Saturday’s 2-1 victory away at Fir Park was an important one for Heart of Midlothian. Sure, the result itself was vital, given the daunting run of fixtures that is lurking just beyond the horizon for Steven Naismith’s side, but the nature of the win was equally encouraging.

Hearts controlled this game from start to finish as the players put in the kind of display that supporters have been crying out for. They dominated possession throughout the contest and even though Motherwell had spells of pressure, the men from the capital withstood it admirably – and no one could complain about the final result.

By the time the break rolled around, Hearts were 1-0 to the good thanks to that rarest of all beasts – a goal scored via a corner kick – but it could have been even more. Lawrence Shankland’s reactive finish from a Frankie Kent knock-down gave the visitors a well-earned lead in North Lanarkshire before the skipper doubled his tally for the afternoon with a composed finish past Liam Kelly in the Motherwell goal. A successfully-converted Blair Spittal penalty with 12 minutes to go led to a nervier ending than the away support would have liked, but the team stood firm to gain three well-earned points.

So, how did Hearts do it then? What lessons can we take from Saturday’s victory, and what aspects of the performance will Naismith and his coaching staff be most pleased with? Let’s take a look.

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Lopsided approach plays into Hearts’ hands

Naismith stuck with a back three for this match, with Alex Cochrane and Alan Forrest providing the width on either flank. Beni Baningime sat in front of the defence in the No.6 role with Alex Lowry and Calem Nieuwenhof either side of him and slightly more advanced, with Liam Boyce and Lawrence Shankland leading the line in attack. The extra centre-half provided an extra degree of security at the back, but the wing-backs and the central midfielders would have to get forward to support the attack when the situation arose if the gambit was to pay off.

The graphic below shows the pass networks for both sides for each half of Saturday’s game, and one thing jumps out immediately. It’s not hard to notice that much of the play was focused down Hearts’ right (and Motherwell’s left), which freed up space on the other flank. This was a natural consequence of fielding Forrest at right wing-back – the former Livingston man provides more of an out-ball than Cochrane – and the knock-on effect was that Alex Lowry found himself with plenty of room to operate in. As we’ll examine later, it was a ploy that paid off handsomely for Hearts.

Nieuwenhof generally stayed tight to Forrest to provide a passing option in a congested area of the pitch, allowing Lowry to get further forward in the first half to occupy spaces where there was often little in the way of resistance. Cochrane would also hug the line, which again provided Lowry with the opportunity to drift forward and inward – and into areas where the playmaker could really hurt Motherwell. Take a look at the pressing map for Stuart Kettlewell’s men, which illustrates the point rather nicely.

Hearts controlled the ball in this match, which meant that the team could also dictate which areas of the pitch the game would be played in. They succeeded in dragging their opponents out to the right, but rarely actually attacked down this wing. The idea was to work the ball into this area before shifting it over to Lowry or Cochrane on the other side, and it worked like a charm.

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Lowry seizes his chance

This was arguably the on-loan Rangers playmaker’s finest performance in a Hearts jersey. The 20-year-old finished the match with four key passes (passes which lead directly to a shot), while no one else on the park mustered more than one. He had nine passes into the opposition box – three times as many as the next best-performing player in this regard, Spittal – and played a vital role in both of Hearts’ goals.

Lowry’s deliveries from set-pieces have been an understandable bone of contention for some supporters this season, but no one could have any complaints about his corner kick for the opening goal. The midfielder’s inviting cross was met by Frankie Kent, and Shankland was at hand to turn the ball home with an excellent improvised finish.

Not everything came off for Lowry – such is life when you’re regularly attempting risky, defence-splitting passes – but he was causing Motherwell some real problems. His clever dummy in the build-up to Shankland’s second goal was an excellent piece of improvisation that allowed Hearts to double their lead and gain some more control of the contest. And control was one commodity that wasn’t exactly in short supply on Saturday afternoon.

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Game management

There were individual tactical decisions that helped Hearts gain the upper hand in North Lanarkshire, but it was hard to escape the fact that Naismith’s side were in control from start to finish at Fir Park. The team’s shape allowed Hearts to dominate possession from the get-go, seize the initiative and forced Motherwell into a more reactive style of play.

Hearts’ opening goal arrived via a set-piece but it was no less than the visitors deserved. They had been regularly fashioning good opportunities at one end while keeping Motherwell quiet at the other, and the goal arrived at a good time for Naismith’s men. For the remainder of the first half they held what they had and even though the hosts then applied some pressure of their own after regrouping at the break, chances for those in claret-and-amber were few and far between.

Take a look at the above graphic, which charts each team’s expected goals (xG) over the course of the 90 minutes. The chances for Hearts dried up after the opening goal as the team looked to consolidate their advantage but even during Motherwell’s spell of pressure after the break, Hearts gave very little away. The same was true after Spittal’s penalty reduced the arrears and Well decided to chuck the kitchen sink at Hearts for the final 10 minutes: despite the pressure they heaped on Hearts, they simply couldn’t find a way through. Spittal’s dragged shot wide from distance on 88 minutes was the only shot Kettlewell’s side had after pulling the game back to 2-1. Credit, too, is due to Naismith for replacing Forrest with Toby Sibbick when it became apparent that the former was struggling to deal with Brodie Spencer, who came on at the break.

A quick look at the final xG tallies would suggest this was a tight contest that could have gone either way, but this ignores the context of the match. The two sides’ xG at full-time was almost identical, but 1.2 of the 1.41 xG generated by Motherwell came via two chances – Oli Shaw’s close-range shot that struck Cochrane’s arm, and the resulting penalty from Spittal. Remove those chances and Motherwell mustered just 0.21 xG from six efforts on goal.

It was an apt demonstration of the defensive resilience that Hearts are capable of. They also showed their street-smarts as the game eked into stoppage time by keeping the ball for the final three of the six added-on minutes in the far corner of the park as Shankland, Sibbick and Jorge Grant indulged in the sort of cynical gamesmanship that has been lacking at times this season. It was just another example of Hearts managing the game well – and the team will surely need to show that pragmatism once again during December’s difficult run of games.