The start of the 2023/24 campaign has been something of a mixed bag for Heart of Midlothian. On the face of it, the team occupying fourth place in the league table and having a League Cup semi-final against Rangers to look forward to sounds pretty encouraging – but as we all know, that does not tell the full story.

Recent victories away to Kilmarnock and Ross County undoubtedly played their part in lifting the spirits of supporters, only for Hearts to allow a seemingly unassailable two-goal lead slip in the space of 82 maddening seconds against Hibs in the last encounter.

An area of the team which remains a cause for concern, though, is set-pieces. Hearts’ ability to defend dead-ball situations has improved - PAOK are the only opposition to have scored from a corner or a free-kick against Steven Naismith’s side this season. We will dive into the improvement in a future article but, for now, we’re just going to focus on attacking set-plays – and there is no getting around the fact that they represent a series of missed opportunities for Hearts.

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Let’s start with indirect free-kicks – specifically, set-plays where the ball is played in and around the opponent’s box. There are three figures in particular that paint a worrying picture. Firstly, Hearts are currently accruing more indirect free-kicks per league outing than any other Premiership side (14.25), meaning Naismith’s men haven’t exactly been shy of having opportunities to demonstrate their prowess at set-plays. The second statistic of note is that the team average 0.09 shots per indirect free-kick (marginally above the league average), and the third is damning: only three teams – Dundee (0.46), Motherwell (0.22) and Rangers (0.1) – have generated a lower number of expected goals (xG) from dead-ball situations than Hearts’ 0.49.

It adds up to an uncomfortable truth: that this is an issue of quality, not quantity. Either the delivery hasn’t been good enough, the players’ movement hasn’t been up to scratch, or Hearts haven’t been winning enough aerial duels from set-pieces – or some combination of the three. The graphic below shows all of Hearts’ attacking indirect free-kicks in the league this season, with the red lines indicating successful crosses.

The majority don’t find their intended target, as is to be expected, but that majority shouldn’t be quite so emphatic. Stephen Kingsley and Alex Lowry make up the lion’s share of Hearts’ 34 attempts and neither have been particularly effective; the left-back has a success rate of 25 per cent, while the Rangers loanee finds his man just 11 per cent of the time. The latter was visibly frustrated with his deliveries in the derby draw.

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We can see that most of the crosses are played towards the back post – only one delivery into the near post has found its intended target – but all too often, the cross is being repelled at the first time of asking. What’s more, the opposition are then usually winning the second ball, leaving Hearts vulnerable to a counter-attack.

Here’s a typical example from the Aberdeen game. Jorge Grant takes the free-kick, and Kye Rowles has done well to buy some space to run into. It's a difficult ball to play but if Grant can manage it, the centre-half will have a great opportunity to score.

Grant tries to pick out Rowles but there isn't enough power on his delivery. Realising this, Rowles changes direction and moves away from goal to meet the ball.

Rowles gets there first but the Australian is off-balance when he connects with the ball, and he has an Aberdeen defender breathing down his neck. He does well to make contact with it, but he has no chance of threatening the visitors' goal.

In the end, Rowles' gets there first but he can't connect cleanly with the ball. It bobbles free and an Aberdeen defender hoovers up the loose ball with time to pick his pass and launch a counter-attack. 

Why are Hearts struggling to win the initial ball in? Part of it is surely down to distance, with many of the free-kicks coming from deep areas, giving the opposition more time to read the flight of the ball and organise themselves accordingly. But another issue is with the type of delivery we are seeing – more often than not, a high cross is looped in towards Rowles or Frankie Kent, but this gives the opposition time to adjust. Kent wins enough of his headers that he is an obvious target but Rowles wins just 42 per cent of his aerial duels – one of the lowest rates of any centre-half in the league. It should be noted, too, that Shankland has been on the receiving end of more successful free-kicks than any other Hearts player.

A change in approach is perhaps required. Lowry’s free-kicks simply haven’t been up to scratch, while Kingsley’s injury in the Edinburgh derby means the defender won’t be taking set-pieces anytime soon. Naismith needs to find an alternative free-kick taker soon but a new ploy is also necessary. The high, looped balls towards the back post are ineffectual at best and Rowles has shown so far this season that he is an unreliable target to aim for. They were having more success in the early stages of the season but opponents appear to be getting wise to it.


It’s a similar story when we examine Hearts’ prowess from corner kicks. Once again, the numbers speak for themselves. No other Premiership side wins as many corners as Hearts (8.5) per league fixture but only four teams (Kilmarnock, Motherwell, Livingston and St Mirren) have a lower xG. It’s the same issue as attacking free-kicks – plenty of quantity, but not much quality. Naismith’s side have the lowest xG/corner of any team in the division.

The graphic below shows Hearts’ successful crosses from corners (red) and unsuccessful attempts (yellow), and a couple of things stand out. The first is that the majority of successful deliveries have generally been played to the edge of the six-yard box, while many of the intercepted crosses have been played into a similar area but a few yards further out.

Again, Hearts’ corners have a low accuracy rate. Around one in six find their man (17 per cent) and Lowry is once again the biggest culprit. The midfielder has taken almost half of the team’s corners this season but of his 28 attempts, just two have reached their target. That works out at seven per cent accuracy. Alan Forrest, for context, has hit eight corners this season with a 50-per-cent success rate.

Whether it’s down to the type of delivery Lowry has been asked to play or the fact that he has an unhappy tendency to under-hit his corners, the result is the same: the playmaker’s deliveries aren’t effective.

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The graphic below shows the first point of contact following a Hearts corner. The image on the left shows deliveries from the left, and the one on the right shows corners from the right. We can see that for all the attempts played at the near post from the left, only one has resulted from a shot. The more successful crosses have a bit more welly on them.

Corners from the right are a bigger problem. Only a handful have resulted in an attempt on goal, and many fail to clear the first man on the edge of the six-yard box. These crosses in particular aren’t working – and it isn’t hard to see why. Few Hearts players are gambling at the front post. Here is a typical example from the derby.

The ball is coming in towards the near post, yet Dylan Vente has been afforded the freedom of Tynecastle to guard the near post. Rowles is the only Hearts player to attack the ball but his starting position means he's unlikely to get there first, even if Lowry's delivery is perfect. 

The cross isn't perfect. It's played too short, giving Rowles no chance of reaching it first, and Vente is able to collect the ball at feet and hoof it clear to relieve the pressure.

Too many deliveries are snuffed out at the front post through a combination of poor crossing and lacklustre movement at corners. Too many indirect free-kicks go to waste – and the ones that don’t leave the recipient in a position where it is incredibly difficult to score, jostling to get underneath the ball in an extremely crowded area. The near-post corners from the right consistently fail to pose any threat, and Lowry is yet to prove himself a reliable set-piece taker.

Naismith does not have his problems to seek in this regard. The international break has hopefully afforded the head coach to address these issues and to experiment with new set-piece routines. The current set-up isn’t bearing much fruit and the team simply aren’t taking advantage. Hearts win more attacking set-plays than any other Premiership side – but they need to put them to much better use.