The Scottish Premiership finished early this year with Celtic being crowned as champions and Hearts being relegated. But since the football season is back in the UK with the EPL returning, we are going to have a look back to 15th February 2020 when Hearts played Hamilton Academical. Coming into this game, both teams were in a bit of disarray with two losses and a draw for the pair of them. Despite their struggles in the league, these two put on an enthralling match and left with plenty of positives. Spoils were shared by both sides as the result was 2-2. This tactical analysis will have a look at the tactics employed by both teams and a solid comeback by Hearts despite early Hamilton dominance.
Both teams made some changes from their last league game. Hearts made three with Ikpeazu, Hickey, and Pereira coming in. Hamilton made four changes with Moyo, Collar, Want, and Hamilton returning to the side.
Hearts fielded a 4-4-1-1 with Ikpeazu leading the line. Hamilton lined up with a back three in a 3-4-1-2. We will discuss the tactical changes made in this analysis.
A quick start by Hamilton
Hamilton was visibly the better team in the early exchanges of the match. Hamilton’s pressing early on forced Hearts to go long as they struggled to play out from the back. Hamilton had targeted the right-hand side of Hearts and frequently won possession in that area as we can see below from Hearts’ losses.
Hamilton manager Brian Rice dabbled with his tactics and fixated his team’s press on Hearts’ right-hand side with Hamilton’s right-sided midfielder Michael Smith and right centre-back John Souttar responsible for 15 and 14 losses respectively. Nearly five more than their average losses in the last five matches.
Hamilton harried Hearts’ backline and prevented them from playing out from the back on several instances. This was a tactical tweak by David Stendel. We can see an example below of the pressure that Hamilton applied to the right-hand side of Hearts.
Moyo had initiated the press just seconds before this image by forcing Zlamal to pass it wide to Souttar. Ogboe then presses the Hearts defender by blocking the passing lane to Smith. McMann is also positioned well to cover Clare if the ball gets passed to him. Or if any kind of long pass is attempted to Irving, Martin is steady to take care of it. Even Hunt and Collar are placed well to aid the press or to intercept. In this instance, Souttar goes long and Hamilton regains possession.
This fast start by Hamilton led to their first goal in just the fifth minute with Smith and Souttar again at fault. Smith failed to control the ball in midfield and Souttar rushed ahead to press David Moyo and let Scott Martin run past him and supply Ogboe for the goal.
Not just that, Hamilton’s 3-4-1-2 meant that their wing-backs cut off Hearts’ supply to the wide areas and they had to go central or go back and build play again.
Aaron McGowan was playing as a right wing-back for the first twelve minutes and Aaron Hickey wasn’t able to bypass him and get the ball down the flanks. Although he got injured and had to be taken off. Despite the injury, Hamilton didn’t change their shape and placed Martin in that right wing-back position and the substitute Blair Alston played as a number 10 behind the two forwards.
Hearts, however, continued to build from that left-hand side and passed the ball to Hickey.
As the left-back wasn’t able to make a pass through because of Martin’s closing down, he passed it back to his goalkeeper Zlamal and then Ogboe and Moyo’s pressing led to Souttar being dispossessed inside the box which led to Hearts surrendering a penalty which Ogboe dispatched.
This was Hearts’s own doing because of their two-man build up. Midfielder Clare who was playing as the right-back held a high starting position almost as a wing-back with actual right back by trade Smith being deployed in midfield. Smith was tasked to join the build-up from the back and then move upfield. But on this occasion, he failed to recognize danger and Souttar had no passing options available. As you can imagine, Smith should have moved back into the right-back position to help his teammate as Clare who’s not even in the image below, was too slow to get back and eventually conceded the penalty.
Red card and an Irving show
Hamilton’s good start was marred with the sending off of defender Jamie Hamilton in the 20th minute. They quickly had to retreat in a defensive shape. For the remainder of the first half, Hamilton was generally in a 4-4-1 formation. But without the ball, they defended deep in a 5-3-1 as we see below.
As Hamilton was a man down and defending deep, Hearts naturally had more hold on the ball and started charging forward. Their build-up play was based on youngster Irving who dictated play from deep. Hearts were heavily reliant on his forward passes and set-piece deliveries. He made four passes in the match that led to shots. The highest in the match. He also made 17 progressive passes with an accuracy of 89 percent and another 15 passes in the final third.
Despite being reduced to 10 men, Hamilton was still a threat on the counter as they won more percentage of duels in midfield and by the time Hearts won the second ball, Hamilton was pressing them towards their goal. To counter this, and to fully take advantage of the extra man and create more chances, Hearts started working the ball from the left side to beat Hamilton’s right-sided press. Irving and Hickey were the key men in this transition. Hickey often took a high starting position and Irving dropped into the vacant left-back position and kept things ticking with his tidy play. Hearts attack down that side had a danger level of 42 per cent for their rivals with an xG of 1.01
As you can see, Irving is playing as the false full-back with Hickey higher up the pitch.
Alston is waiting to intercept and Irving has a long option to Hickey or a closer one to an oncoming Walker. This left-sided development of play freed the path for Hearts to get the ball in wide areas. With both Irving and Hickey making four and three key passes respectively in the match. While Hickey also delivered three accurate crosses. As the half wore on, more gaps opened for Hearts to pierce. Though Hamilton looked largely untroubled with Hearts’ onslaught.
Irving’s corner kicks were perfect. They had the right bend and he did quite well to deliver them right in the centre. In the example below, he delivered a teasing corner kick right in the heart of the six-yard box which Ikpeazu really should have done justice to by at least heading it on target.
Dire defending and comeback for Hearts
Hamilton kept their shape and continued to commit numbers forward in spite of being two goals up and with only ten men on the field. This resulted in an early goal just at the start of the second half with Hearts creating a 3 on 3 situation in the final third and Walker fueled the comeback. Hamilton was so structured and organized in their 5-3-1 shape as we discussed earlier. So this was really poor from them from that perspective.
Hamilton was winning about 58 per cent of the duels as compared to Heart’s 49. This was one of the ploys of Hamilton. Due to their ability to win duels, they kept cornering Hearts to go long in a bid to retain possession and/or disrupt their play. It seemed to work to a certain extent as for the majority of the half after the early goal, Hearts seemed unable to break down the Hamilton wall. The Accies were good at keeping their formation steady. They kept a general 5-3-1 after the red card incident and much of that was seen in the second half as well but because of their low block, they lost some control in the middle once Hearts evaded their forwards’ closing down.
While the possession numbers do tell a different story, it is something to note that despite barely having about 25 per cent of the possession, Hamilton kept their opponents at a distance and had a fair share of hold on the game as well. Even when they were knackered towards the end, they stuck to their tactics and marked the opposition well. As you can see in the image, Hamilton disentangled the passing lanes and forced Hearts to put in a weak cross in the box which the Accies swept away without much trouble.
Since the start of the second half, Hearts stuck with their 4-4-1-1 and later tweaked it to 4-3-1-2 when Hamilton just wouldn’t let up. They played some neat passes and continued much of the same in the half as well with more urgency. Something that they notably lacked in the first half. They put more crosses into the box from either flank. This time even Smith joining in as he switched to the right-back position He made five good crosses in the game. Ultimately it was a game of two halves, and Halkett scored the equalizer in the dying minutes of the match with a good bit of play by Conor Washington down the left flank and putting a decisive cross in which assisted the goal.
In retrospect, after casting away most of the good stuff that Hearts threw their way, Hamilton will look at that with a bit of disappointment as they could have handled the cross better. You can see below that Want could have tried to close down Washington and prevented the cross or could have made it tough for the Hearts’ number 9 to place a perfect ball in. Walker should have joined in with his team for the tussle inside the box.
In this tactical analysis, we have seen that tactically it was an excellent watch. Brian Rice got his tactics spot on in the early part of the game which deservedly put Hamilton two up at half time. Hamilton would have been very disappointed having to go home with just a point despite largely handling the game well with a man down for the better part of 70 minutes. Daniel Stendal would have been delighted with that result after his team made a comeback from what would have been a damaging defeat to another relegation-threatened opposition.
Was the result harsh on Hamilton? Probably, as they had done their part. Especially in that first half. They could have ran away with it. But when you give away soft goals like that you can’t complain much. Of course Hamilton took it considering they had some tough fixtures coming up with Rangers away back in March. In the wider context of things, a point is fair to both. It’s not every day you see a team’s resurgence from a two-goal deficit.