Steven Naismith has found himself chopping and changing the team’s shape regularly this season, carefully weighing up the demands of each match on its own merits before settling on the best ploy to give his Heart of Midlothian side a chance of success.

Sometimes the former Scotland internationalist goes for a back three; sometimes he opts for a four-man defence. Sometimes Lawrence Shankland is leading the line by himself; sometimes he is partnered by Liam Boyce or Kenneth Vargas. Sometimes the midfield trio is made up of two sitting midfielders and a No.10; sometimes it is one player sitting as a No.6 with two players either side of him.

Some of the performances in the 3-5-2 shape, such as the recent 2-1 win over Motherwell in Hearts’ last outing or the 1-0 victory away to Ross County, have been encouraging, and have led some to believe that this shape is best suited to the squad Naismith has to work with. His predecessor, after all, recruited the team to play within a similar tactical set-up, and some players look more comfortable with the defensive rigour provided by the back three.

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The midfield, too, has a nice balance to it within this set-up. With Beni Baningime pretty much back up to full match fitness after his lengthy lay-off, Hearts have an accomplished and capable No.6 who does the simple stuff well. With the former Everton player carefully recycling the ball as he sits at the base of midfield, he is a useful and willing out-ball when Hearts are building out from the back. Off the ball, he provides another layer of defensive security though his presence alone and adds another layer of defensive solidity to the team.


As we can see, Baningime is among the highest performers for central midfielders when it comes to his overall passing accuracy, and he commits remarkably few turnovers per 90 minutes played. This tells us that the 25-year-old is composed on the ball and adept at resisting pressure from the opposition, and usually finds his man with short, simple passes.

He also scores fairly well when we examine his key passes (passes that lead directly to a shot), open play xG assisted (a player’s contribution to the build-up when creating chances) and his defensive action regains (winning the ball back within five seconds of a team-mate making a tackle, interception or pressure). We can also see that he is not comfortable dribbling with the ball, and he scores poorly in terms of deep completions (passes in and around the opposition box) and deep progressions (passes and dribbles into the final third).

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Baningime provides a steady presence at No.6, but that is not enough for a balanced midfield. For all his talents, the midfielder is not a ball-winner and having someone in the middle who can win the ball back is every bit as important as having someone who can keep a hold of it. Step forward Cammy Devlin.

Devlin hasn’t featured as much recently as he would have liked – he has been named on the bench for three of Hearts’ last four games, and was taken off at half-time in the one that he started – but one would imagine that the energetic Aussie will return to the starting line-up before long. The 25-year-old’s disciplinary record perhaps holds him back at times but it is difficult to overlook everything he offers out of possession.

Tom Irving has previously discussed how the Australia internationalist is one of the best-performing midfielders in the league when it comes to winning the ball back. Adjusted for possession, he is in the 92nd percentile for successful tackles and interceptions, and in the 93rd for pressures. He wins his fair share of fouls, his overall passing accuracy is better than many give him credit for, and he commits relatively few turnovers per game. However, he has a similar problem to Baningime: neither player is particularly creative, and the midfield needs that spark if they are going to create chances. Thankfully, though, Naismith has just the player.

Alex Lowry isn’t just the most creative player in Hearts’ midfield – he also happens to be one of the best in the entire league. Not everything the precocious playmaker attempts will come off – note he is in the very bottom percentile for overall pass accuracy – but there is no one else in this Hearts side that has quite the same level of invention as the Rangers loanee. He is in the 97th percentile for key passes, the 96th for deep completions, and the 90th for both successful dribbles and fouls won. He makes his fair share of pressures too, even if he struggles with winning the ball back.

Each of these three players has their own strengths and weaknesses but together they form a well-rounded unit: Baningime is good at keeping the ball and recycling it; Devlin excels at winning the ball back; and Lowry provides the creativity that is required to unlock a well-drilled defence. Add in the defensive cover provided on the flanks from the wing-backs and throw in a few supporting runs and all of a sudden, the middle of the park is shaping up nicely indeed.

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Baningime, Devlin and Lowry are all among the best players in the Premiership at the areas of the game where they excel, and this midfield structure should, in theory, allow them to bring the best out of each other. We haven’t seen it too often this season (all three started in the 2-1 defeat away to Rosenborg and the recent 1-0 win over Livingston, albeit in a different structure) but with a busy December on the horizon, it is surely a case of when and not if it will be deployed in future.

On paper, that midfield trio might be Hearts’ strongest, but what about the other options? Let’s start with the right central midfielder role, which we suggested should be occupied by Devlin. Calem Nieuwnenhof has been given the nod here recently and shown quality in and out of possession, albeit on a somewhat inconsistent basis so far. Going by the data, the summer signing isn’t excelling in a particular area the way the three others are. As we can see below, his radar is a similar shape to his countryman's – suggesting they are a similar profile of player – but Devlin has Nieuwenhof beat in almost every area.

The left central midfield slot requires some creativity, so Jorge Grant would be the most obvious candidate to fulfil this role in the event that Lowry is unavailable for selection. The Englishman struggled for game time earlier on in the season before an eye-catching performance away at Rugby Park nudged him one or two places up the pecking order at Tynecastle Park.

He matches Lowry’s output for key passes, and has a higher open play xG assisted and overall passing accuracy, but doesn’t manage as many deep completions or dribbles. He offers slightly more off the ball, too. Grant and Lowry are different, but both have shown that they are progressive enough in possession to shoulder the team’s creative burden.

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The No.6 position is slightly more complicated. Nieuwenhof can play there but probably isn’t as safe a pair of hands as Baningime, as the graphic below shows. Look at his overall passing accuracy, for instance, or the amount of turnovers he averages.

Another option is required, and there is one already on the books in Gorgie. Peter Haring hasn’t featured much this season, and there are concerns from some supporters that the 30-year-old Austrian might not be the same player he was before his recent injury. Having said that, based on the handful of first-team appearances he has made this season, he might just be a capable understudy for Baningime.

Haring’s overall passing accuracy isn’t as high as we’d like but there is a good reason for this: as we can see, he attempts far more deep progressions and these are riskier by their very nature, as well as more longer switches of play. When Haring has played this season though, it hasn’t been in the No.6 role that he is perhaps best suited to, and we could reasonably expect improvement in his overall passing accuracy when he is being asked to take fewer risks. His low rate of turnovers, too, suggests he is a relatively steady presence on the ball – and he is more industrious off it than Baningime, performing well in terms of successful tackles and interceptions. Like Lowry and Grant, Haring is not necessarily a like-for-like replacement for Baningime – but the data suggests he could be a capable back-up option nonetheless.

Midfield is an area where Naismith could perhaps be tempted into strengthening in the January transfer window but until then, the former Scotland internationalist has the right personnel to persevere with the current structure of the midfield. A trio of Baningime, Devlin and Lowry is one of the very best in the Premiership on paper. And with big games coming thick and fast thanks to a hectic festive fixture list, there is no better time to put the theory to the test.