Robbie Neilson splits opinion amongst the Hearts support. Check any social media outlet or fan forum and for every pro Neilson statement there will be a negative one close behind. Many football fans would argue that is case and point for every single football clubs support across the land. Fair comment but the case of Robbie Neilson is absolutely curious.
On paper Robbie isn’t just a great Hearts manager, his stats are some of the most impressive stats in Scottish football. Robbie has managed Hearts for a total of 128 games across League, cups and Europe. He boasts a very impressive 60% overall win percentage. When you break that down it shows Robbie wins consistently across the board, 62% domestic league, 50% Europe, 66% League cup, 33% Scottish cup. Impressive. You can split his season in the championship vs season in the top flight and his stats are still impressive. Robbie boasts a 50% – win record in the top flight and as many fans highlight, left Hearts 2nd in the League at the time of his departure. Robbie also secured the club a top 3 finish in his first season in the top flight. For context, Hibernian, the club currently sitting 3rd in the top flight, haven’t managed that since 2005. Robbie Neilson can also boast to being the first manager since Sir Alex to win a league title with either half of the old firm in it. On paper, Robbie is doing/done an amazing job, right?
Of course, he is, but stats don’t paint the full picture. Robbie was knocked out the Europa League to Birkirkara, losing at home to the Maltese outfit in probably one of Hearts most embarrassing European results. So, his 50% European win rate has to have context. Robbie Neilson lost to Alloa in the League cup knock out stages this season. The first time in Hearts history they’ve lost to part time Alloa. Robbie Neilson has never won more than 2 games in knock out football. A big percentage of his win rate in the cup competitions comes from winning in the group stage format of the league cup. The quarter finals of the League cup are Robbie’s best run in the cup to date, but he only had to win one match to get there, Hearts being seeded and joining in the knockout rounds. Robbie Neilson of course managed Hearts in last seasons, played during this seasons, Scottish cup final but it was Daniel Stendel that got Hearts to the semi-final. Robbie beat Hibs in the semi-final, losing to Celtic in the final on penalties. Robbie was also knocked out the challenge cup in the 2nd round during his first spell at the club, having won only one game again. So, his stats in cup competition aren’t as clear cut as they seem. To be fair to Robbie Neilson, Hearts under performing in the League cup/cup in general isn’t unique to Robbie.
Then there is this seasons Championship campaign. As I type this Hearts are sitting 11 points clear of Dunfermline, who have a game in hand. Hearts have won 70% of their League games this season and with 10 games left, look likely Champions. Again, however, the stats only tell half the story. Hearts playing budget is £9 million a year, compare that to Dunfermline, Dundee, Raith Rovers, then you’d expect Hearts to be sitting clear at the top, no? This season Hearts have lost 3 games and drawn 2. In the last Championship campaign hearts dropped only 4 points to sides outside Rangers and Hibs, losing only twice to both after the league was won. Hearts have lost against all 3 of their main competitors this season, Dunfermline, Dundee and Raith. Something that has shocked Hearts fans. Robbie Neilson is also able to call upon Liam Boyce, Michael Smith, Craig Gordon, Gary McKay Steven and Steven Naismith. 5 full international players, in a league that has 2 part time teams, teams hampered by cash flow problems. A starting 11 with those 5 said internationalists drew 1 each with Morton yesterday, who are manager less. So again, the stats have to have context.
So, what is the problem at Hearts? Why do we constantly see negativity around Robbie Neilson from a growing section of Hearts fans. Can’t be many managers with a 60% winning record gazing skywards to see banners calling for their removal. For me, a big concern for most fans is the persistence on formation, tactics, game plans that don’t suit the players we have. Don’t get me wrong, loads of the complaints are moon howling and symptomatic of a fan base stuck in the house during COVID-19 with no avenue to vent. Robbie plays 4231 religiously and has done at every club he has managed. He favours having two sitting midfielders in the deep pivot role sacrificing two up front. He also likes to play two “10’s” which often means we lose width. Case in point on that is the Walker-Naismith dilemma. Walker has contributed far more than Naismith this season in the “10” but is often moved out wide to make way for the Scotland international. In the early part of the season Robbie tried to play both which had a negative effect on both players and their form dipped respectively. The other issue Robbie has faced with 4231 this season is none of the wingers signed in any of the windows have been good enough. Ginnelly the undoubted talent amongst those wingers but his spell at the club was curtailed due to injury and left having only played a handful of games. Frear, Roberts, Kastaneer and GMS have been way below the standard required. Another player that has suffered due to the lack of width in the 4231 set up is Liam Boyce. Hearts top scorer this season has rarely had the service he requires. Most of Liam Boyce’s goals have come from the penalty spot or opportune finishes from half chances. Hearts were conceding too many goals, 2 at Dunfermline, 3 at Dundee, 3 at home to Raith and Ayr. To combat that Robbie stopped Smith and Kingsley committing too far forward, that has left GMS, Kastaneer, Walker left 1 vs 2 and outnumbered resulting in Hearts going backward towards their own goal recycling the ball. This is a big issue with the fans, it is a passage of play that we have seen throughout Robbie’s tenure. Possession based football with no end product, slow and laborious. The game yesterday was hugely frustrating as it’s a story we have seen time and time again. 26 attempts at goal, 5 on target, 1 goal. The first goal from open play in 270 minutes of football. When Hearts don’t score early, they rarely go on to win matches comfortably and yesterday was another example of that. It has been over a year since Hearts last scored an away goal within the opening 30 minutes. In 2021, Hearts have only scored 4 goals in the first half, a huge frustration for the team and fans alike.
So, what is the solution? For me, I’d like to see us play 3 at the back, especially at home. Popescu and Halkett with Haring sitting just a little in front of them as cover if we need it. I’d like to see Smith and Kingsley play as wing backs. Both players have contributed more than all the wingers currently at the club. In the middle of the park, I’d like to see Halliday/Irving, McEneff and Walker. Walker and McEneff with license to get forward as much as they can. Boyce and Naismith up front with Gnando an option from the bench or if we need to be more direct. I think 352 suits the players we have and still allows Robbie to get his “go to” men on the field. We played 352 against Celtic in the final and more than match them. 352 also gives us numbers and overloads in all the areas of the park we require, especially when playing against sides in this league that favour 451. We also need to see a better tempo in possession. Quicker passing, quicker pressing and quicker to get the ball out wide. Something I hope Robbie is looking at. Sticking with 4231 is just going to enrage the fans more as it seems so easy to play against, as Morton showed yesterday and other sides in the league have shown over the season.
So why is it a curious case? Robbie Nielson is a fantastic coach. Robbie Neilson’s stats are incredible, not only for Hearts but for any Scottish manager. Robbie Neilson will have won 3 League titles come the end of this season, finished 3rd and qualified for Europe. Yet, it could’ve/could be so much more for him. His stubbornness to persist with a shape and game plan frustrates the fans, even though it delivers results. I myself both love and loathe Robbie. He is the most successful manager Hearts have had since Jim Jefferies, stats wise, and is the only Hearts manager for a decade to finish 3rd in the top flight. Very curious.