Heart of Midlothian's season has been far from plain sailing. An inconsistent start to the campaign appeared to settle down over the course of November and the start of December with four straight league victories, albeit it a period which also included defeat in the League Cup semi-final.

Following the November Premiership manager of the month award for head coach Steven Naismith, Hearts have slipped from third to sixth in the league after back-to-back defeats to Rangers and Aberdeen.

While the team and manager deserved praise for putting four league wins together for the first time in over five years, it didn't mean everything was perfect. In the same way, two defeats in succession doesn't mean disaster. Hearts are just two points off third with a game in hand. However, there are areas which require swift improvement and may need big decisions from Naismith ahead of a trip to Celtic Park.

READ MORE: Hearts AGM: 8 key questions the Hearts and Foundation boards could face

Response to conceding

One of the most telling - and galling - aspects of the loss at Aberdeen was the lack of reaction following Bojan Miovski's equaliser and Leighton Clarkson's winner. As detailed by Hearts Standard writer James Cairney in his analysis of the loss at Pittodrie, Hearts posed little to no goal threat from near enough the 30 minute mark.

The good news is that has not always been the case this season in the league. Saturday was perhaps the most egregious example of the team going ahead and then failing to create significant chances to extend the lead. In general, however, Hearts have not been able to build on leads sufficiently. Only Livingston and St Johnstone have scored fewer. While Hearts are one of three teams yet to score three goals in a game this season, alongside the Perth Saints and city rivals Hibs.

A problem Naismith's side have had is scoring goals after conceding. Hearts have not won any points after going behind but have given up eight points from winning positions. In addition, of the 15 goals the team have conceded in the league, Hearts have scored just once after. The only time being when losing 3-0 to Celtic at Tynecastle Park earlier in the campaign.

As things stand, if Hearts concede first they are very unlikely to get a point, let alone all three.

Reliance on Shankland

Lawrence Shankland has scored as many goals (12) as the rest of the Hearts team combined this season. In the league his seven goals amount for 46.7 per cent of the team's goals. That's 12 per cent higher than the next biggest contributor, Bojan Miovski who has six of Aberdeen's 17. Last season, Shankland contributed 38 per cent of the team's 63 league goals. 

It is therefore very easy to see why Hearts fans fear losing the player in January. And why supporters believe it should take a very, very big offer to land Scotland's best goal scorer.

It is more than goals, however. Shankland is the club's talisman and focal point. Play revolves around him and goes through him. It was he who took the ball, drove into the box and provided the cross which Will Dennis turned into his own net for the winning goal against Kilmarnock. 

But what happens if he is not on it? When he failed to hit the net in seven league games earlier in the campaign the team drew a blank in four, scoring five in seven. 

READ MORE: The Lawrence Shankland story: From Queen's Park to Hearts and Scotland star

So much responsibility and pressure falls on his shoulders, even if inadvertently. There are times where he perhaps tries to do too much, but he cut a frustrated figure in the second half of the loss to Aberdeen. He needed more help. 

Liam Boyce helps but shares similar qualities with Shankland. He might not replace the attributes of Josh Ginnelly but, over the course of the season, could replace the goals. Barrie McKay is another who will take on creative responsibility. Kenneth Vargas and Kyosuke Tagawa have shown glimpses but more is required. 

This all has to happen sooner rather than later to ensure the burden on Shankland doesn't become too much.

Change in mindset

“For us, there was still those same things players were doing. It's small things. It's a backward pass, it's taking an extra touch when you don't need to. That brings on a bit of pressure, which then forces you into making a negative-type pass rather than a positive-type pass."

That was Steven Naismith speaking to the Evening News in April following his first game as interim boss. Fast-forward nearly eight months and the same issues are occurring with players playing safe passes and the head coach calling for more bravery.

It will be as much a frustration to Naismith as it is to the Hearts support. But, let's face it, it is making for some pretty dour viewing. As good as the team have been out of possession, they have lacked tempo, urgency and an identity which fans recognise and connect with in possession. The win over Rosenborg at Tynecastle, the type of performance supporters want to see, has been the exception to the rule.

As a collective the team can be slow in transition. That desire to put the foot on the gas and get forward is not the first thought. It is not just with the ball but off the ball too.

A perfect example came in the 12th minute at Pittodrie. Hearts played some brilliant football under pressure from the edge of their own box. Calem Nieuwenhof started it with Baningime exchanging passes with Kenneth Vargas before finding Lawrence Shankland. But then as the move becomes a promising attack, Baningime stops at the half-way line.

Vargas is looking for the option down the right-hand side but is forced to turn back the way. It may not be Baningime's game to drive forward but no matter where you play on the pitch when you see space to attack, you attack.

James Cairney made a salient point in a piece written after the defeat to Aberdeen regarding the desire for front-foot, aggressive football. "The marketing material doesn’t really match up with the reality at this point of Naismith’s reign," he said.

To reach the "clear identity" he spoke of he faces perhaps his biggest task early on in his tenure, to change a mindset of the extra touch or safe pass. Succeed in that, and it could be a huge step towards a more proactive and entertaining style which fans engage with.

READ MORE: Why losing Beni Baningime and Craig Halkett for free would be a Hearts frustration

Basic errors

Hearts have largely been very good out of possession, as stated above. There have been impressive elements with the team's pressing, as was seen against Rangers, and they have been a difficult nut to crack especially with the back three, which was highlighted in the win at Kilmarnock.

But a lot of that work has been undone by basic individual errors or a messy collective. The goals given up at Dundee, St Mirren and at home to Hibs are hard to forget.

Then when the press is just a fraction off the consequences can be severe, and in football terms that means the giving up of good opportunities. That was the case against Rangers and Aberdeen. But even within it there were poor decisions made in both instances. Defenders didn't cover themselves in glory, nor did Zander Clark.

Once more there will be discussion and debate around the man who occupies the position between the sticks. Clark has been a reliable presence for the majority of the last 12 months. At times, criticism of the former St Johnstone goalkeeper has been OTT but he is being held to the standards of the man he is currently keeping out of the team. The longer Craig Gordon is out of the team, the more Clark will be scrutinised. 

More statement performances

The recent defeats to Rangers and Aberdeen knocked the stuffing out of supporters, bringing them crashing back down to Earth. After watching their side win four league matches on the bounce for the first time in five years it served as a timely reminder that the team remains a work in progress.

Those results also underlined another uncomfortable truth about this Hearts side: against clubs of superior or similar resources, the team falls short all too often. In Naismith’s 11 matches against Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen and Hibernian stretching back to his interim spell at the end of last season, Hearts have picked up eight points out of an available 33. Add in one win and three losses in the Europa Conference League this season, and a worrying pattern begins to emerge.

Naismith’s record against the Old Firm is poor (played six, drawn one, lost five) but this is easier for fans to forgive, given the financial disparity that exists between the Glasgow clubs and the rest of Scottish football. And to be fair, in Naismith’s four encounters with Rangers, his Hearts side have only been decidedly second-best on one occasion (the 3-1 defeat in the League Cup semi-final). Some more points on the board would obviously be welcome, but the level of performance at least provides some ground for cautious optimism.

READ MORE: 6 Hearts players who are among the best in their position in the Premiership

The derbies haven’t been great so far. Naismith’s first game as interim manager ended in a 1-0 defeat at Easter Road; Hearts required a backs-to-the-wall performance at home to Hibs on the final day of last season after going down to ten men; and the men in maroon chucked a two-goal lead in less than two minutes at Tynecastle Park as the first derby of this campaign ended in a 2-2 draw.

The games against Aberdeen have followed a familiar pattern with the home side coming out on top, but the nature of the second-half collapse at Pittodrie at the weekend is an understandable bone of contention. When we look at the big picture, though, six points out of nine against Aberdeen isn’t the worst record by any stretch. Although, the Dons’ performances home and away to PAOK in the group stages of the Conference League, where they were competitive and gave a good account of themselves, did put Hearts’ 6-1 aggregate defeat to the same opposition earlier this season into sharp focus.

There are degrees of mitigation here and there, but it is hard to deny that Hearts all too often fall short in the bigger games. Matches against the Old Firm, clashes with rivals for third place and encounters in Europe are an opportunity to lay down a marker with a statement win – and a few more certainly wouldn’t hurt.