It wasn’t so long ago that some Heart of Midlothian supporters were calling for Steven Naismith’s head. Back-to-back defeats against the Old Firm towards the end of October saw the men in maroon drop to seventh place in the Premiership standings, with just three wins and 11 points to their name. They had lost half of their 10 league fixtures so far.

That match at Ibrox would prove to be a turning point. It might not have felt like it at the time, due to the sucker-punch nature of the 2-1 defeat, but Hearts had vastly improved on the 4-1 loss at home to Celtic the week before. Naismith’s decision to change the shape to a 3-5-2 so nearly paid off against Rangers, and it would become the team’s tactical template for the upcoming run of fixtures.

It worked like a charm. Naismith’s side would go on to win seven of their next nine league games, conceding just four goals along the way. The six clean sheets demonstrated that the defence had tightened things up significantly, and the team were exerting more control in possession too. The run catapulted Hearts into third and although they stumbled at home to Ross County, supporters went into the winter break feeling justifiably optimistic about what the rest of the season has in store.

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It wasn’t just the change in shape that inspired Hearts’ upturn in fortunes, though. That run of seven wins in nine games is notable for another reason: it was when Beni Baningime became a regular fixture at the base of midfield. The 1-0 win over Livingston that kicked off the run was just the 25-year-old’s third start in a league game that season and although he would be brought off with 15 to go, he would go on to play every minute of the next eight games. The 2-2 draw at home to County, when Baningime was rested, underlined his importance to the team. The former Everton man was conspicuous by his absence.

It should come as little surprise that Hearts’ best run of form of Naismith’s reign coincided with an extended run in the team for Baningime. There is no one else on the books at Tynecastle Park who can do the things the No.6 can, and getting Baningime to commit his future to Hearts beyond the summer must be a top priority for Naismith. Let’s have a look at why.

Baningime’s evolution

When Baningime first swapped Goodison for Gorgie in the summer of 2021, he was a different sort of player to the one that Hearts fans have become accustomed to in recent weeks. Usually partnering Cammy Devlin in Robbie Neilson’s 3-4-3 formation, Baningime had a different role in the team. It was his and Devlin’s responsibility to win the ball back in midfield and shift it out wide, and it was a role that the Everton academy graduate starred in. Take a look at his radar for the 2021/22 season below – he is one of the best midfielders in the league when it comes to winning the ball back. His overall passing accuracy is decent, but nothing to shout about.

Then, of course, came the injury. Baningime’s cruciate ligament was damaged so severely that he wouldn’t play for another 17 months. By the time he returned, there was a new man occupying the Tynecastle hot seat, and he had his own ideas about how the team should play. Baningime was thrown back into the starting line-up away to Rosenborg and looked decidedly off the pace before being subbed off at half-time. For the next couple of months, he had to make do with the odd substitute appearance here and there before returning to the starting XI in the 2-1 defeat at Ibrox. He hasn’t looked back since.

Deployed at the base of midfield, Baningime has thrived in his new role and shown that he can adapt his game. Far from being the ball-winner he was under Neilson, now Naismith was asking him to calmly recycle the ball from the No.6 position. Baningime’s composure and unflappable nature on the ball, Naismith reasoned, made him the perfect candidate for the position – and the head coach was absolutely right.

The radars above show Baningime’s performance in key midfield metrics in the 21/22 season (red) and the current campaign (blue). Now, his passing accuracy is one of the highest rates in the league and he commits very few turnovers. He has one overriding instruction - don’t lose the ball, ever – and he carries it out dutifully. It’s interesting to note that Baningime is also playing the same sort of passes as before (his distribution of forward, sideways and backward passes is identical in the two seasons we are examining, as are the two teams’ average possession), so it’s not that he is taking the easier option or playing many more simple passes. It’s an area of his game that has improved markedly but the team’s structure, where he is constantly surrounded with options for a short pass, surely plays its part too.

Out of possession, Baningime is not as active as he once was but he still scores relatively well, compared to other Premiership midfielders, in terms of tackles and interceptions once we adjust for possession. Again, the team’s shape is an important factor here. With two midfielders ahead of him and three centre-backs lurking behind, it’s not Baningime’s job to go haring after the ball. Instead, he protects the space in front of the defence, forcing the opposition to attack down the flanks and into less threatening areas.

It’s a difficult position to play, but Baningime makes it look very simple indeed. His ability to keep a hold of the ball under pressure before releasing it to a team-mate is an invaluable asset to his side, as Naismith previously explained to Hearts Standard.

“I was confident he would come up here and do really well,” said Naismith, who knew Baningime well from their time together at Everton. “The biggest doubt I had was, ‘will he get caught on the ball?’ because he wants to take a touch. That’s a strength of his game, he is calm. I was thinking, ‘but in Scotland is he going to be good enough to manoeuvre that?’. He did. If anything, he takes his touch and reels them in and that’s what gets him away. He’s got that calmness.”

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One of a kind

There’s another reason Baningime was such an important player for Hearts during that winter run – there is no like-for-like replacement for him on the books at present. When Baningime was rested for the final two matches before the winter break, Calem Nieuwenhof was deployed there unconvincingly for the first half hour against Ross County before Naismith changed the team’s shape, and the head coach opted against using a No.6 altogether in the 2-1 win over Livingston. Quite simply, no one else can do what Baningime does.

Let’s examine the squad’s passing statistics in the league this season. We’ll start with the basics: Baningime has the highest overall passing accuracy, and by some distance too. Some might dismiss this by arguing that he is largely playing simple passes but this does not tell the full story. Under pressure, he is remarkably level-headed. Around one in four passes he plays are executed with an opponent breathing down his neck, but then something interesting happens: Baningime’s passing accuracy goes up a couple of per cent. He has the highest passing accuracy under pressure (91 per cent) of any player in the entire Premiership. They still tend to be short (only Zander Clark, Kye Rowles and Frankie Kent have shorter average pass lengths) but Baningime is usually playing them in potentially difficult situations. He is head and shoulders above the rest of the team when passing under pressure, and no one comes close to matching his level of composure on the ball.

It's why Baningime is so vital to this Hearts team. His presence alone helps Hearts to build out from the back, as Naismith clearly wants his players to do, and his wherewithal on the ball is instrumental in beating an opponent’s press. Any team that tends to dominate possession needs at least one player whose job it is to retain the ball at all costs, and Baningime is that man for Hearts. But that’s not to say that there is no room for further improvement still.

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Bravery on the ball

A common criticism of Naismith’s Hearts is that they have an unfortunate tendency to be risk-averse on the ball, that the men in maroon can be guilty of being too pedestrian in possession when a little more urgency wouldn’t go amiss. Playing in the position that he does, Baningime is often the lightning rod for groans and grumbles from the stands if he dallies on the ball or takes the safe option, rather than attempting something more progressive. Sometimes it’s justified, sometimes it’s not. His reluctance to get the ball forward proved costly in last month’s 2-1 defeat at Pittodrie but to be fair to the midfielder, it is a lesson he has heeded since.

Up until the Premiership’s winter hiatus, we were seeing Baningime taking more risks on a game-by-game basis. It started in the 2-0 win at Celtic Park, as illustrated in the examples below. In the first, Baningime shifts his weight at the last second to fool Kyogo Furuhashi and instead drives up the park, and in the second Baningime again goes for the progressive option rather than choosing the easy pass.

These are just two examples, but they serve as an encouraging indicator of what can be achieved if Baningime can continue with his forward-thinking attitude. If there were any fans still unsure that he could take the ball under pressure, draw multiple opposing players towards him and then release it up the park effectively, then a short passage of play from the Edinburgh derby put those doubts to bed. Just watch the clip below, which was widely circulated online after the dramatic 1-0 win at Easter Road.

If you had to sum up Beni Baningime with one 10-second clip, that would surely be it. The way he protects the ball with his body, the way he seems constantly on the verge of losing it but somehow holds onto it, the way he has the presence of mind to release it with expert timing – these are qualities that are very, very difficult to coach. You can either do it or you can’t, and Baningime is one of the few who can. Supporters don’t need to be told of the potential Baningime holds – they just need to see that progressive attitude a little more regularly.

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Priority position

Extending Baningime’s contract beyond the end of the season is a no-brainer for Hearts, and the matter is surely high up on Naismith’s list of priorities. The head coach himself expects his player’s career aspirations to exceed what’s on offer at Tynecastle Park. And if a Premier League club, for instance, were sniffing about, it’s hard to envisage the midfielder putting pen to paper on any contract extension from Gorgie. But Naismith remains hopeful of keeping a hold of his man.

“Beni, for me, has got to be a big part of this club,” he said. “His quality is good, his personality is infectious but he is someone who will have aspirations. He’s played in the Premier League, he knows what it is like. For him to think ‘Hearts is my limit’, I would be disappointed with that. I think he would lack hunger.

“With all the players when I talk about honesty, I will give them my honest opinion of how I see them here but where they can go. For players, especially when you have been injured, it can be easy [to think] ‘that move is on the table’, I’ll just go there'. I've seen it myself with players, they make that move and six months later they are going ‘I wish I hadn’t done that’. Yeah, they might make a wee bit more money. Money is a massive part of it for players because some of it can be life-changing, it can be what you are going to do when you are finished and all that but it isn’t always better just to move.”

Even if Naismith can convince Baningime to extend his stay in Gorgie he is unlikely to play every game between now and the end of the season, and a viable alternative is required. It must be said, though, finding a player like that is easier said than done. Nieuwenhof and Peter Haring are the most experienced candidates and there is also the transfer market, but a possible option is Macaulay Tait, the 18-year-old who is viewed as a No.6.

Baningime is a unique player in Naismith’s squad, and his contribution to the team’s success throughout winter is difficult to downplay. He is the metronome at the heart of midfield, the man who gets Hearts ticking – and, since his return from that horrific injury, he has been showing supporters exactly what they’ve been missing.