previously scored in European competition with the Moldovan club Dacia Chisinau and has come to Edinburgh to rejuvenate his career after a disappointing spell in London. He barely played at Palace but has the attributes of someone who could go on to feature at a higher level.
Gomis left Dundee United to become the anchorman in Neilson’s midfield and is the player who dictates Hearts’ play. His energy, awareness and passing ability will be a major asset in a team which will be instructed to play football on the ground. Gomis is partnered by Prince Buaben, his former Tannadice colleague, but is definitely the more dynamic of the two midfielders. He works well in both defensive and attacking areas.
Ozturk, an aggressive but flamboyant defender, joined Hearts from Trabzonspor on a three-year contract. He is still only 21 but is a commanding presence alongside the former Rangers player Danny Wilson in central defence. Ozturk is strong and quick and isn’t averse to a 50/50 challenge, but having grown up in Holland his instinct is to pass from defence rather than kick long. He will also showboat occasionally if the opportunity is there.
2. The Head Coach
Neilson was on Rangers’ books as a teenager but made his name as a reliable right-back at Tynecastle. This is his first venture into management. He was promoted from his role as Hearts Under-20 coach by Levein and has modern, imaginative ideas on coaching and how football should be played. Neilson played his part in the club’s summer signings and also spent time giving existing young players the confidence to go and express themselves. His man-management will be just as important as his team selections and formations, and this is an area where he excels. Losing Callum Paterson with a knee injury was a pre-season blow for Neilson but he can choose between Jordan McGhee and Liam Smith to deputise at right-back.
3. Tactical Approach
Expect a 4-2-3-1 formation from Hearts, which will become 4-4-2 when they attack. The approach under Neilson is to stay solid and tight in defence and then build play from the back. The head coach wants his team playing football at a tempo as they move through midfield, where Gomis has a lot of responsibility. Pace and skill in wide areas will come from the likes of Billy King (seen above) and Sam Nicholson, who will be entrusted with creating the chances for Sow. It is not clear who will play in the so-called No 10 role behind the striker but 19-year-old Gary Oliver has looked most impressive in that position during pre-season friendlies.