We are now 11 games into the 2023/24 Premiership campaign, and we are starting to get a feel for how the season could pan out for Heart of Midlothian. Steven Naismith’s side have faced each of their top-flight rivals once on league duty and as such, supporters have now got an idea of where the team’s strengths and weaknesses lie.

So, what have we learned so far? Below, Joel Sked and James Cairney explain their main takeaways based on what we have seen, and discuss what it could mean for the season as a whole.

READ MORE: Why next 8 games are defining for Steven Naismith at Hearts - and Motherwell is huge

Punching down

If the opening 11 games of the Premiership season have taught us anything, Hearts have struggled in contests where the team is tasked with breaking down a stubborn and well-organised defence. Dominating possession in these sorts of games hasn’t been an issue, but using the ball well and playing with incision and purpose has been.

Excluding matches against Celtic, Rangers, Hibernian and Aberdeen, Hearts average 67.5 per cent of the game’s total possession per league outing. It is hard, though, to escape the feeling that too much of this time spent on the ball is simply pedestrian. Seven games against the Premiership’s so-called ‘lesser’ sides have reaped just four goals in total, and two of those came against St Johnstone on the opening day. Kilmarnock, Motherwell, Dundee and St Mirren all recorded clean sheets against the men in maroon, despite barely seeing the ball. The graph below, which demonstrates how many goals teams have scored in relation to the share of possession, highlights the issue.

Hearts Standard:

There are degrees of mitigation, such as the balancing act when negotiating European qualifiers or having one eye on upcoming cup ties, but vast improvement is required. Most of the disappointing performances arrived at the start of the campaign – the 2-1 win at Rugby Park in the League Cup quarter-finals, the 1-0 victory in Dingwall and last week’s 1-0 success over Livingston all suggest that Hearts are moving in the right direction in this regard. None of these wins might have been as straightforward as supporters would have liked but to the team’s credit, they did eventually find a way through.

The next few games will tell us if the recent upturn is a sign of greater things to come, or simply a flash in the pan. Against Motherwell on Saturday, and St Johnstone and Killie after that, the onus will be on Hearts to find gaps in the opposition backline and exploit them. Some tentative progress has been made, and there is no greater time than now to show that Hearts are capable of consistently punching down.

James Cairney

Where are the goals?

Ten goals in 11 league matches isn't good enough. As noted above, the team have struggled to turn dominance and possession into goals. Yet, there are a lot of stats which suggest encouragement. Hearts are taking the fourth most shots with 14.27 per 90 minutes (and third for open play shots). Of the 14.27, 2.18 are determined by StatsBomb as clear shots, the highest behind Celtic and Rangers. The team are second in the league, between Celtic and Rangers, for high press shots (2.91 per 90 minutes). Hearts are clearly not scared of shooting. Again, only the Old Firm average more shots from outside the box.

And then you look at the build-up play. Hearts are second to Celtic for both passes inside the opposition box and for deep completions (a successful pass within 20 metres of the opposition goal) and third, behind the Old Firm, for deep progressions (Passes and dribbles/carries into the opposition final third).

With most of the stats dump out of the way, the question is: why haven't the team scored more?

Hearts have taken a lot of shots against deep and packed defences. As has been explained, Naismith's men have dominated the ball in the majority of the matches. But the pace in which it is often moved has allowed opponents to get into a solid defensive shape and then drop off into a low defensive line happy to allow Hearts to have possession in front of them. The team rank middle or near the bottom for dribbles, directness and pace towards goal.

You could point to the club's xG of 1.17 per 90 and make the point the team haven't been clinical enough and should score more. But scratch a wee bit more below the surface. Hearts are averaging 0.08 xG per shot, one of the lowest in the league.

Hearts Standard:

As Hearts Standard has explored already, the team haven't been nearly as threatening as they should be from set pieces, scoring just once. Again, amongst the lowest in the league. 

Joel Sked

Strong base

If we are going to poke and prod at the lack of goals, it is only fair to highlight the role of the defence. Hearts have the best defensive record outside of the Old Firm, conceding 11 goals, eight of which came in a three game spell. Having gone stat heavy in the previous section it may be better to keep it short and sweet, Hearts are on the right side of the league average on most defensive metrics, whether that be shots conceded, opposition passes and success rate or pressing. To give context the below graph shows Hearts (in red) compared to Aberdeen.

One of the key reasons for the defensive record is due to the amount of time Hearts have on the ball themselves. As the old adage goes, the opposition can't score if they don't have the ball. Watching the 11 goals back, it is clear many are preventable. Something Naismith has highlighted and the support knows all too well.

Hearts Standard:

Individually, Hearts defenders have been relatively solid. Frankie Kent has made a huge difference in the backline, Stephen Kingsley has been back to his best, Alex Cochrane has had a stop-start campaign but still a reliable presence, while Kye Rowles is slowly but surely getting back to a level fans saw prior to the World Cup. Behind them, Zander Clark has come in for criticism of late but when it comes to shot stopping has done what's asked of him with a positive goals prevented figure.

If Hearts can begin scoring goals at a more frequent rate they know they have a defence which largely gives them a good chance to win three points.

Joel Sked

READ MORE: Why Hearts attack struggled against Rangers as uncertainty evident

Summer signings

Of the seven new arrivals, Frankie Kent has been the out-and-out success thus far. He has settled in well at central defence and looks to be a savvy bit of business. The English centre-back, signed from Peterborough United, has provided a steady presence at the back and has proven himself to be a fine addition.

There are others who have shown flashes of ability, playing well in fits and starts, and the jury remains out on them. Kenneth Vargas has the makings of a good Hearts player, and getting his first goal for the club in last week’s win over Livingston can only be a good thing. But it is hard to avoid the fact that this has been the Costa Rican attacker’s only goal involvement (either a goal or an assist) in 15 appearances in all competitions this season. Again, there is some mitigation here – he has been tried out in various positions in attack, and it is completely understandable that a young player moving to the other side of the world might take a little time to settle.

Alex Lowry and Calem Nieuwenhof fall into a similar category. Both have racked up their fair share of minutes since arriving at Tynecastle, and both have been inconsistent. The former has sparkled at times but struggled to settle into the rhythm of the game at others, while the latter has been an equally inconsistent performer in midfield. In Sunday’s League Cup semi-final defeat to Rangers and the 4-1 loss against Celtic a couple of weeks earlier, the Australian looked off the pace and struggled to make much of a positive impact. Nieuwenhof has looked more comfortable in matches where Hearts dominate the ball, but with the caveat that some additional creativity wouldn’t go amiss.

The remaining three summer signings have either not played that many minutes due to injury or not played at all as is the case with Michael McGovern who was signed as Zander Clark’s back-up, and as such there has been little expectation that he would feature in the first team. That’s perfectly understandable.

Kyosuke Tagawa, meanwhile, has struggled with his fitness since arriving and a couple of knocks have limited the Japanese to the odd appearance here and there but as Tom Irving pointed out in his analysis of some recent signings, encouragement should be taken from his stats from his time in Japan with FC Tokyo. Odel Offiah, meanwhile, was brought in to compete with Nathaniel Atkinson. It has been difficult for the loanee who has not had a consistent run in the team and has suffered a health scare. In truth, fans haven’t seen enough of either player to make a fair assessment.

The jury is still out on some of the summer signings and while patience should be given, especially to those who have arrived from different continents, Hearts will want to see more from most in the second round of fixtures.

James Cairney

READ MORE: How recruitment works at Hearts and the transfer process

Consistently inconsistent selections

Naismith has spoken a lot about the need to tackle each fixture on its own individual merits, and the former Scotland internationalist regularly changes his starting line-up to counter the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses, while he has also had to account for injuries and European involvement. The head coach is a big believer in the notion that certain players are particularly suited to certain games, and he is unafraid to tailor his team’s game plan on a weekly basis.

Naturally, there are positives and negatives with such a ploy. Playing the same way, no matter the opposition, perhaps leads to a greater cohesion within the starting XI and creates a distinct tactical style that can be easily recognised. At the same time, however, being rigidly married to one style of play can be overly dogmatic – especially in Scotland, where there is such a gulf between teams milling around the bottom end of the table and those in its upper echelons. The Premiership can largely be broken down into three sections for Hearts – the Old Firm, Aberdeen and Hibs, and the rest – and different approaches are usually required for each group.

Being reactive to each team’s strengths and weaknesses is probably a good thing within the context of the Premiership but it can come at a cost, too. Whether it’s the team’s overall shape, the balance of the midfield and the personnel that comprise it, or playing with a lone striker or two up top, Naismith certainly hasn’t been averse to chopping and changing the starting XI. It’s perhaps this inconsistency that has led to disjointed performances and a lack of fluency in the final third though, and also serves as Exhibit A when trying to explain why Hearts have so often struggled to get going in the opening halves of matches this season.

James Cairney

Tynecastle difficulty

Nineteen. Of the last 29 top-flight campaigns, Hearts have won nine or more home matches. Winning just under half of the 19 games at Tynecastle Park should be the bare minimum for the team. If you look back at most of the club's successful seasons during that time, seasons which with European competition, 1992/93, 1995/96, 1997/98, 2002/03, 2003/04, 2005/06, 2008/09, 2015/16, 2021/22 and even last season, the team won ten or more home games.

Yet, playing at Tynecastle Park, so often a comfort blanket, hasn't been easy. Six goals in six games, two wins and eight points. Despite the fan unrest it has not really filtered into the match-day atmosphere. Yes, there has been frustration. Yes, there have been boos. But, by and large, the support has been patient and supportive during the 90 minutes. That was evident in the 1-0 win over Livingston where Hearts didn't score until late on. 

If there was a report card the verdict would be 'must do better'.

Joel Sked