Saturday’s 1-0 win over St Johnstone was not a game that will live long in the memory for Heart of Midlothian supporters. Thousands braved the elements on a frosty winter’s afternoon to head along to Tynecastle Park as domestic football returned, but anyone hoping that the football on offer would get the blood pumping would have been left disappointed.

This was no vintage Hearts performance, but it was an afternoon that reaped three well-earned and important points to kick off a hectic festive fixture list. Steven Naismith’s side started strongly against the Perth Saints before the tempo dropped, and the contest soon had an attritional feel about it. The visitors remained rigidly in their shape, daring Hearts to try and break them down while offering a threat on the counter-attack as the game fell into a familiar pattern.

It's a movie that Hearts fans have become accustomed to over the course of the season. But rather than struggling to break down a well-drilled opponent and ruing missed opportunities and two or three dropped points, the men in maroon came out on top to claim an important victory.

So, how did it all unfold? Did Naismith get his game plan right, or were there aspects of the team’s set-up that could have worked better? Let’s take a look.

Midfield gamble

Naismith stuck with the same shape from the 2-1 win at Fir Park a fortnight ago, making just one change as Jorge Grant came into the starting line-up at the expense of Calem Nieuwenhof. It was a statement of intent from the head coach: Grant offers more on the ball than Nieuwenhof but not as much off of it, and the Englishman is not as physical as his Australian team-mate. It was a recognition from Naismith that Hearts were going to dominate possession and that unlocking the Saints defence was going to be his side’s biggest problem, which turned out to be correct.

A midfield three of Beni Baningime, Alex Lowry and Grant is one that can keep a hold of the ball and use it well, but it isn’t the strongest out of possession. With no natural ball-winner in the middle, Naismith was sacrificing some steel to squeeze in some extra creativity – and the ploy had decidedly mixed results.

For the opening 10 minutes or so, it worked a treat. Hearts shifted the ball about with pace and purpose, peppering Dimitar Mitov’s goal and asking some awkward questions of their opponents. Lowry and Grant both played important roles during this spell, drifting wide and linking up nicely with the wing-backs and causing all sorts of problems. Saints then settled into the game, though, and Hearts quickly became one-paced and all-too-predictable in possession. With no ball-winner in midfield, Hearts didn’t have many opportunities to hit St Johnstone on the break. Instead, they would have to patiently probe for an opening.

Take a look at the expected goals (xG) race chart above that shows how each team accrued their total xG over the course of the 90 minutes. The opening 20 minutes was one-way traffic in Hearts’ favour but after that, they barely mustered an effort on goal until Lawrence Shankland broke the deadlock on 61 minutes.

Hearts didn’t register a single shot during the final 15 minutes of the first half or the opening 15 of the second. St Johnstone, meanwhile, steadily racked up decent opportunities – usually from flooding the box and whipping it in – to the point where the visitors had the higher xG before Hearts took the lead. Naismith’s side were fairly comfortable thereafter, but that 30-minute spell will have concerned the former Scotland internationalist. Let’s look at what happened.

READ MORE: How Hearts displayed growth with St Johnstone win compared to early season struggles

Saints box off the middle

Whenever Hearts were building out from the back, Frankie Kent was afforded the freedom of Gorgie to carry the ball as far as the halfway line unopposed and plan his next move, with the Saints attackers under strict instructions not to press the centre-half. Kye Rowles and Stephen Kingsley would drift wide and were marked tightly by Chris Kane and Stevie May, leaving Kent with only one place to go: forward. Below is a typical example. Look how few options the Englishman has.

Long-range passes aren’t Kent’s strongest suit, and so cross-field balls to the likes of Alex Cochrane and Alan Forrest were unlikely to come off. They weren’t entirely ineffective – when it worked, it left Hearts in a great attacking position – but it was an inefficient use of the ball. St Johnstone’s structure did a good job of cutting the passing lanes to Lowry and Grant, but most of Hearts’ best attacking play arrived when Shankland or Liam Boyce dropped deep to collect it, leaving their markers behind. Out on the left, Cochrane was winning his running battle with Dara Costelloe and playing with variation, but the same couldn’t be said of Forrest on the right. The wing-back received a lot of the ball high up the park and he kept trying the same trick with no success: knocking the ball wide of Luke Davidson, getting past him and then drilling a low ball into the six-yard box. It didn’t work once. Forrest didn’t even get past Davidson once.

The pressure map above shows the areas of the pitch where St Johnstone applied the most pressure. The picture on the left is from the opening 10 minutes when Hearts were fashioning good opportunities, and the one on the right shows how Saints pressed from the 11th minute up until the 60th. In the opening 10 minutes, the visitors were pressing higher up the park, particularly down Hearts’ right, which in turn created more space for Hearts to play in. When St Johnstone sat a little deeper, all of a sudden the men maroon struggled to find a way through.

READ MORE: Why Lawrence Shankland surprised Liam Boyce 'more than anyone' and the goal debate

Daniel Phillips was another factor. The 22-year-old is one of the better ball-winning midfielders in the league but his talents were not being put to good use during the opening 10 minutes. Playing as a defensive midfielder, he wasn’t particularly involved when Hearts had the ball. Levein recognised this as he shifted Phillips to the No.10 position when Saints were out of possession and told him to aggressively press the ball. It worked like a charm – no player on either side made as many successful tackles as Phillips (six), and no one made more pressures than the midfielder (31).

When Hearts took the lead through Shankland’s deflection, the goal had arrived against the run of play. Some neat play from Yutaro Oda, who had replaced Forrest only minutes before, opened up some space for Naismith’s side that allowed players to push forward. A few passes later and Boyce was presented with an excellent opportunity just a few yards out. It was a well-constructed goal and from that point on, the men in maroon saw out the victory in a professional manner.

Hearts got there in the end but St Johnstone certainly made life more difficult than supporters will have wished. The packed midfield caused some real problems for Naismith’s side. It appears as though just about everyone apart from Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen and Hibs plans on coming to Tynecastle Park to sit deep with 11 men behind the ball, and finding a way through will be Hearts’ biggest challenge each match.

In the coming weeks Hearts will have to contend with playing against a mix of styles but it is against packed defences where solutions continue to have to be found.

READ MORE: Penalty decisions, Hearts consistency, breaking down stubborn defences - Naismith Q&A