The maroon juggernaut is showing no signs of slowing down. Saturday’s 2-0 win over Motherwell was Heart of Midlothian’s 11th in their last 12 games in all competitions as Steven Naismith’s side increased their lead over fourth-placed Kilmarnock to 14 points.

It was another victory secured, another clean sheet, another three points accrued to aid the team’s bid for European group-stage football next term – and, crucially, another controlled performance.

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A deserved win

A glance at the match stats tells us that Hearts were worthy winners. They had more than twice as many shots (in total and on target) than Motherwell mustered over the 90 minutes and had a much greater xG as a result. Naismith’s men bossed possession and used the ball better than the Steelmen too, with Hearts’ passing accuracy sitting at 86 per cent – a huge increase on Motherwell’s 68 per cent.

Unsurprisingly, Stuart Kettlewell’s side were far more active off the ball. They completed 200 pressures throughout the game compared to Hearts’ 89 but curiously, only around one in 10 resulted in Motherwell regaining possession. For Hearts, it was around one in six.

The xG race chart tells a story that Hearts supporters have become very accustomed to seeing this season. Neither side had much to shout about following a fairly even first half at Tynecastle Park, with both teams accruing a paltry 0.3 xG for their efforts during the opening 45 minutes.

For the first 10 minutes or so of the second half, Motherwell threatened Zander Clark’s goal with a few low-quality efforts before Hearts pulled away. Lawrence Shankland’s header for the opening goal (worth just 0.06 xG, by the way) saw the men in maroon leap ahead of Motherwell in the xG race. The dominance from 60 minutes onward is clear to see. Hearts were fashioning good opportunities and a comeback for the visitors never looked likely. They managed just three more efforts on goal, each with an xG of around 0.04.

Based on the quality of the chances that both teams created, StatsBomb calculated that Hearts had a 61 per cent chance of victory, and just a 13 per cent chance of walking away empty-handed. In short: Hearts were the better team, and thoroughly deserved the three points.

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Low block and blocking

Hearts got the win that their display deserved in the end on Saturday afternoon, but it wasn’t always a given that Naismith’s men would eventually overcome Motherwell’s stubborn resistance. The away side defended in a low block, put men behind the ball and dared Hearts to try and find a way through.

Take a look at Heart’s shot map above. Grey shapes indicate that a shot was blocked, and blue ones highlight low-xG chances. One thing jumps out immediately: there’s an awful lot of blue and grey on there. Seven Hearts shots were blocked in total, and the majority of the team’s efforts on goal had a relatively low probability of going in. Ideally, attackers should be hitting shots inside the box and between the posts, but Motherwell’s defensive set-up meant these were hard to fashion.

When Hearts managed to create chances in this area, it was crucial they made the most of them – and that’s exactly what they did. The two goals have a white border around them and look where both took place: inside the box, 12 yards out, and between the posts.

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Changing the shape

Naismith reverted to the back three on Saturday for the first half, and the opening 45 minutes highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the shape. Yes, it meant Motherwell’s attackers were kept at arm’s length and feeding off scraps – but it also hampered Hearts’ creative efforts.

The graphic below shows Hearts’ passing networks for each half, with the first on the left and the second on the right. The bigger the circle, the more that player had the ball. The colour represents each player’s On Ball Value (a metric that provides an indication of a player’s overall contribution). Blue means that they struggled to make a positive impact, while red denotes an effective performance.

A few things jump out immediately when we look at the first half. The back three and Beni Baningime saw a huge amount of the ball, but the front two of Shankland and Alan Forrest barely had a sniff. Forrest often found himself dropping deep, effectively leaving Shankland isolated as the lone striker. The two wing-backs and central midfielders pushed high and wide to try and create overloads on the flanks, but the final ball was lacking. Dexter Lembikisa was a bright spark on the right but other than that, nobody in maroon had all that much to shout about.

That all changed in the second half when the formation was switched to a 4-2-3-1. Lembikisa was replaced by Nathaniel Atkinson and Baningime made way for Vargas, initially lining up on the right wing. He would move to centre-forward on the hour mark when Yutaro Oda replaced Cochrane, who was playing in midfield, and Scott Fraser came off for Macaulay Tait.

Hearts were almost playing a 4-2-4 at times during the second half, with Tait/Cochrane sitting deep and Calem Nieuwenhof getting further forward. The Aussie’s passing was immense on Saturday and he misplaced just one of his 43 passes. Oda and Forrest stretched the game out wide, giving the likes of Vargas and Shankland more room to play in in the central areas. And it worked like a charm.

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Hearts certainly could have offered more on the ball during the first half, but they were very effective without it on Saturday. For all that the team struggled to fashion clear-cut opportunities of their own, the men in maroon did an excellent job of winning the ball back high up the park and preventing Motherwell from getting going. Most of the pressing happened on the wings around the halfway line, and there was a significant chunk that took place high up the park on the left.

That all changed when Shankland headed Hearts in front. Motherwell now had to come out and attack if they wanted to avoid defeat, and there was less structure in their build-up play. But Hearts wouldn’t let Kettlewell's side back into the game as they harried their opponents all over the park.

Motherwell’s pressing map across the full 90 tells its own story. They would put pressure on Hearts out wide whenever they crossed the halfway line but apart from that, the visitors were happy to sit off Hearts and effectively let them have the ball. In the first half it worked but in the second, when Hearts could create overloads with the full-backs and the wingers out wide, Motherwell struggled to cope.