Despite failing to register a win in their last ten games in the Scottish Premiership, bottom of the table Hearts were led to victory thanks to a winning goal from debutant Liam Boyce, toppling in-form title contenders Rangers. Winning 2-1, Hearts showed more fight and greater desire as the Edinburgh side pulled off what seemed a hugely unlikely result.
Beating Rangers on any day is an achievement, but victory was made all the more sweet for new manager Daniel Stendel as his team came back from 1-0 down. The team played with a high intensity, pressing Rangers players throughout the 90 minutes.
The first half ended 0-0, but Hearts played the better half, frustrating Rangers, who were set up in a 4-3-3 formation, with the aim being on quick passing through the midfield to break down sides in a compact, robust formation.
Hearts on the other hand played a 4-4-2 formation. However, left midfielder Euan Henderson was deployed very centrally. Alongside this, captain Steven Naismith often dropped into the midfield from upfront. This allowed Hearts to crowd the midfield, having five players centrally against Rangers three. As a result, Rangers struggled to create chances for their front three without the use of the long ball.
Stendel’s Hearts team rely on holding a high line and counter-pressing the opposition. Often called gegenpressing, it is a tactic used by some of the best teams in Europe (notably Liverpool) and Hearts didn’t play as a team that was rock bottom of the table. His job is to keep Hearts in the Scottish top division, and so far he has been ruthless in making the changes he feels are needed. Central midfielder Toby Sibbick supplied speed and physicality into the midfield with Boyce scoring a winner on his debut. The number of changes made by Stendel shows both his willingness to change personnel if they aren’t fitting into his system, and the pressure he feels to alleviate the woes of Hearts’ season.
Following the game, Steven Gerrard said he “couldn’t recognise his players”, as Rangers were too slow to the loose ball, lacked creativity and were wasteful of any chances they did create. It was a poor performance by a team which before this game were yet to lose a game away from home this season. However, nothing should be taken away from Hearts who certainly deserved the win.
The first ten minutes of the game led to few chances, but in the 15th minute Boyce thought he had given his team the lead, sliding the ball under a diving Allan McGregor, only for the goal to be ruled out for offside.
Following this, Gerrard could be seen frantically telling Jermain Defoe to run in-behind what was a very high Hearts back four. Due to the intensity of Hearts’ pressing, Rangers were forced to play counterattacking football. In the 19th minute, a quick counter attack from Rangers had Joe Aribo through on goal, only for him to hit his shot wide of a diving Joel Pereira.
At half time, Gerrard was clearly disappointed in his team’s performance as he made two chances. Jon Flanagan was replaced in a straight left back swap for Matt Polster, whilst Scott Arfield came into the midfield for Ryan Jack, meaning that the front three were often joined by Arfield, who was deployed as an attacking midfielder.
Following this tactical change from Gerrard, it took only two minutes of the second half for Ryan Kent to smash Rangers into the lead. Following a counter attack down the left wing, the ball was cut back to Aribo, who set the ball up for Kent, who proceeded to smash it into the top right corner.
Indeed, Rangers appeared to have come out with a newfound sense of purpose, and in the 51st minute Defoe missed a good opportunity to double their lead, but too many touches meant he sent the ball flying over the Hearts goal.
Despite Rangers starting better, on the 57th minute Hearts drew level when Naismith curled the ball into the bottom left corner following an assist by Boyce. This goal, which was somewhat against the run of play, ignited Hearts for the rest of the half, and the 82nd minute saw Conor Washington have his powerful low shot cleared off the line.
In the 83rd minute however, Boyce had what proved to be the last word, having his shot deflected past McGregor to give Hearts a much needed win.
This result means that Hearts are now only one point away from 11th place Hamilton. For the final ten minutes of game, the atmosphere inside Tynecastle Park was electric. The fans chanted for their team every moment until the final whistle. Stendel has delivered a much needed three points to Hearts. Yet, arguably more importantly, he seems to have returned some hope to fans who for long periods of this season, expected relegation. If Hearts can maintain the quality shown in this 2-1 win against Rangers, they will have every chance of maintaining their premiership status.
For Rangers, just like last season, they have slipped in the New Year period. They can’t afford too many more surprise results like this, as if they do, their title hopes may once again end in disappointment.
Image Rights: Jonathon Smith