Kye Rowles’ start to life at Heart of Midlothian could hardly have gone any better. He had just made his debut for Australia in a 2-1 win over Jordan before being whisked away to Edinburgh to put pen to paper on a three-year deal at Tynecastle.

These were the defender’s first tentative steps into European club football – and he hardly put a foot wrong. Slotting in on the left of the back three, he quickly established himself as one of the first names on Robbie Neilson’s team sheet. He was tall, he was quick and had a happy habit of halting opposition attackers in their stride whenever they drove menacingly towards goal. The general consensus was that Hearts had a real player here.

READ MORE: Hearts win bounce game: Craig Gordon, Beni Baningime and Jorge Grant update

That brilliant start would be interrupted twice. On the first occasion, a metatarsal fracture kept him sidelined for two months before he regained his place in the team. For the second, there was a little get-together in Qatar that Rowles was invited to where the Aussie made quite the impression. At one point, he found himself in a 1v1 situation with a French fella called Kylian something-or-other, expertly winning the ball back and stopping one of the world’s great players in full flow.

Watching on from home, Hearts supporters were understandably impressed with what they were seeing from their defender on the world's biggest stage. So, too, were the high-heid yins at Tynecastle Park, who moved quickly to tie Rowles down on a five-year deal and protect their asset following his displays for Australia at the World Cup. A big-money move to the Premier League, surely, was only a matter of time.

But something had changed. Upon his return from Qatar, Rowles wasn’t winning as many tackles or loose balls. He was looking vulnerable in the air. He was committing more fouls and looking a little shaky in possession. When the team’s form nosedived, so did Rowles’ form. The centre-back looked like a player shot of confidence – and it would take him a while to regain it.

Rowles started the current campaign in much the same way he finished the previous one: unconvincingly. His foul to give away a penalty within seconds of Lawrence Shankland’s opening goal against PAOK at Tynecastle in August was a particularly egregious case in point, and the 25-year-old was struggling with the physical day-to-day reality of life in the Scottish Premiership. September’s 1-0 loss away to St Mirren was perhaps the most striking example when the striker found himself targeted and bullied by the Buddies’ big strikers.

Fast-forward to the present day, however, and Rowles is once again transformed. Over the past few months the defender has grown in stature week-to-week, regained that all-important confidence, and is playing like the player we all know he can be. He is now back in Qatar with the Socceroos – this time on Asian Cup duty – and Hearts fans will be hoping that he returns to Gorgie as the same player who departed on New Year’s Day.

Why, though, has his form fluctuated so wildly? What led to that initial downturn, and can it be prevented from recurring? How did Steven Naismith get Rowles firing again? Let’s take a look.

READ MORE: Pace, 1v1 quality, Andy Robertson experience: New Hearts signing Dexter Lembikisa

Strong start

Due to his injury, Rowles only racked up around 700 minutes of Premiership football before the league’s World Cup-induced hiatus in the winter – but he made quite the impression nonetheless. Look at his radar below, which shows how he performed in key defensive metrics before the top flight disbanded for Qatar 2022.

There are a couple of things that jump out immediately. Look how few fouls Rowles committed, for instance, or the number of interceptions (adjusted for possession), or the number of shots he managed to block – all of them were among the very best rates of any centre-back in the division. He was relatively passive off the ball, likely down to Hearts’ tendency to boss possession against lower-ranking Premiership opponents, but his aerial duel success rate and his passing under pressure left a fair bit to be desired. He isn’t the finished article, but his potential was obvious.

Rowles isn’t the most physically imposing centre-half you’ll ever see, but he uses his body well to snuff out opposition attacks. His agile frame gives him advantages that few other defenders possess, but timing is crucial. There is perhaps no better example than the 1v1 with Mbappe that we mentioned earlier. The Frenchman gets beyond the Aussie backline and is seemingly through on goal, only for Rowles to switch on the afterburners and deny the striker with a wonderful block.

It was an instance that showed just how effective a player Rowles can be, and it encapsulated everything good about the defender’s skill set. The Hearts board could be forgiven if it was those five seconds that convinced them to offer Rowles an extension – if you can do that against Mbappe, you can do that against anyone – but moments like those would be few and far between for the remainder of the campaign.

READ MORE: Calm, composed and collected: How Beni Baningime became a key player for Hearts

Fixture fatigue and losing confidence

Things were going well for Hearts, and Rowles, when the Premiership resumed. Neilson’s side picked up 15 points out of the next available 21 and the Aussie played almost every minute of every game. There was one significant change, though – with Craig Halkett injured, Rowles periodically found himself shifted infield to the middle of the back three. For the remainder of the season, the defence was chopped and changed as Rowles was moved around, and his form suffered.

The above radar shows how Rowles fared during the second half of the season. He became busier (he completed 20 per cent more defensive actions per game) and his foul rate more than doubled. Rowles was completing far fewer interceptions per game, but a lot more clearances and pressures. He was blocking half as many shots, and his aerial duel success rate fell to a measly 45 per cent.

Rowles was being targeted. Opposition managers had noticed that the Australian struggled in the air and adapted their game plans accordingly, shelling balls in on top of him whenever the opportunity arose. When playing at left centre-back, he found himself facing more 1v1 battles with a big, physical striker. One plus was that he was rarely dribbled past – just once every six games on average, one of the best rates of any defender in the league – but a combination of the opposition’s tactics and fatigue, both physical and mental, harmed Rowles’ performances.

“Kye’s a great character,” Steven Naismith explained to Hearts Standard. “He’s got a good edgy side to him when he needs to, he’s got a funny side and he’s a good footballer. I think he’s struggled a bit with the physicality of the league. It has been noticed and we’re trying hard to help him on that. He’s wanting to learn on that, understand on that. As players, you need to understand what you are going to be. He's not going to be 6ft5, built like a rugby player. That’s not his game. So how do you defend those situations? But I think he has gotten better and better at them over time.

“He had a good start but after the World Cup everyone got a rest, but he didn’t. Mentally and physically, the whole thing drains you. From such a high of being at the World Cup, he’s coming back here in January and February, it’s miserable, playing on pitches that are rubbish, playing on Astroturf pitches. It’s a grind, it’s a fight. It’s hard to deal with.”

When Naismith replaced Neilson as manager and changed the formation to one featuring a back four, Rowles retained his place. He would hold onto it for the new campaign, but his up-and-down performances mirrored the team’s early-season form. It became clear that something had to change – and then it did.

READ MORE: The Hearts Park Ji-Sung: Why Steven Naismith wants new Alan Forrest deal

New lease of life

When Naismith switched the team’s shape to a 3-5-2, results improved almost immediately – and there is perhaps no one who benefitted more than Rowles. When playing in a back four, Rowles was usually partnered alongside Frankie Kent but more was asked of him defensively. Off the ball, there was no insurance in the form of an extra centre-back to sweep up if Rowles found himself beaten. On it, he had fewer passing options when building out from the back.

The change in formation added another defender to share in Rowles’ responsibilities at the back, and the 25-year-old was looking a lot more assured as a result. Now it didn’t really matter if he was losing his aerial duels or if the opposition targeted him because Kent was there to sweep up behind. In possession, the addition of another centre-half and a No.6 provided him with plenty of easy options when building out. The result?  Rowles played a crucial role as Hearts continued to rack up clean sheets, and the Livingston match earlier this month was the first game this season he didn’t start because of the Asian Cup. In fact, barring a substitution with 20 to go away to St Mirren, he has played every minute of every Hearts game this season.

Rowles is a confidence player, and the difference when he has it and when he doesn’t is night and day. In a back four he can be hesitant at times and rash at others, and never looks entirely comfortable, particularly when he finds himself in a 1v1 with a physically imposing striker. The wide-centre back role suits his athleticism, and if an opponent bursts past him then he had the safety net of Kent laying in wait. It allows Rowles to be more aggressive when closing down opponents and to make the most of his pace, and he looks a lot more confident as a result. And, as Naismith explains, it has been worth the wait.

“He’s had to take a bit of criticism and suffered a couple of games, made mistakes or got into positions where he is vulnerable,” Naismith noted. “But the confidence has come. In possession, against Celtic, under pressure, he brings the ball down and plays. As a club, we need that. You cannae just pump it long and get into a fight. It’s been good for him. The club value him, hence why he signed a five-year deal. He’s somebody who has been really good for the group so I’ve been pleased for him because he is a good guy.”

Naismith urging his team to be braver on the ball was a common post-match refrain from the Hearts head coach during the early stages of the season, but you don’t hear it quite so often these days – and Rowles is the perfect case in point. As one of the two wide-centre backs, there is an onus on Rowles to play his part in beating the opposition press, whether it be via passing the ball around them or driving with it out from the back. It’s an area of his game that still needs some work – under pressure, the Australia internationalist’s passing accuracy drops from 85 to 68 per cent, and he could still be a little more adventurous carrying the ball out from the back at times – but when Rowles goes for it, his gambles tend to pay off. It was his driving run from deep that led to Hearts opening the scoring in September’s 2-1 win at Rugby Park in the last 16 of the League Cup, and we are seeing him become more confident and self-assured as the season progresses.

Let’s look at the 2-0 win over Celtic that Naismith mentioned. To a man, it was an outstanding team display from the men in maroon and Rowles was at the heart of it. Brendan Rodgers’ side might not press quite as relentlessly as Ange Postecoglou’s but even so, they are not exactly comfortable with letting their opponents play. Rowles often found himself with the ball at his feet and with an opponent bearing down on him. But rather than taking the easy option and playing it short to Cochrane, who has an opponent right on top of him, Rowles retained the presence of mind to instead play it further forward and beat the press. If you’re going to get anything from Celtic Park, it is exactly what you require from your wide centre-backs. Look at how much space is behind him too - one mistake, and Celtic are surely in.

Here’s another example from the first half of the most recent Edinburgh derby. It’s 0-0, it’s cagey, it’s hostile, and Rowles has already given away a penalty and been booked. It would be understandable if the Aussie opted not to take any risks in possession, to play it safe and sacrifice a little attacking intent in the name of defensive security. At one point he gets the ball short from a goal kick and Martin Boyle goes haring after him, putting him under severe pressure deep inside his own box. If he loses it, it's surely 1-0.

But Rowles doesn’t lose it. Instead, he drops his shoulder and drives inside, leaving Boyle for dead. The press has been beaten, and now Hearts can attack with a numerical advantage.

He can continue to carry the ball forward until he draws the midfield towards him, at which point he can calmly shift the ball on. In the space of a few seconds, he’s single-handedly progressed the ball beyond the entire Hibs midfield and attack.

Not many players can remain that calm and collected in such a testing scenario. That composure on the ball is something that Hearts fans are becoming more and more accustomed to seeing, and it’s hard to underplay just how important that role has become in Naismith’s side. It is the difference between spending an entire match pinned back in your own half and regularly breaking forward with numbers, and it requires a brave player if the system is going to work.

To get the best out of him, Rowles needs to feel confident. He needs to be aggressive off the ball and make the occasional mistake on it – and the extra security provided by the back three goes a long way. The change in shape allows Rowles to play to his strengths while masking his vulnerabilities – and so long as Naismith sticks with it, the Australian should continue to flourish.