If the recent victories away to Celtic and Hibernian served as evidence of the strides that Heart of Midlothian have taken in recent months, then Saturday’s 2-2 draw at home to Ross County was a timely reminder that Steven Naismith’s men remain a work in progress.

It was an afternoon to forget for the men in maroon, who struggled to fully click into gear against Derek Adams’ well-drilled Staggies. Ross County came into this contest as the fresher of the two sides after their previous two matches were postponed, and the visitors acted like it. They came roaring out of the traps at Tynecastle (and had the ball in the back of the net within the opening minute, only for VAR to rule that Jordan White was offside in the build-up) as they refused to allow their opponents to settle into the game, relentlessly harrying them at one end while relying on a solid defensive structure to keep Hearts at an arm’s length at the other.

County’s opener, an Alex Cochrane own goal, was no less than they deserved, and Hearts were left staring down the barrel of a gun when Yan Dandha curled in a delightful second on the hour mark. But goals from Kenneth Vargas and Lawrence Shankland – who else? – spared Hearts’ blushes on what was an off-day for the Gorgie outfit.

So, how did County gain the upper hand at the weekend? Why did Hearts struggle to get a grip on the game, and what lessons can be learned? Let’s take a look.

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Hearts caught cold

Hearts lined up in the 3-5-2 formation that supporters have become accustomed to for this one, with the away side opting for a 4-2-2-2 where Yan Dhanda and Josh Sims sat behind County’s front two of White and Simon Murray. It soon became clear, though, that Hearts’ system wasn’t a good fit for this particular encounter.

Whenever Hearts were building out from the back, County’s front four would put pressure on the back five while the central midfielders and full-backs pushed up to support. This left the man in possession with two distinct options: beat the press with a drop of the shoulder or a threaded pass, or go long in the hope that County had committed too many men forward. All too regularly, Hearts were unable to do either.

Nathaniel Atkinson was probably the biggest culprit. The Australian was wasteful in possession on Saturday, and too many attacking moves broke down before they could get going down his right-hand side. To be fair, there wasn’t always an abundance of options in front of him – and on the occasions where he was able to beat the press, Hearts ended up in good areas.

Here’s an example of the ploy paying off in the 14th minute. Atkinson receives the ball out wide and although he is initially dispossessed, Hearts manage to win the ball back. They switch it over to the other flank and a few passes later, Kyosuke Tagawa is presented with a great opportunity.

That opportunity was the exception, however, and not the rule. Generally, whenever the wing-back picked up the ball as Hearts were building up, the move would quickly break down. Sometimes he misplaced a short pass, sometimes he was forced into a hopeful long ball, and sometimes he was simply robbed of it. Between the 15th and 23rd minute, Atkinson lost the ball four times in such a scenario, allowing County to break forward at pace.

Calem Nieuwenhof and Craig Halkett didn't help matters either, and some careless play from the pair directly after a promising but unsuccessful counter-attack from County nearly resulted in the opening goal of the game. County’s chance starts with Kent playing the ball into Nieuwenhof, who has pretty much the entire team ahead of him.

Nieuwenhof has options ahead of him but he opts to play it back to Halkett, leaving his team-mate in a tricky situation. If Halkett loses the ball, County are in.

Halkett loses the ball. A heavy first touch does him no favours but his choice of pass is questionable, too - especially when Nieuwenhof was right there for the early return pass.

Dhanda intercepts and sends Murray through for a one-on-one, and only an excellent stop from Zander Clark keeps the game level.

It wasn’t working when County were on the ball, either. When the visitors were building up from deep, the defence would often keep a hold of the ball, playing short and simple passes around the back as Hearts’ attackers, midfielders and wing-backs stepped up. Once everyone bar the back three was on the front foot, the trap was set. County required no second invitation to spring it, launching the ball forward to Murray and White, with Sims inevitably rampaging forward in support. Below is a typical example that didn’t quite pay off for County, but illustrates the point nicely.

County were winning the tactical battle but to his credit, Naismith recognised this and didn’t wait to see how things panned out. By the 30th minute, he opted for a change in shape – one that would halt County’s momentum.

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Improvement but two gifted goals

Hearts then switched to a 4-2-3-1, with Tagawa and Aidan Denholm on the wings, and the results were almost immediate. Take a look at the xG race chart for the game below. Notice how Ross County are steadily accruing chances up until the half-hour mark, and then the line goes flat. Now, they weren’t getting any shots away whatsoever.

Hearts were creating a little, but the team’s decision-making in the final third often left something to be desired. Below are four examples from the first half where the man in possession decided to shoot rather than pass the ball, despite being rapidly closed down. We’ve highlighted the pass they could have played, rather than the shot that they did.

The introduction of Alan Forrest and Yutaro Oda, two natural wingers, for Tagawa and Denholm made sense within the new set-up, and Hearts were soon reaping the rewards as County sat a little deeper. Forrest, in particular, was making a nuisance of himself and getting into great areas, even if his final ball wasn’t always there. And, of course, he should have won a penalty.

Things had improved but within a few minutes, Hearts were trailing. A free kick near the halfway line saw almost the entire team get forward for the set-piece and when County won the ball back, Dhanda had the presence of mind to keep a hold of the ball before releasing Murray in behind at the perfect moment.

Atkinson steps forward at just the wrong moment, and Murray has acres of space to run in behind.

By the time the Aussie catches up to the striker, he can’t reach the low ball into the box and Cochrane unfortunately diverts it into his own net.

Hearts were caught cold for the first but the second was entirely of their own making. Clark played a goal kick short to Nieuwenhof and the midfielder cheaply surrendered possession before hauling down his man, giving away the free kick that Dhanda took full advantage of. Hearts were in real trouble – and Naismith didn’t wait long to make some changes.

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Hearts go on the offensive

Kenneth Vargas and Stephen Kingsley came on at the expense of Alex Lowry and Craig Halkett, and now the formation had changed to a 4-4-2 that verged on a 4-2-4 at times. 

County also switched to a 4-4-1-1 at this point, deciding to defend what they had as they parked men behind the ball as they sat deep, allowing Hearts’ centre-backs time on the ball (a ploy they would regret on 71 minutes when Frankie Kent’s ball forward was successfully flicked on by Shankland for Vargas to make it 2-1). Cochrane, now in midfield, would drop to support them as Hearts piled players forward.

With Rowles shifted to centre-back and Kingsley occupying the left-hand side instead, much of Hearts’ best attacking play then came down this flank. With Forrest occupying James Brown, Kingsley found himself with room to operate in. The final ball wasn’t always there, but he was looking threatening indeed.

Once Vargas reduced the arrears, Hearts threw just about everyone forward. Like in the example we showed earlier, Cochrane and the two centre-halves would sit but everyone else was getting up the park. Kingsley and Forrest were doing well to fashion space down the left but Hearts weren’t getting the same amount of joy down the right. Oda wasn’t getting as wide as he could and stretching the play – but on the one occasion that he did, it led to Shankland’s equaliser. After finally getting wide and being played in behind, the Japanese had plenty of time to pick his next move. Give Oda time and space, and he can be very effective.

He plays an excellent ball into a dangerous area, and Nieuwenhof tees up Hearts’ No.9 to coolly stroke the ball home and restore parity.

There would be no dramatic winner for Hearts. The equaliser prompted County to revert to the 4-2-2-2 that had served them so well earlier on in the game, and now the visitors were pressing high up the park once again, trying to force their hosts into the rash mistakes that dogged the early stages of the game. This time, though, Hearts would not oblige. Barring a last-gasp chance for Vargas, the game petered out without either side seriously threatening a winner.

Following on from the giddy highs of Wednesday night’s dramatic triumph at Easter Road, Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Ross County was a far more sobering affair. Hearts looked slack from the get-go and although tinkering with the team’s shape led to an improvement, the men in maroon could consider themselves fortunate to escape with a point. The team finding a way to haul themselves back into the game is a silver lining – they hadn’t rescued a single point from a losing position in a domestic game until the weekend, after all – but, truthfully, it was an afternoon to forget for Hearts.