Hearts: Have Tynecastle side already won the race for third in Scottish Premiership?

On 22 October, Hearts followed up a 2-0 defeat by Aberdeen with a 4-3 loss to Celtic to slip to seventh in the Scottish Premiership.

Robbie Neilson’s side were five points off the third-place Dons and looking beleaguered amid a horror run of injuries and packed schedule, courtesy of their foray into the group stage of the Europa Conference League.

They’d kept two clean sheets in 18 games and though there was no sense of panic, things seemed a struggle.

Now, with Hearts seven points clear in third and on a run of one defeat in 10 league games, on reflection the fact they even stayed in touch was a signal of their strength. So is the race for third now done before we’ve reached February?

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Strong form leaves other trailing

Despite all their injury troubles – including a decimated defence – and the added stress of midweek games, the crucial thing was Hearts were able to stay in touch in the race for third by digging deep for points before the break.

There was a late win at St Johnstone, a comeback from 2-0 down against Kilmarnock to earn a draw, and a 3-2 win against Motherwell despite playing with 10 men for more than half the game.

Even in those losses to Aberdeen and Celtic, they had the better chances and were unlucky to lose.

And since the return of players from injury after World Cup break, they have reasserted themselves as the third best team in the country and look like cantering away from the rest.

Since that 4-3 loss at home to Celtic, Hearts have only lost to Rangers at Ibrox, and St Mirren and Livingston are the only sides since then to keep them from scoring more than one goal.

Even then, those teams did not manage a win against the Jambos, who stuck three past Hibs and five by Aberdeen. A settled defence means they’ve conceded just once in their last five games too.

Hearts are tactically flexible, which helped immensely as players dropped like flies, and gives them options now they have players back fit.

They can play three at the back and get their wing-backs – the outstanding Alex Cochrane among them – to bomb forward and combine with a pacey and potent attacking trident of Barrie McKay, Josh Ginnelly, and top scorer Lawrence Shankland.

Robert Snodgrass brings vision, composure and control in midfield, and the likes of Cammy Devlin complement that with energy and aggression. In essence, they have balance, and can play 4-2-3-1 and its variations with minimal disruption too.

“Hearts have got a good system now,” former Tynecastle midfielder Michael Stewart said on Sportscene after the 5-0 win against Aberdeen.

“They get players into positions which are difficult to pick up. They’re in half positions where the opposition don’t have someone they can get tight to.”

All that contrasts to what has been happening at their expected challengers, at least historically and in terms of budget, Hibernian and Aberdeen.

The Dons have won just once in seven league games to fall nine points behind Hearts, and Hibs are a further two points back after three wins in 13 games. It’s Livingston who are currently leading the chase, seven points back.

And while David Martindale’s impressive team can’t be discounted, especially as the sides prepare to meet on Sunday, it would take an almighty turnaround to rein Hearts in.

Signings make instant impact

Effective recruitment has gone hand-in-hand with good coaching and management at Hearts, and again contrasts sharply with Aberdeen and Hibs, who have brought in a similar number of players over the last two seasons, but with far less success.

The former Hibs manager Shaun Maloney made a simple, but searing point, on the Sportscene sofa in the aftermath of Hearts’ 3-0 derby win in the league this month.

Hearts bring in players who are ready to make an impact immediately. There are few project players recruited.

Shankland has hit 20 goals in his first season. Kye Rowles has been excellent in defence and had a fantastic World Cup for Australia. Snodgrass has been outstanding.

Even with injuries, the squad has been able to cope through shrewd signings. Zander Clark is a proven goalkeeper at Premiership level who has stepped in with Craig Gordon out for the season, and James Hill has come in on loan and seamlessly replaced Craig Halkett at right centre-back.

That’s not to say young players have not been brought in and developed. Toby Sibbick, 23, was unimpressive during a previous loan spell and struggled when brought into the team in the first half of the season.

But now, thanks to a stable team and good coaching the young centre-back is thriving.

At the moment, the academy is not producing players for the first team, but overall the group Hearts have assembled looks sure to finish in third spot comfortably once again.

Stability lays platform

The good work at Hearts has been the result of stability in key positions in the last two years.

Neilson has proven himself, while director of football Joe Savage has brought a wealth of experience from his time at Hamilton, Norwich and Preston.

It’s easy to forget that fans were protesting outside Tynecastle and demanding Neilson be sacked after the club’s 2-1 humbling by Highland League Brora Rangers just under two years ago.

But the club’s board and Savage kept faith in their plan while in the Championship, and they have calmly built a robust, entertaining team.

With Hibs and Aberdeen out of the Scottish Cup and well behind in the league, Hearts are in pole position to claim European group stage football again and the millions that come with it.

That would set them up to stay ahead of their competition for years to come and potentially even allow them to look upwards at Glasgow’s big two.

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