Heart of Midlothian’s 2-1 defeat to Aberdeen at the weekend is one that will understandably sting for supporters. The previous seven trips to Pittodrie had ended in defeat for the men in maroon but after Lawrence Shankland headed Hearts ahead midway through the first half, the 1,500 travelling fans that made the journey north could be forgiven for thinking the jinx would be broken at long last.

Hearts were the better team in the first half, testing Kelle Roos in the Aberdeen goal with a few decent chances and generally working the ball into promising positions. The final ball wasn’t always there, but the visitors were undoubtedly asking some awkward questions of their hosts and had the upper hand. Off the ball they had done well to restrict the Dons, who had failed to register a shot on target by the time the half-time whistle rang out.

Aberdeen were a different animal in the second half, though. It became apparent within minutes of the restart that the momentum had shifted as Barry Robson’s men started playing long balls up to the forwards at pace to great effect. Bojan Miovski’s equaliser on 52 minutes renewed hope for the home fans, and Hearts found themselves struggling to play out from the back as the chances dried up. Aberdeen then pounced in second-half stoppage time, with Leighton Clarkson providing the knockout blow from a well-executed counter-attack.

The xG race chart above is telling. As we can see, Hearts were steadily accruing chances while simultaneously keeping Aberdeen quiet in the first half, but then they barely laid a glove on their opponents after the break.

So, where did it all go wrong for Hearts then? What changed between the first half and the second, and what lessons can be learned? Let’s take a look.

READ MORE: Hearts' response to Aberdeen equaliser raises more questions than answers

First half

Steven Naismith deviated slightly from the 3-5-2 we’ve become accustomed to lately. Rather than deploying Beni Baningime as a No.6 with Calem Nieuwenhof and Alex Lowry either side of him, Baningime played at right centre midfield with Nieuwenhof on the left and Lowry played as a No.10. Robson set up Aberdeen in an identical shape.

Both teams were playing with a high line, meaning that much of the play was congested in the middle third of the pitch. That left plenty of room in behind both defences to exploit, with Hearts particularly finding joy whenever Shankland drifted out to the right wing to receive the ball. Take a look at each team’s passing network from the first half below, which gives us an idea of each side’s shape in possession.

Initially, however, the Hearts captain wasn’t getting the support that he needed. On two occasions during the first half, Shankland received the ball out right but wasn’t supported by Baningime or Sibbick. Baningime, in particular, was reluctant to get forward and offer an option out wide. There were excellent opportunities to break forward and catch Aberdeen off-guard after Shankland had brought down the ball, but no one was committing to the attack. A couple of backwards passes later and the ball ended up at the halfway line with the entire Aberdeen team behind it.

From then on, though, Shankland starts getting that support when the opportunity arises. Hearts’ best attacking move of the game came from a similar ball forward to Shankland a few minutes later but on this occasion, Sibbick gets forward to provide an option. The result? An excellent chance to double Hearts’ lead.

It is a similar story out of possession. To begin with, Hearts were reluctant to press in numbers when Aberdeen were building out from the back but they became more aggressive as the half wore on. The home side were reluctant to go long and instead played short, simple passes at the back. That invited the Hearts press, particularly in the wide areas, with Nieuwenhof and Baningime often charging forward to put pressure on the man on the ball, who would then launch it forward for the Hearts defence to calmly sweep up. Many an Aberdeen attack was snuffed out before it could get going.

Here’s a typical example. Aberdeen pass the ball back to the goalkeeper, and Shankland goes after it alone. The striker’s run triggers the press as Lowry, Baningime and Vargas push up to support him.

Aberdeen play the ball around the back and it’s eventually worked to Stefan Gartenmann, who has Vargas bearing down on him and nowhere to go.

Gartenmann is forced into playing it back to Roos, who can only launch a hopeful ball forward that gets easily hoovered up by the Hearts defence.

A combination of the Dons’ meandering build-up play and Hearts’ committed pressing prevented Robson’s men from fashioning any meaningful opportunities from open play during the first half – but that would all change after the break.

READ MORE: Naismith's 'bullied' claim and finally making Hearts comeback - Craig Halkett Q&A

Second half

Aberdeen came out for the second half with a new strategy: to commit men forward and to hit long, early balls in towards them to beat the Hearts press. And it worked a treat. Suddenly, Hearts found themselves sitting a lot deeper, with the back three getting increasingly involved around the edge of their box. The graphic below shows Hearts’ pressure map for each half, with the first half on the left and the second on the right.

This had two knock-on effects: Hearts now found themselves struggling to get on the ball and get up the park; and Aberdeen started regularly fashioning opportunities. When Miovski levelled the scores seven minutes after the restart, the goal arrived after a sustained period of pressure from the home side.

The game settled after the equaliser, but Hearts were still toiling in the final third. A Shankland touch-and-hit following some good play from Alex Cochrane was ballooned high and wide of goal, and Hearts wouldn’t threaten Ross’ goal again until they were behind and desperately chasing an equaliser of their own.

Kyosuke Tagawa, Jorge Grant, Aidan Denholm and Craig Halkett were brought on as Naismith attempted to change the course of the game, but none of the quartet were able to make a significant impact. The biggest effect, in fact, was that Halkett’s introduction saw Stephen Kingsley move to right wing-back. Kingsley regularly found himself on the ball when Hearts were building out from the back, with Cochrane often in oceans of space on the opposite flank. As a left-footer, Kingsley was unable to play the switch ball early, instead taking a touch or two inside, by which point the chance was gone. Just like Aberdeen in the first half, now it was Hearts whose attacking moves were breaking down before they could get going.

Aberdeen had been getting a lot of joy from long balls forward and so it was little surprise that one resulted in the winning goal. The home side won their fair share of the initial aerial duels following long balls forward, and had the upper hand with winning second balls, prompting Naismith to claim after the match that his team had been ‘bullied’. And unlike the recent victory over Kilmarnock, where the back three maintained a straight defensive line, the Hearts defence found themselves shifted around and unbalanced, particularly towards the end of the second half as Kye Rowles pushed forward to support the attack. Gaps at the back were appearing with concerning regularity.

The winning goal would turn out to be the result of a catalogue of errors from Hearts. Tagawa surrendered possession cheaply after losing his balance on the wet surface underneath, and Graeme Shinnie took full advantage to nick the ball away. Nicky Devlin collected it and started charging menacingly up the touchline.

Devlin continues to drive forward, and Grant goes haring after him. With someone chasing after the man in possession, Cochrane should drop to defend the channel. Instead, he finds himself in no man’s land and is taken out of the game when Devlin dinks the ball through to Duk.

With Shayden Morris on the overlap and Cochrane caught out, Rowles has to drift wide to protect the flank, which opens up space for Duk to charge into. It was an area that Aberdeen were clearly targeting. Rowles finished the game having made 13 clearances (Frankie Kent, for context, made the second-most with six) but he can’t sweep up on this occasion. Duk has Halkett and Rowles beat for pace and makes a beeline towards goal.

Duk then cuts it back to Clarkson, with Kent having made the decision to charge back to protect the line rather than mark the man. All the Aberdeen midfielder has to do is apply the simplest of finishes, which he does with ease.


It was a poor goal to concede. Hearts made it too easy for Aberdeen to hurt them due to some poor pressing, and the men in maroon paid the price.

This was a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance from Hearts. The game plan was working in the first half, but the team had no response when Robson switched to Plan B. Hearts toiled in the final third and barely threatened Roos’ goal and off the ball, they really struggled to win the ball back like they did during the opening 45 minutes. They were out-thought and out-fought at Pittodrie – and few could have any complaints about the final result.