It is still over a week until Heart of Midlothian are back in action. Therefore it is the perfect time to take stock of where the team are, looking back at the season so far, ahead to the remainder of the campaign and, of course, the January transfer market.

We reached out to Hearts fans to submit their questions about anything Hearts-related.

Writers Joel Sked and James Cairney tackle a range of questions, from possible tactical tweaks to possible transfer targets, Lawrence Shankland's future to the young stars of the future.

READ MORE: The Hearts season so far: Naismith, Shankland, Celtic, banners and progress

What would you like to see us do tactically under Steven Naismith medium-to-long term and what positions would need to be improved for this to work?

Hearts Standard:

If Naismith plans on persisting with the 3-5-2, as seems likely (the team’s form has improved dramatically with the back three), then he needs to find a way to inject more creativity into the midfield. Alex Lowry and Jorge Grant carry the creative burden at present and have performed fairly well, albeit inconsistently, and Beni Baningime is excelling in the No.6 position, but it’s not enough at present.

I think we could see more from Calem Nieuwenhof and Cammy Devlin and if they cannot become more effective in the final third, then Yan Dhanda might just be the answer. It would be little surprise if the County playmaker was the subject of a bidding war this month, and Hearts are reportedly keen on a move. The men in maroon need to become more fluid in the final third, and adding another technical playmaker might be the solution – although it could lead to an unbalanced midfield.

Another forward is perhaps required, too. Josh Ginnelly showed last season how effective a pacy striker can be playing off of Lawrence Shankland, and the Englishman was never replaced like-for-like after joining Swansea City last summer. Kenneth Vargas showed in the 2-2 draw with County and the 2-1 win away to Livi that he might be capable of stepping into the void, but the 21-year-old is still acclimatising to Scottish football, and it is unrealistic to expect consistency from the Costa Rican. His three goals make him the team’s second-top scorer this season, but he has to start finding the net more regularly if he wants to nail down a spot in the starting XI. He has also improved at dropping deep to get involved in the build-up as the season has progressed, which provides further grounds for cautious optimism.

James Cairney

Does the football have to improve immediately or is it a project?

In short, no and not really.

The main thing for fans, certainly in the short-term, is winning and ensuring the team hold onto third place at the end of the season. As always, the demand from supporters evolves. Speaking generally, there will always come a point when fans want more than just results. Naismith has been clear on his preferred style.  

"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."

Fans would likely be in agreement that it has been substance over style. And when it comes down to it, that is always something the Hearts support would prefer. But the fans do want to be entertained and engaged more, especially for games at Tynecastle Park.

That's where the second part of the question comes in. Rather than a project, it is a process. Winning has built that confidence within the team but injuries have also played their part in a fully functioning attacking unit. With the winter break following an intense period, the team should come back fresher and more energised than in the final few games before the mid-season shutdown. And, with the defensive side of the team functioning excellently, there will likely be an extra focus on attacking play on the training pitch

Joel Sked

Do you think Shankland would sign a new contract, or is it inevitable he'll move on?

Hearts Standard: Lawrence Shankland has been the man of the season at Heart of Midlothian

There are several facets to this question. As much as supporters want to see arrivals - just like all fan bases - there would be greater contentment if the window slammed, as it does, shut with Lawrence Shankland still at the club. There would be an outburst of joy if he was to extend his stay at the club. 

It was always Hearts' plan to sit down with the striker or his representatives and present an extension. Andrew McKinlay confirmed as much after the AGM and coming into the window. 

To answer the two parts of the question in short. I reckon Shankland would sign a new deal providing the terms were right. And, no, it isn't inevitable he'll move on. Neil McCann, on Sportscene, spoke of him becoming the highest-paid player at the club. The former Hearts star is a consultant to the agency which represents the player. He was right, Shankland deserves to be recognised as the club's highest earner. Simply because he is not only the team's best player but the most important one.

Hearts won't want to lose him this month, not with the team in such a strong position going into the second half of the campaign as they look to finish third and earn European group stage football which would likely be worth upwards of £3million profit. It should, and likely would, take a monumental- or "exceptional" as per McKinlay - offer to prise him away. It is therefore realistic, in my view, that Shankland signs an extension that would make him the club's highest-paid player but have an agreement or clause in his deal which would allow him to leave should a certain bid be made.

What Steven Naismith said about Beni Baningime, his contract offer and the way the club should act in terms of selling assets was interesting. 

"You’ve just got to offer them an opportunity and say ‘listen I think this is still better for you’ and when the time is right not be difficult and awkward, drive a good deal because it is a good business but don’t sour the taste of what you have had for any tiny wee advantage because players talk."

Now, it's not inconceivable that Shankland could stay long-term. He's on the way to becoming a Hearts legend. He is adored by the fans. He is in the best form of his life at the highest level in Scotland and is in a position where he's on the cusp of being part of Steve Clarke's Scotland squad for the Euros in Germany. 

But you have to remember that he will turn 29 later this year. With 18 months left on his current deal, he could see his next contract being one that could set him and his family up for a long time after retirement. Can Hearts give him a salary that matches his value? It would be hard, only because his value is significantly higher than when he first signed.

As I said on a recent Hearts Standard YouTube briefing. My prediction is a contract extension with a reasonable release clause which wouldn't put clubs off.

Joel Sked

READ MORE: How Steven Naismith wants Hearts to get better at producing academy talent

What three realistic signings would you make from other teams in the league?

Hearts Standard:

Ryan Strain – It’s no secret that Hearts require further strengthening at right wing-back in the long term, and there are few Premiership players better equipped for the task than Strain. Big, fast and strong with excellent stamina, the 26-year-old has all the athleticism required for the role. He is used to playing as a wing-back and has become one of the first names on Stephen Robinson’s team sheet. Strain’s deal is up in the summer so he could be a useful addition once Dexter Lembisika's loan expires.

Yan Dhanda – Probably not as much of a priority as finding another No.6, but I cannot see any players capable of filling in for Baningime that are realistic options during the January window. Naismith might well have to look further afield to find an understudy for the former Everton man but if Hearts were to bring in a midfielder this month, then Dhanda is the obvious candidate. His underlying numbers are up there with some of the best playmakers in the league, and it looks like his time in Dingwall is drawing to a close. Whether he arrives imminently or in the summer, he would be a fine addition to the squad.

Joel Nouble – Another player whose contract is expiring in the summer, and another one who I’d like to see Hearts take a punt on. Davie Martindale was very candid when expressing his hope of selling the big centre-forward during the summer, and Livingston’s lack of resources are well-publicised – Nouble could be available on the cheap. His sheer physicality makes him a handful for defenders, and his hold-up ability is a sizeable string to his bow. His goal return is an obvious concern, but how would he fare in a better team? Nouble deserves a step up, and I think he would be a shrewd investment for anyone who offers him one.

James Cairney

How many signings are needed in January, and in what positions?

Hearts Standard:

With right-back sorted following the arrival of Dexter Lembikisa, I think that finding another No.6 is important. Baningime cannot be relied upon to play every minute of every game from now until the end of the season, and playing in such an important position, where composure on the ball is of utmost importance, is a lot to ask of a youngster like Macaulay Tait. Nieuwenhof played there in the 2-2 draw with County and didn’t look like the solution, so another option wouldn’t go amiss.

Those areas are top of the triage list but there are other positions where an extra body or two wouldn’t hurt, even if their need isn’t quite as urgent. A creative-type playmaker would be handy to add some cutting edge to Hearts’ attacking play would be handy, as would a striker who can chip in with the occasional goal to ease the team’s reliance on Lawrence Shankland.

James Cairney

READ MORE: Lawrence Shankland's Hearts value far outweighs what clubs will be willing to pay

You touched on it in the transfer pod re Forrester/ B team, but who are a few you’d keep an eye on as the best prospects and who do you expect to make the jump to the first team next?

Aidan Denholm and Macaulay Tait have made the step up to become recognised as part of the first-team squad. I would be surprised if any player makes the same step up as they have before the end of the campaign. Several players will likely be involved in first-team training and matchday squads.

Steven Naismith is keen to make space in his squad to integrate promising academy players. And they know if they impress in training and for the B team they can be asked to be part of training.

For me, there is a group of around half a dozen who can certainly be considered prospects. James Wilson, unsurprisingly, is one. He was involved in pre-season and was on the bench against Livingston. The big thing for him is becoming a consistent performer at B team level. Now that Makenzie Kirk is on loan at Hamilton it has provided Wilson with the opportunity to step into the striker role. Something he has done well so far.

Full-backs Ethan Drysdale and Adam Forrester are rated highly. The latter, a right-back, is someone for the medium to longer term after the signing of Dexter Lembikisa, while Naismith spoke of Drysdale and the progress he is making having missed a lot of football. 

Callum Sandilands is someone who has impressed me the more I have watched of him. A player who wants to get on the ball and drive it from midfield. Can create and score, can make late runs into the box and can get about the pitch. Dynamic and direct. Bobby Mclukie is an exciting winger. Likes to take full-backs on and whip low crosses into the box. He had a good relationship with Kirk.

Then there is Finlay Pollock who has just returned from injury. You can tell he is well thought of with him being back involved with the first team. Looks to have worked on his physique while out injured and looks more powerful and robust.

As for Kirk, it will be fascinating to see how he copes with the step up to Hamilton Accies on loan. Looking at the under-18s, two have caught my eye a couple of times. Full-back Rocco Friel and midfielder Gus Stevenson.

Joel Sked

What’s your opinion on Oda’s season?

Hearts Standard:

The 22-year-old is a talented player, but we have only seen it in little flashes this season. He impressed towards the end of last season during Naismith’s interim spell and looked ready to kick on this season, but too often he has failed to grasp his opportunity once it comes along. He has found himself in and out of the team and is perhaps an unfortunate casualty of the team’s success in the 3-5-2 shape because he doesn’t really have a home in such a system. Oda has been tried out at right wing-back and supporting Shankland up front – the only two positions he could realistically play in the formation – but has struggled to make an impact.

Naismith sometimes changes the shape to a 3-4-3, though, and this is where Oda has the potential to be highly effective. In theory, the Japanese should be at his most dangerous when he is hugging the touchline and has isolated his opponent in a 1v1 with space in behind. All too often this season though, Oda has appeared reluctant to get in behind or drive at his man, instead playing a safe pass backward. He has to be more direct – and a little less hesitancy to attack the back post wouldn’t hurt either.

James Cairney

Would Yan Dhanda automatically secure a place in our starting XI?

Hearts Standard:

I don’t think so, but that’s not a judgment on Dhanda’s ability. Naismith tends to mix things up in midfield on a game-by-game basis, both in terms of personnel and shape, and he is a big believer in the idea that certain players are better suited to particular games than others. Would he start most games in the 3-5-2? Possibly, but if he were to arrive this month then he would find himself facing stiff competition for a place in the starting line-up. Naismith tends to play with one playmaker in the three-man midfield, and Lowry, Grant and McKay (when fit) are all vying for that berth already. Dhanda would have to hit the ground running and avoid any missteps to make the position his own.

James Cairney