Since the 4-1 home loss to Celtic, Heart of Midlothian head coach Steven Naismith has opted for a back three, moving away from his preference of a four-man backline. It has brought positive results. The team have won their last three league games, while they were close to earning a result at Ibrox. The only real disappointment was the loss in the Viaplay Cup semi-final to Rangers.

In the weekend's victory over St Johnstone there were some issues with the balance of the set-up with a lack of pace and direct running in the final third as Alan Forrest was unable to get the better of Luke Robinson, Saints' aggressive wing-back. 

Naismith is blessed with a number of players who are flexible to play different positions in different systems and will have an abundance of possibilities once Craig Halkett, Nathaniel Atkinson and Barrie McKay return from injury.

With three big games in the space of a week coming up, writers James Cairney and Joel Sked discuss the merits of the two most common systems used by Hearts this season.

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The back three - James Cairney

It wasn’t until September’s trip to Dingwall that Naismith decided to deploy his 3-5-2 formation from the start in league business. Hearts would finish the afternoon with three points in the bag and a clean sheet to boot, with substitutes Alex Lowry and Alan Forrest combining for the only goal of the game during the second half. It was a match where Hearts successfully kept their opponents at an arm’s length as County were restricted to few clear-cut opportunities, but one where Naismith’s side could be accused of toiling a little in the final third. Hearts controlled the ball and were worthy winners in the end, but it took them a while to break their opponents down and find a way through. 

That has largely remained the case since the system became a far more regular fixture in recent weeks.

The positives

Let’s start with the most obvious point: having an extra defender on the park helps to tighten things up at the back. Their mere presence alone congests the pitch and makes it more difficult for the opposition to find gaps, and relieves some of the responsibility placed on their fellow centre-backs’ shoulders. 

Kye Rowles has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the change in shape. On the ball, he is generally afforded more time and has plenty of short, simple passing options available to him. Off of it, he knows he has Frankie Kent sweeping up behind him if he comes off second-best in any defensive duels. 

The extra man at centre-back makes it hard for opponents to attack Hearts in central areas, while Beni Baningime’s presence at No.6 adds to that difficulty. The 24-year-old isn’t a natural ball-winner but being able to press the man in possession with a three-man safety net behind him has made Hearts very solid in this part of the pitch. 

Baningime’s willingness to receive the ball and keep it moving is also vital to the team’s build-up play, adding a layer of control that we have rarely seen with the 4-2-3-1. The back three also suits Alex Cochrane, providing the Englishman with more license to get into the final third where he can often be effective. Alex Lowry, too, is given space to play within this system – something that is crucial to getting the best out of the on-loan playmaker

The negatives 

These are the players that are best-suited to the change in shape but there are others who do not fit the mould quite as easily. For all the defensive security and control in possession that the 3-5-2 offers, it is difficult to ignore the fact that Hearts don’t have much of a cutting edge. We’ve seen Liam Boyce and Lawrence Shankland leading the line in recent weeks and while both the strikers are happy to drop deep to get involved in the build-up, neither is especially adept at getting in behind and stretching an opponent’s defence. 

The result is that Hearts’ build-up play can be a little pedestrian at times. With no penetration coming from out wide, the strikers are really the only players in the Hearts team who are in a position to get in behind and attack at pace. Kenneth Vargas has been used on occasion to fill the Josh Ginnelly-shaped hole in the team but perhaps there is another on the books at Tynecastle Park who could fulfil the role. 

Supporters haven’t seen all that much of Kyosuke Tagawa since the Japanese striker put pen to paper on a three-year deal in the summer, but sporting director Joe Savage believes the centre-forward might just be the answer.  

“If you look at Tagawa’s data and stats - he runs away from the ball,” Savage told Hearts Standard in an exclusive interview. “Is he as fast as Josh Ginnelly? No, he’s not, Gino is rapid. Tagawa is a No.9, wants to run away from the ball, get in behind. In my opinion he will come good.” 

Another problem position can be found at right-wing back. Alan Forrest has been playing there in recent weeks but was substituted off in his last two appearances, and the winger lacks the defensive nous of someone like Toby Sibbick. Sibbick, meanwhile, is solid enough from a defensive standpoint but the 24-year-old doesn’t have the sort of attacking instincts to make a big impact in the final third, nor does he provide the sort of out-ball that Forrest does.  

Nathaniel Atkinson, however, might just be the solution here: the Australian is approaching a comeback from an injury sustained away to St Mirren earlier in the campaign, and the position is one that should get the most out of him. The 24-year-old is comfortable enough with the ball at his feet to be an effective outlet going forward, while still possessing the necessary pace and defensive know-how to contribute at the back too. His return could make a big difference in this part of the pitch. 


When you boil it all down, the 3-5-2 is a trade-off at its essence. Its strengths and weaknesses became fully apparent when it made its debut in the Highlands against Ross County, and little has changed in its subsequent outings. It makes Hearts stronger at the back, harder to break down, and allows them to control possession through measured build-up play. It also means that getting in behind their opponents is difficult and so pacey, direct attacks are pretty much out of the question. The play becomes more patient, more measured – and, on occasion, more predictable. It’s a decision from Naismith to sacrifice some attacking flair for some control further back. The goals might not have been flying in, but it’s working so far. 

The introduction of Tagawa and the return of Atkinson – not to mention Craig Gordon, Craig Halkett and Barrie McKay – could have a significant impact on how the team operates within the 3-5-2, providing more balance to the team. Until then, though, Hearts will have to make do with what they have. As we’ve previously discussed, a midfield three of Devlin, Baningime and Lowry compliments each other well, although there may be a need in certain games to sacrifice one of Lowry or Boyce in the No.10 role to accommodate someone with a bit more pace, such as Tagawa or Vargas. The Costa Rican has been tried out in a few different positions this season but could provide the pace that the team is currently lacking in attack. 

The back half of the team is functioning well with the back three but there is probably room for improvement in the final third. Some further tactical tinkering is needed going forward but the three-man defence provides a solid foundation for Hearts to build upon, and it is worth persevering with. 

James' XI: Clark; Kingsley, Kent, Rowles; Forrest, Baningime, Devlin, Lowry, Cochrane; Boyce, Shankland. 

Hearts Standard:

4-2-3-1 - Joel Sked

As stated, the back four is Steven Naismith's preference. That's what the team worked on during pre-season as the management team implemented a new style. With that comes fresh directions, different patterns of play and different demands of the playing squad.

While Hearts balanced domestic and European football it brought mixed results not helped by an injury to Nathaniel Atkinson. The loss to Celtic acted as a catalyst for change. It was too easy for the Scottish champions to play through and the set-up or the way it was carried out by those on the field didn't allow Hearts to get any sort of foothold in the match, not helped by the concession of an early goal.

The positives

The big positive from a 4-2-3-1 is it naturally allows for more pace in the final third. It could be witnessed on Saturday that the team lacked someone to stretch the game vertically and take St Johnstone into uncomfortable positions. The back three of Ryan McGowan, Andy Considine and Liam Gordon don't want runs in behind or players running with the ball. Against teams that sit in, an attacking trio of Alex Lowry, Lawrence Shankand and Liam Boyce are too similar with all three instinctively coming towards the ball.

An attacking quartet in a 4-2-3-1 would allow Naismith to get all three in the same XI while also adding a more direct, quicker option higher up the pitch. That trio are matchwinners, whether it is through creation or the finishing touch. But all three would benefit from a runner. Lowry, like Barrie McKay, wants to play through balls for players to run onto. Not something Boyce or Shankland necessarily thrive on. They prefer that direct option to create space so they can drop in, get on the ball and shift the opposing defence.

The fourth man could be Kyosuke Tagawa when he's up to speed but it would likely mean a wider role with the capacity to move in field. Currently a better fit would be either Kenneth Vargas or Yutaro Oda on the right. Both can stretch play vertically and horizontally.

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

The issues

The back four doesn't provide the same stability and solidity that the back three does. In addition, with Atkinson out injured and Odel Offiah not available, right-back options are limited. 

Earlier in the season it was easier for teams to turn and counter Hearts when they played a back four. With the full-backs often pushed higher opponents targeted the space either side of the centre-back pairing. Individually, Kye Rowles is more suited to a back three and the same case could be made for Frankie Kent but for different reasons. In a back three there is less requirement for Rowles to get involved in aerial and physical battles with strikers, while Kent is an excellent stopper who reads the game well and can sweep effectively behind two wider centre-backs.

You then have the Stephen Kingsley - Alex Cochrane dilemma. Two very good options and two individuals you want in your team. Short-term there could be an argument for Kingsley to play right-back. Supporters reading this may understandably be screwing up their face but it is worth reminding fans of Alan Maybury and Robbie Neilson. Following the emergence of the latter the former switched to left-back. It wouldn't be a unique situation.

Of course, there is Toby Sibbick who has plenty of attributes to succeed at right-back but has been far too inconsistent when he has featured this campaign. 


Let's face it, the case for the back four is not easy. The key benefit is you get three matchwinners in the squad plus a quicker option. Or alternatively you can play two wide men to try to stretch teams and open up space for Shankland and one of Boyce or Lowry in a No.10 role. 

There is also the possibility that a certain team selection would allow Naismith to field an XI which can easily morph between a back three and a back four depending on game situations. Alex Cochrane can push up high from left-back, allowing Lowry, if he was to play from the left, to move centrally. To provide balance and that defensive solidity which makes it difficult for teams to counter, Kingsley could narrow to make a back three. The team has that flexibility but ideally it wouldn't be an all-game occurrence as it would likely make the tem predictable in working the ball down the left

Another way to provide that strong foundation in possession would be for Baningime to drop into the backline, perhaps as a right-sided centre-back. Remember this is in possession. It would leave, in this instance, Devlin as the central midfield presence behind an attacking strategy. This would require the team to be aggressive with their positioning, playing high up the pitch to close the space and make it difficult for the opposition to get out. Hearts, it should be noted, have been pretty effective at winning the ball higher up the pitch.

Joel's suggested XI: Clark; Kingsley, Kent, Rowles, Cochrane; Baningime; Devlin; Lowry, Boyce, Vargas; Shankland.

Hearts Standard: