Sixteen. A figure that demonstrates the progress Heart of Midlothian made on a defensive front this past season. It is the number of clean sheets the team kept in the Scottish Premiership.

It's the third time the club have reached such a tally in the Scottish top flight in the last 30 years. The same return as 2005/06 with only the 17 recorded in 2015/16 eclipsing it. In turn, 15 fewer goals were conceded compared to 2022/23. That is one way to quantify that defensive improvement and increased solidity. Another is the 16 clean sheets are 10 more than 2022/23.

It was clear to Steven Naismith it was an area where significant strides could be made. And it was on his mind even before he became interim head coach and then the permanent head coach.

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"The majority of it for me has been in the parameters of my expectation, from how we started and how it would take time," he told Hearts Standard as he reflected on the campaign. "I’ve felt since I’ve been at the club the games were too open, too end-to-end, too basketbally. Inevitably against teams, you end up conceding cheap goals.

"I thought that was an area we could fix and we could definitely improve on which wasn’t going to be something totally different."

On an individual level, Frankie Kent has been a huge addition. Not only his defensive qualities but his leadership, organisation and experience. Collectively, set-pieces have been a specific area of development with Frankie McAvoy playing a leading role as the concession of goals from such a key area of the game has taken a nose dive.

It stems from work on the training ground and through analysis. The management team have been keen to make use of clips and video to help the players understand what's required from them and where they may have gone wrong or choices they could have made that would have resulted in a better outcome.

Rather than being used to call individuals out it is educational.

Hearts Standard:

"It is a bit of everything," Naismith said. "It’s from meetings, it’s from showing times we’re players have made the wrong decisions and the consequence of it.

"Realistically, when the game is going on and the player makes that decision to make a pass, take a shot, cross, turn back, the outcome of a goal is very rarely straightforward bang it’s a goal and everyone knows that was the mistake, it’s maybe five passes or 10 passes further down the line, a minute down the line, but that one action is the root of it.

"It was showing a lot of video, doing specific things in training, when we are in training making a point of saying you are not allowed to do certain things, it stops the players from even thinking about these decisions, making the wrong pass or crossing the ball at a certain time when it is not on or not right.

"Having more control and a calmness when we have got the ball helps. It’s not frantic, it’s not rushed. That’s not to say we don’t want to have speed in our attacks it means the moment before, the build-up phase there needs to be control in it. So when we get past that pressure we can attack with speed with the understanding we are going to have players behind the ball that are going to be stopping counter-attacks or stopping teams coming at you or getting chances.

"It has been a mixture of everything. The stuff we do in training, the video, the time doing it over and over. It all makes a difference."

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Naismith mentioned control.

It has been a word that has featured regularly when the Hearts head coach has spoken of the team's style. And it is backed up in the data. As James Cairney pointed out when looking at how the team have evolved, "Hearts are enjoying longer, sustained periods with the ball at their feet... More measure. More control."

Teams can't score when the opposition have the ball. That's obvious. As well as being used to create attacks and ultimately goals, possession is also a useful and effective device in a defensive sense. The team can get set, organised and comfortable in the right structure.

It can lead to "100 per cent possession" as Naismith calls it.

He explained: "Players could go anywhere on the pitch at that moment. Unrealistic but your goalie could run up the length of the pitch because we know we aren’t going to lose the ball.

"The consequence of what you do with it is the big thing. Since I've been in Scotland, players get to a point and they make crazy decisions at times, this is going back to when I was a player. That’s an easy thing to tidy up, I think we’ve done that well."

Those decisions also relate to out-of-possession or more pertinently when possession is lost. Naismith revealed that preventing conceding goals from counter-attacks was "a big focus for us, especially with the No.6s and the defenders".

What decisions do players make when the opposition get into a good area or the defence is outnumbered? The Hearts head coach brought up a scenario from last season during his interim spell when James Hill slipped in the 2-2 draw with Rangers and Todd Cantwell scored.

"The decision-making in that moment is a panicked feeling of ‘oh no, he’s slipped, I need to do something, I need to recover’," he explained. "It’s about saying, ‘just delay him, we’re not going to win the ball, just put him in a position that gives us the best chance to prevent him scoring’. So we did a bit of work on that.

"It’s sometimes about recognising that they are going to get a chance but making sure that we aren’t diving in or showing him onto his good foot. We are going to concede a chance here, let’s make it the worst chance we can give up.

"We have done that a lot at times and we are not giving them the chance to score goals because of diving in, taking yourself out of the game and then he is one-on-one with the goalie or he has an easy pass. That’s just game management and game understanding more than anything else."