Heart of Midlothian make their return to Premiership action on Saturday following the Scottish Cup semi-final when they travel to Rugby Park in a battle between third and fourth in the Premiership.

It kicks off the five-game post-split run-in in the league with Steven Naismith's men safe in the knowledge that a win will mathematically confirm third place and guaranteed European group-stage football next season.

Ahead of the season's denouement, we delved into the data courtesy of our partners StatsBomb to get some insight into areas where Hearts are thriving and areas where improvement is required. After all, numbers can tell a story.

READ MORE: He's done things we never expected: What we've learned from Naismith's year at Hearts

The stat: 1.1 xG per 90 minutes

What it means

Hearts are, on average, creating chances (excluding penalties) that are deemed to equate to just over a goal per 90 minutes. Four teams in the Premiership have higher figures. The Old Firm are obvious but in addition, Hibs and this weekend's opponents Kilmarnock have a marginally better xG per 90 figure, while even Aberdeen create the same quality and quantity of chances as Hearts.

The team are taking the third most shots per 90 minutes with 13.61. It suggests that Hearts are not taking these efforts from optimal positions. That is reflected in two further stats. Firstly, only Motherwell's average distance from goal of non-penalty shots is higher than Hearts' 16.41 metres. That leads onto the xG/shot figure. Hearts have the second-lowest in the league, slightly ahead of Livingston, with the team's shots possessing an xG average of 0.07.

Goals, in a way, have been a slight issue collectively this season. Hibs, Dundee and Motherwell have all scored more, while Hearts are yet to win a game by three goals in the league this campaign. 

The stat: 505 passes per 90 minutes

What it means

In a nutshell: Hearts are seeing more of the ball than most other teams in the Premiership, and are exerting more control as a result. Again, the Old Firm lead the way in terms of passes per 90 but Hearts sit comfortably in third, averaging more than 100 passes more per game than fifth-placed Aberdeen.

The team's overall passing accuracy of 76 per cent is the fourth-best rate in the league - just behind Hibs on 77 per cent - but Hearts' superior volume means that only Celtic and Rangers complete more succesful passes per 90 than Naismith's side.

Hearts average 56 per cent possession on average in the league - still a fair bit away from the sort of dominance that Celtic (69 per cent) and Rangers (63 per cent) generally enjoy - but when Hearts have the ball, they tend to keep it. Despite enjoying most of the share of the ball in each game they play, the men in maroon have a relatively low number of possessions. This tells us that each separate spell of possession is relatively long.

READ MORE: Hearts, Premiership's youngest team and the four squad categories

The stat: 24% box cross accuracy

What it means

Hearts aren't creating as many chances as they would like, so let's drill down into how the team are attacking the opposition box.

Naismith's side complete 2.9 passes inside the box and 4.5 deep completions (passes completed within 20 metres of an opponent's goal) per 90 on average, and these are decent figures. In both metrics, Celtic comfortably lead the way, and Rangers and Hibs occupy second and third place, with Hearts narrowly behind in fourth. With a little more improvement, the men in maroon could easily rise to second.

Hearts tend to pass their way into the opposition area rather than cross balls in from out wide. Only 26 per cent of entries into the box are crosses: the lowest rate of any top-flight club.

It isn't hard to see why, though. Take a look at Hearts' accuracy when crossing balls into the box. Only Hibs and St Johnstone find their man with less frequency. It's something Hearts aren't particularly good at - and so they find other ways to hurt the opposition. 

The stat: Lawrence Shankland's nine match-winning goals

What it means

Some of the statistics we touch on in this analysis require some brief explanation, but others do exactly what they say on the tin. There is one stat that counts more than any other in football, and a certain Mr Shankland is leading the way in Scotland's top flight in this regard: goals.

Hearts' captain is the top scorer in the league this season, and it is looking increasingly likely that he will walk away with the golden boot at the end of the campaign. He has scored all manners of goals against all manner of opposition, and it would be churlish in the extreme to overlook the talents of Tynecastle's talisman.

We need to recognise a simple truth, though: not all goals are equal, and some are more valuable than others. A late winner is worth more than adding the fifth in a 5-0 drubbing, after all. Still, though, Shankland stands head and shoulders above the rest. He has nine-match winning goals in the league this season - three more than his nearest rival, Rangers striker Cyriel Dessers - and he is comfortably ahead of the Premiership's other top performers in this metric.

READ MORE: Assessing the Hearts squad: Depth, development and transfer potential

The stat: 0.03 set-piece goals conceded

What it means

In short: Hearts concede very, very few goals from set-pieces in the league. Just one all season, in fact. Naismith's decision to pull the entire team back for corners has drawn criticism at times but the bare figures would suggest that the strategy is paying off.  

Hearts concede just 0.03 goals per 90 from set-pieces - that's five times better than the rate of the next-best team, St Johnstone - but the data suggests this is unsustainable. The graphic below shows the difference between a team's goals conceded (blue) and expected goals conceded (red) from defensive set-pieces, giving us an indication of whether or not any given team is over or under performing - and Hearts are massively over performing here - more than anyone else in the league.


The issue becomes more apparent when we dig a little deeper. Despite having to defend relatively few set-pieces (free kicks, corners and throw-ins) per game - only Celtic give away fewer - Hearts concede more shots per set-piece than any other Premiership team. 

The data is unequivocal: Hearts should have conceded more goals from set-pieces than they actually have. There is surely an element of luck here, but Naismith has been making his own luck to an extent by bringing the whole team back to defend corners. It's been an area of prolonged over performance for Hearts - and the team's record at defensive set-plays will surely revert to the mean eventually.

The stat: 0.2 xG from attacking corners per 90

What it means

Things could be better at the other end. There has been a sense that Hearts have not been making the most of attacking set-pieces - and corners specifically - this season, and the data bears that out. Only Celtic and Rangers win more corners per game, but just Ross County and Motherwell hit fewer shots per corner.

This means that too many deliveries are getting cut out, and it is affecting the team's xG per corner, which is the joint-lowest rate in the league. 

So what does all of this mean? The long and short of it is that Hearts score a bang-average amount of corners (relative to the rest of the league), despite hitting more than almost anyone else. A little more improvement here could go a long way indeed.

READ MORE: The Hearts right-back role, a short-term solution and possible transfer priority

The stat: Beni Baningime's 6.05 counterpressures per 90

What it means

We have previously delved into Baningime's figures at length [LINK] to examine why the No.6 is one of the best passers of the ball in the league, but the former Everton man has more than one string to his bow. Not content with being one of the Premiership's most effective ball distributors, the 25-year-old also happens to be brilliant at stopping teams from counter-attacking too. 


No other Premiership player completes more counterpressures (pressing the opposition within five seconds of their team losing possession) than Baningime, which neatly demonstrates just how keen he has been to break up counters. And when Baningime gets called into action, Hearts often win the ball back even when he doesn't win it himself. Baningime is the top-ranked player in the league for counterpress regains (when the team regains possession after a player's counterpressure) and this has helped Hearts form one of the Premiership's most robust defences.   

As a collective, Hearts attempt more counterpresses than any other team in the league apart from Celtic, and they are the top-ranked side for counterpress regains. The result? Naismith's side concede very few counter-attacks - only Rangers and Motherwell give up fewer chances to the opposition from counters. 

The stat: 14 clean sheets

What it means

Another straightforward stat that tells us a lot. It is no secret that Naismith has tightened things up at the back this season, and the semi-regular deployment of the back three plays its part here. Zander Clark's 14 clean sheets tell us that the Scotland internationalist is enjoying a fine season - and with Craig Gordon pushing for a starting spot, there is plenty of healthy competition between the sticks at Hearts. Only Rangers' Jack Butland (18) has more clean sheets to his name than Clark this season.

Clark doesn't have to deal with as many shots as other members of the goalkeepers' union, so it is perhaps unsurprising that he concedes the fourth-fewest goals per game of any shot-stopper in the Premiership.

The figures are a fair reflection of Clark's season too. We can calculate whether or not a keeper is over or underperforming by subtracting their goals conceded per 90 from the xG they face from shots. This is called Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA).

At one end of the scale you have Kelle Roos and Will Dennis who are performing well above average, and at the other you have Liam Kelly who is having a poor season. Clark's GSAA of +0.01 suggests he is very slightly overperforming - and tells us that the goals against column is a fair reflection on his season.