The latest piece from the Football Critic analyses the performance of new signing Danny Swanson in the centre of the Hearts midfeild.
It was the most curious tactical decision of the weekend, and probably the Scottish Premiership season. Danny Swanson was signed by Hearts on the Wednesday and he was in the starting XI on the Friday. Even when teams are desperate for a player they often don’t hurl them immediately into the deep end in such a manner. What made Robbie Neilson’s decision particularly perplexing was that Hearts were not desperate for Swanson’s services. In fact, there are a couple of clubs in the country who will be cursing the Jam Tarts and the greater resources at their disposal, for being able to sign a player for squad depth as opposed to filling a genuine void in the first-team squad – like St Johnstone, the team Swanson spent the latter half of last season on loan with and looked sure to sign for after his release from Coventry City.
Then the game started and the reason became apparent. Neilson had already talked up Swanson’s ability to play in an advanced central role prior to the match and Swanson underlined his manager’s point by showing aspects of his game that other Hearts players don’t have. In particular, his willingness to drop back into the middle of the park, either to pick up possession or to get in amongst it. Jamie Walker, a player Hearts fans assumed would get the start at the No.10 spot, is a much more direct player, someone who wants to take on opponents and make things happen. Swanson plays more with his head up and adds more balance to the central midfield three. This enabled Hearts to control possession and territory in what was, admittedly, a pretty dire first half.
So where did it go wrong? And what made Hearts so flat and go on to lose the game, deservedly?
Swanson didn’t have a bad game. He just looked like a player who’d only just met his team-mates recently. Which, of course, is what happened. Hearts had taken the player on trial before the signing, so it would be disingenious to suggest he played with the rest of the team two days after introductions, but he’d still never linked with them in a competitive match. And even in the first half, when things were relatively positive for the visitors, there were still a few occasions where the ball was given away too easily because he and his new teammates got their wires crossed. This happened on about three separate occasions with striker-turned-winger Osman Sow.
This wasn’t the full extent of the problem. Starting Swanson because he was more suited to retaining possession in the centre was fair enough. Omitting Walker from the starting XI entirely wasn’t. For the past 10 months the attacker has been in better form than Sam Nicholson, who again couldn’t provide much more than an honest shift on the wing. Neilson wants to coach up the Hearts players so that they’re interchangeable, which is an honourable quest. But at this moment in time, Walker and Nicholson are not interchangeable. Hearts are better when Walker is on the park.
A negative aspect of having Swanson dropping deep in the No.10 role was that it left lone striker Juanma isolated on occasion. This became a common occurrence in the second half when Inverness controlled more of the football and Swanson was forced to track back more. Juanma’s no carthorse, but his mobility is limited. He has a quick burst and can get going with a full head of steam, evidenced by his goal versus Partick Thistle, but he’s not the type who can run around daft and create things on his own without assistance. Juanma didn’t get enough service and Neilson would have been better withdrawing him instead of Sow. The Swede can appear cumbersome but can pass opposition players with skill and speed and would have been a better option up front under the circumstances.
It was a dreadful night’s footballfrom the Hearts fans’ point of view, but they should feel encouraged from what little they saw of Swanson. He inserted himself on proceedings, showed some good touches, played with his head up, looked for space around the midfield and will eventually become someone who can impact the game in the final third. Once he gets on the same wavelength as the players around him, that is. It didn’t work in this match but Neilson clearly has an idea of how and when he wants to use him, and Swanson’s suggestion that he’s at Tynecastle to fight for a longer deal and won’t just make up the numbers appear to be more than just wishful thinking.
Player rating: 5/10