When Craig Halkett returns to action for Heart of Midlothian, with a November target, he will be welcomed back with open arms. Only last week captain Lawrence Shankland said he was missing him so much and "can't wait to see him back from his injury".

The centre-back has, for large parts of the last 14 months, been a huge miss. He managed just eight appearances last campaign, playing 90 minutes four times, and was last seen on Christmas Eve, picking up a season-ending injury against Dundee United prior to the double leg break Craig Gordon suffered the same afternoon. 

READ MORE: Scoring against Hibs and dealing with Romanov: Velicka's Hearts story

Halkett was a totemic figure in the 2021/22 season when the team finished third. Situated at the centre of a back three, flanked by John Souttar and Stephen Kingsley, he provided aerial dominance, leadership and organisational qualities as well as consistent defensive solidity. Hearts failed to replace those qualities in January this year and his absence was increasingly felt on a week-by-week basis with the team struggling to defend set pieces and crosses into their box.

Halkett's impressive numbers

Supporters won't be surprised by the StatsBomb graphic below - covering the 2021/22 campaign - which displays the former Livingston captain's strengths. One of the best in the business - the business being Scottish Premiership centre-backs - in the air.  He recovered the ball frequently and was rarely dribbled past, often using his frame and strength to get between player and ball. Hearts conceded a combined 19 goals from set pieces and open-play crosses that Premiership season. In 2022/23 with Halkett for large periods it rose to 28.

This campaign, however, his absence so far has not been as severe. While his return will be a big boost, someone has stepped into his shoes at the heart of the Hearts defence, providing the team with the attributes which have been missing. Attributes that have helped Steven Naismith's men record the best defensive record in the Premiership so far, conceding just three goals in seven outings. All while wearing a magic hat.

That man is Frankie Kent.

The Englishman was unearthed and brought in from Peterborough United where he had been a regular over four seasons, making 170 appearances. Not as exotic or as exciting a signing as a striker from Japan or forward from Costa Rica, or even a midfielder from Australia. But exactly what the team required.

READ MORE: Analysis: Naismith gets his tactics right in Hearts win over County

Coming into the club, he was viewed as a solid centre-back in England's League One, good on the ball and in the air. That is what Hearts fans have witnessed and he has quickly won the admiration of the support.

Stepping into Halkett's shoes

Frankie Kent's name rings out every week from the terraces. It is a bond that has quickly been built, Hearts and their followers appreciative of a no-nonsense centre-back who goes about his job diligently. A figure who is reliable, someone that fans can depend on, someone who is going to deliver a 7 out of 10 performance on a weekly basis. Michael Smith used to hold that honour, now it is Kent.

It is understood he is as vocal and strong a presence in the dressing room as he is on the pitch where he organises and cajoles.

We can see in the above graph, comparing Kent so far this season (in blue) with Halkett's 2021/22 Premiership campaign (red), how effectively the 27-year-old has filled the Scottish centre-back's place. Crucially, Kent wins the ball in the air a lot during games and his percentage is impressive. You are wanting your centre-back to win upwards of 60-65 per cent. He is doing that and more. Although Halkett's win percentage of 78 per cent is stuff of legend.

The biggest differences are in interceptions and fouls. Halkett recorded higher values in both, the former a positive, the latter less so. That comes down to the differences in how they operate in certain situations. Kent prefers to drop off, protecting the box, rather than engaging with forwards when the ball goes into their feet. You can see he is also very low for pressures. The below diagram of Kent closing down Kyle Vassell high up the pitch in the League Cup win over Kilmarnock is a rare occasion.

His preference is to allow situations to unfold, read the game and then react, as he did against Motherwell in the diagram below, allowing Nathaniel Atkinson and Cammy Devlin to pressure the ball while he takes a step back and protects the space.

Hearts Standard: Kent is a defender who is aware of his surroundings and one who is wary of being dragged into areas which leave him and the team exposed. With Hearts enjoying so much possession and the full-back or wing-backs pushing high up the park, especially down the left, it means the channels are areas which opposition teams can target when they win the ball back, counter quickly and play direct. The Hearts centre-back prefers to keep a central position where the biggest threat to the goal lies.

In the two images below, Kent can be seen surveying what's around him, where the danger is and how the attack is unfolding.

Hearts Standard: In both instances, against Dundee above and Ross County below, he is checking what is behind him before taking up a position at the front of the box and in both instances he was perfectly placed to intercept the cross from wide.

Hearts Standard:

Rowles partnership

The styles of Kent and centre-back partner Kye Rowles complement each other quite well. The Australian centre-back has not been as robust as his team-mate and had some difficult moments but he is a defender who prefers to step out of defence to pressure a forward and look to intercept. We can see from the stats below that Rowles pressures opponents nearly twice as much per 90 minutes than Kent and is rarely dribbled past. The clear issue is Rowles' effectiveness in the air with a win percentage of 44 per cent. No matter which league you are in it is not ideal for a centre-back but should increase over the course of the season. 

It is therefore no surprise to see their approach in dealing with long balls. Kent is the one who will go and attack it. The diagram below shows a familiar set-up with Kent engaging and Atkinson and Rowles dropping to cover. 

On the ball

Halkett is an under-rated operator in possession. After all, two seasons ago that was the job of Kingsely and Souttar to build play. As for Kent, he is equally reliable and composed in possession. For the most part he is happy to keep safe possession, finding Rowles or his full-backs, while he will occasionally break the lines into midfield. He is content stepping out and hitting long balls into the final third when the opportunity arises. Where he excels is not clearing his lines for the sake of it. He is confident under pressure as he displayed at the weekend when Jordan White was pressing him as he faced his own touchline.  

Hearts Standard: He had options to go to Zander Clark or knock it out for a throw-in but he used his body to turn away and keep the ball under possession.

Hearts Standard:

Kent is a key reason as to why Hearts have conceded just three goals so far in the league. Not just his defensive qualities but his leadership and the composure he brings to the backline, rarely looking flustered. That is something which can have a positive impact on those around him and in the stands.

It will be interesting to see how Steven Naismith lines up when Halkett is back fit. There are plenty of similarities between the two players with both looking at home in the middle of a back three but there can be little doubt as a Scottish Premiership pairing they would be filed into the 'solid' and 'no nonsense' categories. 

In the meantime, Kent will continue to be the team's defensive rock, best signing of the summer and arguably player of the season so far. A welcome addition.