Alex Cochrane has never been afraid to put the hard yards in and strive towards a better future. A consummate professional on and off the park, the Englishman has added a degree of consistency to his game under the tutelage of Steven Naismith and the defender is quite rightly one of the first names on Heart of Midlothian’s team sheet each week. He is solid, he is reliable, and costly errors are few and far between.

The 26-year-old has played in all manners of positions within various formations during his two-and-a-half years in Gorgie but has produced his best displays on the left of the defence, whether that be as a left-wing back or a left-back. His versatility is a valuable asset that Naismith often relies upon – Cochrane is equally adept at playing as an out-and-out wing-back who hugs the touchline and an inverted full-back who cuts inside – and he is quickly establishing himself as one of the top players in his position in the country.

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Well-rounded threat

Cochrane spent the majority of his first two seasons at Tynecastle Park playing at left midfield in Robbie Neilson’s 3-4-3 formation but was occasionally deployed as the left centre-half in a back three too. The radars below show how Cochrane compared to the league average for players in his position during the 2021/22 and 2022/23 campaigns, and we can see there are a few areas where he was already excelling. The red shape is Cochrane, and the blue is the league average for that season.

Cochrane’s defensive ability is clear to see. After adjusting for possession, he was one of the top performers in his position in the league at making tackles, interceptions and pressures. He committed few fouls or turnovers and excelled at winning 1v1 battles in his first season before it dipped to well below the league average in the second. In his first season, he didn’t offer much of a creative threat but in the second his crossing was up there with the best the league had to offer, and he contributed far more in attack as a result.

This season we’re seeing the best of both worlds from the Brighton and Hove Albion academy graduate. Whether playing as a full-back or a wing-back, Cochrane has become far more consistent in his output – both on and off the ball – making him one of the most well-rounded left-backs in the Premiership.

There are still areas where Cochrane can improve, of course, but look at the areas where he excels. He rarely commits turnovers. He rarely gets dribbled past. He creates a good amount of chances for someone in his position and has a relatively high number of successful crosses per game (more on this later).

There are other areas where Cochrane excels that aren’t represented in the above radar. This season, for instance, he averages 9.9 successful passes into the final third from open play and hits 2.9 passes into the opposition box per game. Both are some of the best rates of any player outside of the Old Firm in the entire league.

Cochrane has played in various positions during his time at Hearts and has had different tactical instructions over the years, and he has usually excelled. Sometimes he’s been strong defensively, sometimes he’s been effective at getting forward and creating. But the important thing is that he is more than capable of playing both sides of the game.

My colleague Joel Sked once referred to Alan Forrest as Heart’s Park Ji-Sung. By that he meant that Forrest will fulfil whatever role he is asked to and will carry out instructions down to a tee – and the same can be said of Cochrane.

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Tactical versatility

Cochrane’s best performances have been on the left side of defence but there have been occasions when he has had to play elsewhere. Naismith’s decision to start Cochrane in midfield at home to PAOK in the Europa Conference League qualifiers attracted questions, and even criticism, at the time, but the Hearts head coach was confident in the former England Under-20 internationalist’s abilities.

Cochrane has since gone on to play semi-regularly in midfield. Naismith isn’t averse to making tactical changes in games to try and seize the initiative, and Cochrane’s versatility allows Naismith to change the shape without using up a substitution. A few eyebrows were raised that night at Tynecastle but he has rarely put a foot wrong when playing through the middle.

“He’s got good qualities, he’s a good footballer,” Naismith told Hearts Standard. “As a kid, he came through as a midfielder at times and I think he is good at it. We took a bit of criticism when we played him there against PAOK. It seemed to be ‘what’s this, why is he doing that?’.

“It showed that he has the composure. He is an intelligent footballer. Him in that position, through all the training sessions, through all the video, he’s picked up what we want and he’s good at it. That’s exactly why I am comfortable putting him in there. We are starting to get more competition. [Aidan] Denholm, Macaulay [Tait], Calem [Nieuwenhof] - they are all growing and where they sit in the group and how they feel in the group which gives us good options. I think we have got players who can play in a few positions. That is a value to us. We need to use that when we can.”

Even when Cochrane has been playing in his natural position (left-back or left wing-back), he has often found himself playing under different tactical instructions. Most of Hearts’ attacking play goes down the right but Cochrane is still required to shuttle up and down the left wing to provide balance and an option for the man in possession. And on the occasions where he bursts forward, he can be an effective presence indeed. If anything, he should probably be encouraged to try it a little more often.

Knowing when to hold and when to dart forward is half the battle. Below is a typical example from the 4-1 win away to Airdrieonians. Hearts have built up from the back and worked the ball down the right, sucking in the Airdrie players. They’ve left Cochrane unmarked and as soon as the ball starts getting worked infield, he’s on his bike.

He gets the ball and has no one to stop him. He advances into the box and by the time he hits it, he has an abundance of options available to him. He can go near post, back post, cut it back, drill it forward, or even have a go himself. Cochrane is capable of doing it all and if you give him options like that, he can hurt you.

Cochrane has all the attributes to succeed as a traditional wing-back but he has also caught the eye when playing in an inverted role. Out of possession, he is where you’d expect him to be but once Hearts get on the ball, he can drift infield and essentially become an extra central midfielder. In matches where Hearts need to flood the centre to gain control, it is an invaluable asset.

Take the 2-0 win over St Mirren as an example. That day, Naismith opted for a 3-4-3 with Cochrane at left midfield and Barrie McKay ahead of him at left wing. Cochrane constantly dropped into great positions in the middle, drawing an opponent or two towards him and creating space further up the park. He would recycle the ball and all of a sudden, things started opening up.

On this occasion, Alex Gogic gets across to snuff it out but it’s a ball into a great area. If Denholm is just a little quicker out of the traps then there’s loads of space to exploit.

In the example below, he takes up a great position and demands the ball off Beni Baningime. Cochrane then shifts it out to Barrie McKay, who's in a 1v1 situation. If he can beat his marker and drive down the line, Hearts are in.

Whether he’s been asked to play at left-back or centre-mid, inverted or wide, Cochrane has consistently delivered for Naismith. It’s no surprise he starts just about every game. Versatile players who can perform all sorts of different roles are a manager’s dream, after all. But that’s not to say that there are other areas of his game that could use a little attention.

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Set-piece struggles

Cochrane produces an xG of 0.06 per game from his deliveries from corners, which isn’t ideal. It’s the 15th best rate of any Premiership player and roughly one in 20 will result in a goal, based on probability. So far he has registered one assist from a corner this season – and it isn’t as though he has been shy of opportunities. After all, Hearts average 6.85 corners per game. Only Celtic and Rangers get more. It’s why Cochrane’s crossing stats look so impressive at first glance. It’s more down to quantity than quality.

As this excellent Twitter thread from Liam Stewart analysing Hearts’ corner-kick routines this season points out, Cochrane has hit more corners this season (61) than any other Hearts player. Seventeen of those have failed to clear the first man, and only four have produced a shot on target.

The data backs it up. The two graphics below show Cochrane’s corner activity this season. The yellow lines show failed attempts and the red lines show crosses that a Hearts player has got on the end of. Look how many deliveries from the right, when Cochrane can play an in-swinger (Liam points out further down in the thread that these are three times more likely to produce a shot on goal), that fail to beat the first man.

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Big summer ahead

Cochrane continues to go from strength to strength at Tynecastle Park, adding yet more strings to an already considerable bow. He is not yet the finished product but as we have previously examined, he is certainly an asset to the squad that Hearts will be looking to cash in on one day. His nationality alone means his valuation would go up should a club down south come calling (English players are inherently more valuable due to squad registration rules) and with his contract set to expire in 2025, the Hearts hierarchy could find themselves with a difficult decision to make this summer once the transfer window reopens.

All Cochrane can do in the meantime is what he has done all season: continue to develop, and quietly impress in a role that often goes under the radar. Perhaps one day he’ll earn a big move to the bright lights of the Premier League. But the only way to get there is to keep putting in performances in maroon.