The 2023/24 season has been a bit stop-start for Barrie McKay. No sooner had the winger returned to fitness in August before another injury – sustained in the 2-1 loss at home to PAOK in the Europa Conference League – heralded another stint on the sidelines for the former Rangers and Nottingham Forest man.

Three months later McKay has shaken off that injury and returned to first-team action. Alongside his fellow long-term absentees Craig Gordon, Craig Halkett and Nathaniel Atkinson, McKay was included in the squad for Wednesday night’s 1-0 loss at home to Rangers, coming off the bench for the final five minutes or so as Hearts went chasing an equaliser against Phillipe Clement’s side.

McKay wasn’t able to drag Hearts level on this occasion, but the 28-year-old’s return does pose some intriguing questions for Steven Naismith. Chief among them: just where does McKay fit into this team?

READ MORE: Steven Naismith: 'Decisions are not personal' - Hearts boss on selection headache

A casualty of the system?

McKay has spent most of his time at Tynecastle Park – heck, most of his time in his career – playing on the left wing, where he is afforded the opportunity to cut inside onto his favoured right foot. It was this area of the park where he came on for the final five minutes or so against Rangers – but it’s also a role that we haven’t seen within Naismith’s side all that often of late.

We’ve previously discussed the strengths of the 3-5-2 compared to the 4-2-3-1, and it appears as though Naismith is understandably keen to stick with the change in shape. Although McKay's return could see more switching of the system as happened at half-time on Wednesday. But the head coach has started with the back three ever since the formation was altered for Hearts’ trip to Ibrox at the end of October, and with good reason: the team’s form improved to the point where Naismith was named the Premiership’s manager of the month for November, and Rangers are the only team to avoid defeat when facing the 3-5-2 (although, it must be said, they won all three meetings).

For all the benefits of the new formation, there are one or two sizable problems too. It leaves Hearts a little short of pace up top, for instance, and it doesn’t offer much attacking threat on the flanks. The biggest issue, though, is that there are some talented players who aren’t a natural fit within the system. Yutaro Oda is the most obvious example – as an out-and-out winger, the Japanese has found himself at right wing-back and striker in recent weeks without fully convincing in either role – and McKay finds himself in a similar category.

When McKay came off the bench on Wednesday, he did so once Naismith had changed the shape to a 4-4-2, allowing him to play in his favoured left-wing role – but that won’t always be the case. There will be times when the attacker is required elsewhere. McKay has played on the right or behind the striker on occasion, but neither of these positions tend to be up for grabs in the 3-5-2 either.

If Naismith sticks with the shape, then McKay will have to adapt to force himself back into the starting XI. The three positions he is perhaps most suited to simply don’t exist in the line-up at present – but there is another area where McKay can make his presence felt.

READ MORE: How Rangers loss showed the two sides of Hearts: Pressing but not enough chances

The theory

Let’s take a look at McKay’s skill-set. He is a technical and creative player who thrives when he is given space to play in, and he is very forward-thinking. He likes to get on the ball and attempt to unpick an opposition defence, and his low centre of gravity and agility makes him a handy dribbler of the ball, too. McKay is unafraid to receive it under pressure and shift it past his marker, and his composure on the ball is one of his greatest strengths.

There is another role in the team that requires a similar set of abilities: the left-sided central midfield position. We have previously examined the make-up of the midfield trio in the 3-5-2, and each member of the triumvirate can be put into one of three categories: someone to protect and maintain possession in the No.6 role, a traditional all-rounder No.8 on the right (bonus points if they can win the ball back effectively), and a playmaker on the left of the three. For the sake of ease we will call this the No.10 position, but with the understanding that this player is sitting a little deeper than your typical playmaker.

It is a role that McKay is more than capable of fulfilling. Take a look at the two graphics below that show how McKay fared during the past two seasons. In both campaigns the 28-year-old featured predominantly as a left winger but when we run his stats through our central midfield template, we can see why there might just be a future for McKay here after all and he may well even help the team progress the ball more effectively and efficiently through the midfield.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, McKay doesn’t score so well compared to the rest of the Premiership’s central midfielders when we examine his off-the-ball work, but that’s not his role in this midfield. But just look at some of his creative output – he consistently finds himself as one of the highest-rated midfielders in the league when we examine things like key passes, his xG contribution from open play, deep progressions and successful dribbles: all qualities that we want the No.10 to possess in an ideal world.

So far this season Alex Lowry and Jorge Grant have been sharing this role – and both have largely made a good fist of it, with Lowry in particular catching the eye – but as we saw in the recent 1-0 win over St Johnstone, Naismith is not averse to squeezing two playmakers into the midfield if the occasion demands it. Lowry and Grant are McKay’s competition for a starting berth in the middle, so let’s see how McKay stacks up against his team-mates.

The above graphic compares McKay’s output last season to Lowry’s from this campaign, and a few things jump out immediately. The two players excel in similar areas (dribbles, key passes, deep completions, and so on), although Lowry tends to be the safer pair of hands in possession. McKay’s overall passing accuracy is a concern but we can reasonably expect this figure to improve when playing centrally rather than out wide, where he is attempting riskier passes. He could certainly offer a little more out of possession too but this should only be viewed as a bonus. After all, McKay’s role here is something approaching a typical No.10 and winning the ball back isn’t a priority for the position.

It’s a similar story when we compare McKay to Grant. Again, we’ve used McKay’s data from last season, while Grant’s stats are from the current campaign. Again, it’s a largely similar shape – suggesting that the two players are of a similar profile.

READ MORE: Where does Lawrence Shankland rank among Hearts' all-time great goal scorers?

A few steps inside – and a big leap forward?

With McKay, Gordon, Halkett and Atkinson all back in contention for a place in the starting line-up, Naismith has some welcome selection headaches laying in wait. The other three returning players all slot back into the 3-5-2 rather comfortably but in McKay’s case, some flexibility is required.

The good news is that there is every indication that McKay can thrive elsewhere within the system. He is not an obvious fit within the formation and although he will surely be first pick at left wing should Naismith decide to change the shape, he needs to find a new position if he wants to be included within the 3-5-2. The data suggests that the No.10 role could be the answer, but we won’t know for sure until we get the rubber-meets-the-road moment where the theory is put to the test.

McKay might well have to take a few steps infield to regain his place in the starting XI – but it could result in a giant leap forward for the 28-year-old and the team.