At Tynecastle on the 29th of February this year, Hearts hosted Rangers in what was a memorable SFA Cup quarter-final. Positioned at the bottom of the SPFL, Hearts were perhaps justly regarded as the underdog in the build-up to the game. However, the Jam Tart faithful remained hopeful as they managed to get one over on the Gers a month ago, so why not again!
In this match analysis, we will take a closer look at how the two sides combatted against each other’s tactics, resulting in the 1-0 scoreline for the home side. This tactical analysis will illustrate Hearts’ intense, direct approach, Rangers inability to create and convert chances from goal-scoring positions, as well as how Hearts created the better opportunities.
Rangers were without two of their regular starters: Filip Helander due to injury and Alfredo Morelos dropped because of a disciplinary issue. Hearts, on the other hand, made numerous tactical changes from their last fixture against Rangers. Connor Washington was selected, ahead of former EFL player Liam Boyce, to lead the line of attack. Sean Clare would play higher in midfield than previously, as Michael Smith’s presence at right-back provided more security at the back.
Lewis Moore returned to his preferred left midfield position, replacing Euan Henderson. Finally, Loic Damour and Oliver Bozanic replaced Toby Sibbick and Andy Irving in midfield, due to their freshness. Daniel Stendel, the Hearts manager, is keen for his midfielders to out-work their counterpart, so he needs to constantly rotate them.
Before we discuss the crucial tactics that dictated the result, let’s examine the fundamental performance statistics. Who controlled the game and who created the better chances:
The graphics above provide the reader with a face value synopsis of the game. From the possession diagram, we can conclude that neither team took control in the first half. However, in the second half following the goal, Hearts would relinquish any plans to maintain control, hence the enormous spike in Rangers’ favour.
Common sense would have you believe that more possession equals an increased likelihood of goal-scoring opportunities, but that wasn’t the case here. Unexpectedly, the attacks per minute favoured Hearts right up until the closing minutes of the game. Limiting Rangers’ chances to attack, despite their possession in the second half, signifies a sound defensive display on Hearts’ part. The Jam Tarts’ consistent creation of attacks illustrates Rangers’ inability to deal with their attacking strategy. Finally, the xG chart displays the individuals that had the best opportunities to score. Defender George Edmundson topped the Rangers players most likely to score – another tell-tale sign of their struggle to create.
In summary, the statistics paint an image of a Rangers side that, in attack, struggled to create, and in defence, failed to deal with their opponent’s strategy. For Hearts, the statistics eluded to an effective attacking strategy that worked without possession, as well as a solid defensive display that denied in-game chances but struggled to stop set-piece opportunities.
In this part of the match analysis we will critically examine the most influential tactics deployed by both sides.
From the first whistle, Hearts made it clear that they planned to play long and surround the area, most often on the right, as shown above. In total, Hearts made 39 recoveries in the opposition’s half, compared to Rangers’ 21. They targeted Rangers centre-back George Edmundson, with great success in picking up the second ball. The picture above portrays the Jam Tarts’ strategy to stack four closely knit bodies around the drop zone. By doing so, they increased their chances to recover the ball.
Rangers opted not to attempt to press the long ball. They made two vital mistakes in the first half. Firstly, their midfield unit was too high up the pitch. Their positions in this image prevented ground passes from breaking through the lines. Hearts did not attempt to play ground passes through the middle, but they did play with extremely deep centre midfielders.
This is why the Rangers midfielders positioned themselves where they did. Having lured Rangers’ midfield unit forward, Hearts looked to play over and into the triangular areas highlighted above. It’s from the channels where Hearts threatened Rangers the most, succeeding in 69% of their dribbles and 41% of their offensive duels.
The Gers attempted to play out from the back, at speed, and expose Hearts’ full-backs with combinations in the channels. Core to this strategy was Steven Davis. Depicted above is Davis dropping extremely deep to receive the ball, which he does and is able to exploit the space, vacated by Hearts’ right midfielder, Clarke, with a through ball. As a result of Rangers’ success, Hearts reacted and nullified this threat. This was a massive factor in the game, as it prevented Rangers from building up possession. As a result, Rangers’ chances in the opposition’s half were rushed.
The picture above highlights the Hearts strategy to stop Davis’ and Rangers’ hopes of securing possession. Steven Naismith’s central attacking midfield role included dropping back and man-marking Davis. He did so with great discipline and determination. Shrewd in his approach, Naismith rarely intercepted. Instead, he waited for the pass to be played into Davis, and then pressed. As a result, Davis had to play at speed, and his fellow teammates struggled to match this speed, whilst the Hearts players were anticipating the early pass. For example, Bozanic in the picture above is doing just this.
At half time, things were even. Hearts had created the better chances, but the Gers had more possession. Rangers couldn’t cope with the long ball, and Davis struggled to find space to build an attack. With that in mind, let’s look at how the managers intended to get the result after a goalless first half.
Early on, Hearts made no intention of changing their offensive strategy. Here it is in the build-up to their first goal, just five minutes into the second half. Statistically, Rangers’ defence underperformed: they amassed 59% success in defensive duels, marginally lower than Hearts’ 61%.
Hearts continued to disgruntle and frustrate Rangers’ patterns of play by pressing intensively throughout most of the second half. The picture above illustrates the determination to close the space around the ball. By doing so, they denied their opponents time on the ball.
The flip side to an intensive press is that fatigue eventually becomes an issue, and it did toward the closing minutes of the game. Above, we can still see Naismith’s determination to mark Davis. However, it’s his teammate, Bozanic, who is slow at getting across to cover the space Aaron Hickey is about to vacate. Had Ianis Hagi dropped into the half-space, he would have been able to receive on the half-turn and drive at the Hearts defence. Hearts were fortunate as Rangers continued to force play down the line, instead of keeping cool and finding pockets that opened up inside.
In the latter stages, Hearts parked the proverbial bus. Rangers lacked solutions, with the best chances coming through set-pieces. They didn’t take the chances despite their 1.31 xG value. Hearts defended deep with discipline and communication. They ran the clock down and eventually heard the final whistle came.
This match revealed an astute tactical performance by Hearts. The Edinburgh side were well prepared, and Rangers played into their hands. Hearts’ predicted play would go through Davis, so they tweaked their shape to make sure he was man-marked throughout. This was key, because Rangers didn’t have an efficient plan B. The other key area in this result was Rangers’ inability to deal with Hearts’ attacks.
Ultimately, the scoreline was a fair reflection of the score. Stendel is no longer at Hearts, as he left this summer following their relegation, and was replaced by Dundee United boss Robbie Neilson, who previously managed the Tynecastle club before his move to MK Dons in the EFL. But this match displays Stendel’s tactical intelligence when he was there. Gerrard’s youthful confidence in his players may have clouded his preparation in the build-up, or perhaps his performers were unable to carry out his tactical instructions. It’s one to learn from regardless for the Gers.