When Steven Naismith took charge of Heart of Midlothian he knew the areas he wanted to improve, such as winning more games away from home, competing with the Old Firm and tightening up from set pieces.

He was also aware of the stylistic tweaks that were required to reflect the type of side he wanted to watch and coach. 

Two areas came to mind: Being braver in possession and working harder defensively.

Hearts Standard sat down with the Hearts head coach earlier this week and discussed the tactical focus and changes.

READ MORE: Steven Naismith reflects Hearts journey and 8 months as head coach

The idea

"I want us to be attacking," Naismith said. "We go into every game wanting to win. Ideally, I want us to be relentless and attack, attack, attack. But I think the league we are in... it can’t always be like that.

"From the moment I came here as a player until now, it's shifted in the way away teams set up against us, 100 per cent. When I played here as a player it was more open, there were more turnovers. It’s less like that which impacts what we can do. Every player, every staff member wants an entertaining game, an open game. But when a team has got less resources than you, a smaller squad or more injuries they are going to change the way they play. It is what it is. That’s the part I am slightly frustrated that everybody wants end to end, it cannae be.

"I think we play more forward passes now than we did before. I think we are getting more entries into the final third than we did before. It’s maybe not always noticeable after every game, the more we do it, it will be."


When the season started you could be pretty confident that Hearts would line up with a back four. There were times when that was altered, namely away to PAOK in the Conference League play-off, but by and large the team would be set up with a four-man backline. That changed after the heavy home defeat to Celtic in October. Ever since, Naismith's preference has been a back three. And, certainly defensively, there can be few complaints. The team have the third best defensive record in the Premiership and recorded a clean sheet at Celtic Park last time out.

Naismith explained that a big reason for the alteration - shown in the image below across back-to-back home games - was down to personnel with Odel Offiah going back to Brighton and an injury to Nathaniel Atkinson the previous month.


"I just felt we didn’t have another option in there who was as comfortable," he told Hearts Standard. "When you play a four you have more distance to cover as a back four, your decision making has to be much bolder and crystal clear.

"The Celtic game [at the weekend] the formation was good because it gave us a solid base, it gave us a foundation, and put a lot of onus on our midfielders. It puts a lot of pressure on you when you win the ball. Against the Old Firm, if we are not good enough in possession… Celtic at home. The biggest problem? Not being good enough in possession. Killed. You must be able to break their press. When you do that they over commit and it allows you to get up the pitch.

"On the opposite scale, if somebody is willing to sit as deep as they can, playing a back three gives you more players in attack so it helps in that respect, it also allows your back three to step right in. Against Livi for example our centre halves were near enough on the 18 [yard line]. But I think there are other games where a four will suit us better. It is literally down to who we are playing. The change was down to mainly the personnel. We were vulnerable in that right-back position."

What are the considerations when it comes to a switch in formation?

Naismith explained: "In a lot of the games my first thought is 'how is the game going to be in terms of possession? Are we going to have more possession or not?' That’s a dictator to start with. If we are going to have more of the ball we’ve got to put ourselves in positions which are going to cause the opposition problems. When they have the ball it is either going to take them time to get into the positions they want to be in or they are that deep we want to suffocate them.

"For the game at the weekend, I think Celtic’s press is the best in the league. St Mirren’s is not far behind it. They are really good at what they do, the players understand what they are doing and how they do it. They are well drilled. As much as we will have more of the ball than them, they are good at their press so they can put you in an uncomfortable position.

"It's what dictates whether it is going to be a four or a five. Again, if we were to sit and say ‘no, no we play a 4-2-3-1 and that’s it’ then you are hamstringing yourself. Unless you are way ahead of everybody I think you will struggle to do that. I think we need to have a versatility."

He added: "My value in formations is not that much, it’s just a starting point. I think it gives a perception to a player a default of 'that’s where I should be’. We work everyday of the week going into a game, see when the ball is here, you must be here. Whether that is a full-back as high as he can be, as flat as he can be, whatever it may be, that’s how we work. That’s how we work whether it is a four or a three. Our players have shown that I think we can be good at both."

READ MORE: 3-5-2 v 4-2-3-1: What is the best option for Hearts - positives and issues

A key quality for Naismith is the team's fluidity. He wants a change in system or positions to be natural within games, within moments of games, whether that be in or out of possession, attacking, defending or pressing.

"Since I’ve been at the club I don’t think we have even scratched the surface," he said. "It was very straightforward. We need to push the players, players are intelligent. Social media and how games are dissected, players know more than they did 10 years ago or they are more aware of it so you can give them more. Just small tweaks like that.

"Alan Forrest has played right wing-back. He’s not a wing-back, he’s not got a massively defensive mindset but over the course of three weeks of putting him in that uncomfortable position in training he has a better understanding of it."


A key quality in the team is the way they press the opposition. When it comes to pressing metrics there are a lot of encouraging numbers. For example, Hearts are the best in the Premiership for counterpressure regains (how many times a team wins the ball back within five seconds of pressing an opponent after losing possession). 

Naismith looks to that fluidity once more.

"Coming back up to Scotland there was a lot of ‘that’s my man, I’m staying with my man’," he explained. "The game is fluid, we need to be fluid. You can’t cheat and go ‘I’m going to press out', get beat and then go 'I tried to press’. There is loads of that. If the team are broken then what is your job? Is it to delay the opposition and let us get back into shape?"

Craig Gordon revealed in pre-season that there had been a lot of tactical work done on the training ground as the team adapted to a new style and new demands. 

"It takes time," Naismith said of coaching a cohesive press. "For me that’s an achievement. That’s a building block to being consistently successful. We’ll get it and then we might be poor at it at times but we might have three guys who have just come back from injury and spent a month off the training pitch so they take a bit of time.

"That’s something I have learned as a coach is I’ll do something, it will get to the point where it is good and then I go onto the next bit, next bit, next bit. You effectively have to reset. It’s like studying. You need to go back to a point and refresh. Not for as long a period, it’s for a smaller period, refine it and we go again. That’s what it is.

"I just know all these wee details we look at and study all the time. It’s about getting them better, better, better and it will click and be consistent."

Set pieces

Last season Hearts had a terrible record at defending not only set pieces but also crosses from open play. In the league alone, 28 goals were conceded from such situations. Nearly half way through the campaign just three have been given up. None have been conceded from set pieces.

It was a key focus straight away with a switch in how set plays are defended. From game to game it can change but there has been a zonal element to it. Frankie McAvoy has been key to that improvement.

"We talk over everything, personnel, positions but Frankie leads everything on the set plays, so loads of credit to Frankie," Naismith said.

"Week to week it will change. Sometimes we are all out zonal, sometimes it will be zonal while some players might need a bit of attention. Then again you have got to factor in what Rangers do. That only happens when players are marking players so you need to make a change to that so you are refining it all the time. As the season is going on there are more and more teams going zonal, more and more teams following a lot of what we have done. That then changes from what happened the first time around. There are wee tweaks but we have core things where this must happen, this must happen and this must happen.

"That has been built into the week. Every week there is a meeting on set plays, reviewing what we did, we spend time on the pitch every week doing it. That’s from my experience seeing it, it's the best way to do it.

"It’s tough for the players so you do need to get creative with how you do it, whether it is within a session of possession or we need to go to the guys, 'suck it up, you are sitting doing this, if I see any shite or anyone chatting you are out'. But we’ve got a really good group. We are now at the point where we are seeing the success so you are getting the buy-in."

Even with the clear improvement in the defending of set pieces there are still complaints from fans about bringing every player back to defend them.

Why do it?

"From talking to managers that I have played under to some of my mates who have become managers that are at a good level and have had set piece coaches, see with a set play, just deal with that," Naismith explained. 

"You can batter a team but one set play could kill you. I’m of a mindset that we should do enough in the game to win the game, yes we will try to use our advantage in attacking set plays, but just defend that situation, just defend and it’s done and we get control again. Just deal with that situation and move on.

"How rarely have we attacked from a set play because we have a player up the pitch, very rarely does that happen. I think that is more of a perception than factual information. ‘But if you leave him up seven out of ten corners you will attack from’. No you won’t, it’s a perception."

The low block conundrum

Naismith spoke about the progression the team has made. There are clear signs that there is an improvement when playing Celtic and Rangers. There has been the big step forward with away results, while the defensive record has been much better, especially dealing with balls into the box.

The next step forward is breaking down teams who sit deep more effectively, more efficiently and in a manner which is more enjoyable to the supporters.

"From my time coming back up to Scotland there was far too much safety," Naismith said. "How many times the ball goes back to the goalie, how many times the ball is put into the channel. It has probably progressed over the years of Hearts getting bigger and bigger in terms of where they are in the league. You need to be willing to make brave passes, you need to be able to make those passes that unlock [teams], the ones the opposition are desperately trying not to let happen, you must play them. If you do not play them… I’ve seen so many games at Tynie just whittle away. You get to 70 minutes and nothing has happened. You need to be able to do them."

READ MORE: Naismith's show of faith and bravery on ball - how Hearts overcame Killie threat

Now, Hearts fans have been accustomed to Naismith speaking of bravery and players being brave, playing brave passes. How is that implemented? Is it through coaching? Is it a mentality factor?

"It’s both," he said. "Everyday in training we will do it. If somebody keeps the ball and goes back, I’ll evaluate in that moment ‘right, that’s the right thing to do because we are not structurally set up to play forward, it is higher risk’. If a centre-back has the ball and goes I’ll just pass it there but we’ve got five players in the attack, we could have attacked there. We will tell them on the training pitch. If we’ve only got two up there, it’s the right decision.

"It’s that but constantly saying to them 'play forward, play forward'. Whatever we are doing [in training] you are only allowed to play forward, you can’t play back which puts them in uncomfortable positions and they lose it and lose it and lose it but then they go boom [and make it].

"Kye Rowles on Saturday at the half-way line tries to play one inside, he hits [Matt] O’Riley. Our structure was good enough that it was the right pass, he lost it but because of Frankie Kent’s position and Stephen Kingsley’s position we were 100 per cent safe. Two minutes later he gives the ball to Beni and it leads to the first goal. It takes time and doesn’t happen all the time."

He added: "Lewis Neilson will come back from his loan and he’ll be way behind in terms of that. That’s one thing you lose when you put them out on loan, that’s why the B team is good, he will speed up through pre-season and he gets to learn that and that’s the way it’s got to be."

One fan at the recent AGM said he was "completely underwhelmed" by the team's performances. There has been, as Naismith noted, a shift in the way teams set up against Hearts, especially at Tynecastle Park. He admitted defeats to Dundee and Motherwell were examples of when the team were "too safe".

While there is a strong desire to play forward with an emphasis on it in training, the head coach also wary there still needs to be a balance, ensuring the team are not leaving themselves too open.

"I agree at times we could have played those passes," he said, "But if we are not set up properly that’s what teams want us to do, go with that pass so they win it and in two passes time they are through you and we are high risk. There is that cat and mouse part of it. Every team comes and sits for a draw. We get 1-0 up, we’ve got to accept we are taking full control now. The opposition are the one who has to change.

READ MORE: The 5 areas where Hearts require swift improvement

"St Johnstone at home. The one that goes back to Frankie [Kent] from Beni [Baningime] and back to Zander [Clark], the only problem with that passage of play is Zander kicks it long. He should have just passed to the other centre-back. The fans booed going from Beni to Frankie, Frankie to Zander. We’re winning 1-0 and they are sitting there, why take a massive risk in forcing a ball and lose it? Eventually when St Johnstone come out we got three good chances which we should score from. 

"I agree at times it has been too slow but over time, I hope, I think and I am really positive we will [pass it] boom, boom, boom, the confidence is there and we are relentless. But there are times where you can’t be relentless because you are too high risk of losing it, they go up the pitch and score and everybody goes ‘why did you force the ball?’ It’s that fine balance."