It is into stoppage time at Tynecastle Park. Heart of Midlothian, leading 2-0, are easing their way to three points and an early Christmas present against St Mirren.

The Buddies have been kept at an Inspector Gadget's arm's length. Their last attempt at goal, a tame Scott Tanser header, had come nearly 15 minutes previously. Keanu Baccus, for the first time in the match, appeared to get some breathing space in the midfield. Nope, Beni Baningime scuttled across to pick his pocket. 

Only a couple of minutes earlier Hearts should have had a third goal as they suffocated the visitors. First Alan Forrest had pressed Tanser, then came Calem Nieuwenhof. As the ball was passed back to Zach Hemming in the St Mirren goal Lawrence Shankland exerted pressure. The goalkeeper's terribly slack pass was pounced upon by Macaulay Tait whose shot was saved.

These moments epitomised Hearts' performance. A performance which resonated with fans. One full of energy and aggression. There was a lot to like about it.

READ MORE: Hearts take command of 3rd: Big result, inevitable Shankland, shape, Halkett start

The plan

While there were very positive elements about the Hearts performance, the starting shape wasn't as effective as Steven Naismith hoped. He had tweaked the system to something more like a 5-4-1 or 3-4-3. It required Nathaniel Atkinson and Alex Cochrane to move centrally and open up space for Yutaro Oda and Barrie McKay on the right and left respectively.

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"We didn’t manage to break their press well enough and I think that is probably for me and the coaches to take on the chin," Naismith admitted.

"St Mirren are really good and well organised, and it’s really important to break their press. If you don’t break their press then they control the game and it becomes a bit stop-start and it can be difficult. We wanted to get a few players who are good in 1v1 situations on the pitch. It was a game that was going to take time."

READ MORE: Interest in Shankland and tactical tweaks against St Mirren - Steven Naismith Q&A

Between them McKay and Oda had just three passes into the box as Hearts struggled to get them into dangerous positions on a consistent basis. As Naismith noted, St Mirren are very good off the ball meaning the team need to handle the ball really well and move it really well, both at pace.

Cochrane got a pass from Baningime centrally but a loose touch saw the Buddies regroup and force Hearts back. Below you can see how narrow the full-backs are.

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When the ball was moved into the centre of the pitch, St Mirren were ready to pounce. As you can see from the heatmap there is a lot of pressure between the centre circle and the Hearts box. Baningime was often a target.

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Below, there is a pass into the midfielder and Mark O'Hara is onto him.

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There were times where the St Mirren midfield were like velociraptors, coming from all angles to put pressure on Baningime. He gets a foul from O'Hara in the 20th minute. Thirty seconds later Baccus is up his backside forcing him backwards. There were so many examples of Baningime getting the ball while St Mirren players swarmed the space around him. The two moments below came within 15 seconds of each other.

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A minute later there was a similar moment as above with Baningime going back to Kent. It saw the defender play the pass of the match out to Alex Cochrane in the space Hearts wanted which led to the first of two corners prior to Shankland's opener.

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It wasn't just the former Everton midfielder who was under pressure by St Mirren. Atkinson was often being found centrally but twice gave up possession due to the black and white bodies hunting him down.

The pressure shows the importance of a player like Baningime. There may be fans who feel he is too safe or negative with his passing. But the most important quality is that he keeps the ball. There is no better individual in the Hearts team at doing so. He is so adept at attracting and playing under pressure. When you consider just how much focus he was given by the visitors his 90 per cent pass success rate is very impressive

He was central to a couple of moments when Hearts evaded the press. He found Atkinson behind the midfield line. It led to a dangerous pass into the box from Barrie McKay. 

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Then, in the 38th minute, he sends two St Mirren players for a wander before the ball is worked wide through Atkinson to Oda and a chance is created. It was those kinds of moments Naismith would have wanted more of from his side

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Dynamic Denholm

One of Hearts' best - arguably the best - and most important performers was Aidan Denholm. While the home side struggled to beat the St Mirren press consistently with their build-up and shape, they had the bulldozing 20-year-old.

James Cairney hit the nail on the head when he wrote:

"Denholm would continue to rampage forward and although the pass through to him or the final ball wasn’t always there, his forward-thinking approach and attacking industry were invaluable to his team. All too often this season, Hearts have missed a ball-carrying, line-breaking midfielder who is willing to get up the park to support the striker – and Denholm is showing he could be the solution."

His performance was an all-action, direct and aggressive one, in and out of possession.

He set the tone in the first 10 seconds when he got forward, pounced on a loose ball and won a free-kick from Alex Gogic. It brought a yellow card which neutered the Cypriot's performance.

That was Denholm's display in a nutshell. Pouncing on loose balls and springing forward. In the fourth minute he got the ball in a congested midfield area. His first touch? Forward. He then drove into the St Mirren half, winning a throw in high up the pitch.

There were elements of Cammy Devlin to his outing. A selflessness with his running. When Yutaro Oda was nutmegged by Tanser, Denholm was on hand to scoop up. He won the ball, moved it on and would have won a foul if Nick Walsh hadn't played advantage.

After 14 minutes there was some lovely play between Rowles, Baningime, Cochrane and McKay. When it got to Denholm, surrounded by three opponents, he wanted to get forward, skipping past the trip before playing in Shankland. You could pick out so many moments from the game but three really stand out.

The team's best move of the match was when Baningime evaded pressure outside his own box before finding Atkinson who moved it onto Oda. A rare piece of really positive and direct play from the Japanese winger saw him fire a cross into the box. Who was getting onto it?

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Fast forward to the 83rd minute. Some loose play by St Mirren led to a chance for Shankland's hat-trick. Who reacted quickest to a loose ball, making up ground?

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Who won the ball?

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Who also offered Shankland another option?

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The best moment from the midfielder arrived just before half-time. Who is winning a loose ball in his own box?

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Who is, five seconds later, getting a pass from Shankland and breaking into the St Mirren half?

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Aidan Denholm is the answer. To all.

A nightmare to play against

Nine clean sheets in 18 Premiership matches. Two more than the entire Premiership 2022/23 campaign. Hearts are a nightmare to play against.

Naismith is a keen advocate of a cohesive and aggressive press. Watching the team week to week it is easy to notice the work done on the training ground with regards to off the ball demands. If the team are not pressing, they are sitting in their shape. 

On Saturday, St Mirren's xG from open play was a measly 0.14. They didn't have a shot from open play in the final 30 minutes of the match (if you include stoppage time).

READ MORE: Stephen Robinson: Lawrence Shankland the difference as Hearts deserve win

Why? They simply weren't good enough against a very good defensive unit. A lot of that came from Hearts' aggression. When they needed to they would sit in what was a 5-4-1 shape. It meant there was little space for the visitors.

With three centre-backs, they knew they had the protection in numbers for one to step out and engage forwards. No one did this better than Kye Rowles who had one slip up all game which he recovered from. He bullied Alex Grieve, constantly stealing his pocket money.

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He wasn't the only one. Cochrane was brilliant at it, as he was against Celtic. No player on the pitch made more tackles and interceptions combined. Nathaniel Atkinson must have covered every blade of grass. He showed a brilliant reaction to losing the ball and even popped up on the left-hand side of the box putting pressure on an opponent. Hearts were so disruptive with 19 fouls. That 'in your face' approach is something the fans are delighted to see.

We can see from the heatmap that Hearts' most extreme pressure arrived in areas where Rowles, Cochrane and Atkinson were operating.

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There seems to have been a real change to the mindset when the ball is lost, compared to earlier in the season. Some of the team were criticised for their response in the build-up to a goal Celtic scored in their 4-1 win at Tynecastle Park. Compare that to the response to when Halkett missed a clearance. It was a natural reaction for them sprinting back.

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It resulted in the ball being surrounded and won back.
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Then, as explained at the top of the article, there is no change in mindselt when the game is deep into the second half with players having come off the bench. They are showing the same passion, hunger and desire to win the ball back. A team can work on defensive shape all they like, if they don't have that mentality and willingness to run it is pointless. Hearts currently have so much of that.

Halkett role

Finally, as good as it was for Hearts fans seeing Halkett start a match and complete 90 minutes there were some hugely encouraging signs. Yes, his excellent reading of the game and no nonsense defending were on show. But he was also displayed real ambition with the ball. On a number of occasions he sought to break the lines with passes, bypass team-mates closer to him so as to progress the ball further and also to do so quickly. 

As early as the sixth minute, Halkett finds Baningime and immediately tells him to turn. A minute later he zips a first-time pass into his team-mate. Five minutes later, plays forward into Atkinson. He does the same just before the half-hour mark. After half-time he looks to find McKay in space.

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Not only does it make Hearts more direct but Halkett has a clear trust in his team-mates to take the ball under pressure. Despite being out for so long there was no hesitancy in his decision making with the ball. It was a welcome sight alongside his defensive attributes and just one of the many positives from the win.