Saturday’s goalless draw away to Kilmarnock was a game best characterised by nearly moments and fine margins for Heart of Midlothian. Despite being well on top for the opening 45 minutes in Ayrshire and creating plenty of promising opportunities, that all-important killer touch was missing. Both Kenneth Vargas and Cammy Devlin were denied by the crossbar, Derek McInnes’ men improved after the break – and Hearts had to settle for a point.

The two shots that rebounded off the frame of the goal were the closest Hearts came to scoring, but there were some other avenues of attack that stood out at Rugby Park. Devlin, in particular, was causing all sorts of problems as he darted in behind the Killie backline time and again until McInnes changed his team’s shape for the second half to specifically stop the Aussie.

“When their centre-backs come out we can occupy the space in behind them,” Devlin explained after the game. “It’s important that if our strikers come to the ball and their centre-backs go with them, then we can get into that space in behind.

“On Saturday it was me and [Jorge] Granty in that No.8/No.10 role to use that space. Especially in the first half, you could see if Kye [Rowles] had the ball on the opposite side then the space was really there. The talk during the week was that there was going to be space in behind and our midfielders and attackers would have to exploit that. I feel like we did that really well to be honest.”

Devlin isn’t wrong. Let’s take a look at how clever build-up play from Hearts laid a trap that Kilmarnock kept walking into.

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Naismith opted for a 3-5-2 shape on Saturday (it was the first time this season he didn’t start with a back four against Kilmarnock) while the home side lined up in a 4-4-2. Killie’s wingers and the two centre-forwards led the team’s press from the front, but this gave Hearts the numerical advantage in midfield. Devlin was often the free man, and so it then became a question of how best to use him.

Hearts adopted a patient approach that relied on drawing in the home side’s attackers, and focusing on getting the ball to the left wing before playing a long pass over the top. Kilmarnock’s backline was relatively high, and the centre-backs tightly marked Vargas and Lawrence Shankland, creating gaps at the back that Devlin, playing on the right of the midfield three, was able to fill.

Take a look at the example below from the first five minutes of Saturday’s game. Hearts have been carefully passing the ball around the back and inviting pressure from Kilmarnock. Frankie Kent and Stephen Kingsley play it back and forth, while Rowles stays in space out on the left. Once Killie have committed, he has to be the out-ball.

Kingsley plays it back to the retreating Kent, and Kyle Vassell and Marley Watkins can’t resist. They go haring after Kent but the Englishman plays a simple pass back to Zander Clark, who is then able to shift it out to Rowles.

Grant comes towards the ball, dragging his marker with him and creating a gap further forward for Shankland to drop into. Rowles spots him and drills a pass towards the Hearts captain.

Lewis Mayo follows Shankland but he can’t stop the striker’s neat flick to Alex Cochrane. Joe Wright pushes up to put some pressure on the ball, and now Killie are in real danger when Cochrane heads the ball down the channel to Devlin.

Hearts are now 2v2 but there isn’t quite enough pace and direction on Cochrane’s header, and Stuart Findlay is able to shepherd Devlin into a corner.

The Hearts midfielder has little choice but to turn back on himself, and does well to keep the ball, but this gives Kilmarnock time to recover. He plays it infield to Cochrane, who is quickly crowded out, and the move comes to nothing.

That attack didn’t lead to an attempt on goal, but it set the blueprint for Hearts’ forays forward. It highlighted a vulnerability of Kilmarnock’s system – and Devlin would exploit it repeatedly.

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Here’s another example. Again, Hearts have been carefully passing the ball around the back, waiting until all the pieces are in the right position before striking directly. Vassell and Watkins are drawn towards the ball, and Kent shifts it out to Rowles once more.

Shankland drops as Devlin to charges in behind with a well-timed run. Rowles then takes a touch before lifting the ball over the Killie defence.

Devlin is goal side but Shankland is the endpoint for the move. The Killie defence are all retreating, and Shankland darts forward to receive Devlin’s knock-down. If it lands pretty much anywhere in the highlighted area, the ball is surely Shankland's.

Devlin chests it into Shankland’s path – and only a good save from Will Dennis keeps it at 0-0.

A couple of minutes pass and a near-identical situation unfolds. Again, Hearts have focused their play down the left. Vargas has just dropped and played it back to Rowles, who’s about to play it back to Kent. Look at where Devlin is too.

Kent gets the ball and plays it back to Rowles, and now the trap is set. Out of frame, Devlin has once again marauded forward and Rowles picks him out.

Kilmarnock have over-committed and Shankland is taking full advantage, taking up a great position. If Devlin can feed him the ball, it’s an excellent opportunity.

Devlin does exactly that and Shankland then cuts inside – but his shot on goal is blocked.

Rowles was often the man playing the killer ball forward, but not always. Take a look at the example below, where Grant is about to play it out to Cochrane. Again, notice Devlin’s starting position.

Cochrane plays it back to Grant, and now a gap has opened up at the back. Vargas has dragged Mayo wide. Further infield, Devlin jogs forward.

As soon as Grant receives the ball, though, Naismith frantically waves Devlin forward. The midfielder sees the space, and sprints into it as Grant lofts it forward.

Just look at the space Devlin is in. If the delivery is pretty much perfect then he can have a go himself. If it’s a little short or if Grant has put too much on it, Devlin should be able to nudge it into Shankland’s path.

Devlin jumps for it, but credit to Dennis. The Killie keeper just gets there ahead of him, punching it clear in the nick of time.

Four times Devlin got in behind the Kilmarnock defence during the first half on Saturday, and any one of them could have easily resulted in a goal. McInnes would change the shape and bring on Brad Lyons at the break to stifle Devlin’s threat and although the Aussie was still heavily involved in Hearts’ attacking moves, Killie had got wise to the runs in behind and found a solution.

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The same ploy won’t work in every game – different teams defend and press in all sorts of ways, after all – but Devlin’s forward-thinking attitude was a welcome sight indeed. At many stages of the season, supporters have bemoaned the lack of a line-breaking midfielder willing to run in behind the opposition defence and pose them some awkward questions, and Devlin’s display on Saturday suggested he might just fit the bill. 

We saw similar off-the-ball runs against Livingston and Hearts reaped the rewards that afternoon, but it's not something we have seen all that often this season as Naismith's side tend to get their goals in other ways. Devlin’s endeavour wasn’t rewarded on Saturday but his performance showed that Hearts have added another weapon to their attacking arsenal, a different way of hurting their opponents if the occasion demands it – and that can never be a bad thing.