Hearts: Robbie Neilson's league leaders show early promise

By Richard WilsonBBC Scotland
Hearts top the Premiership with five wins from five games
Promoted Hearts top the Premiership with five wins from five games

The questions to Robbie Neilson have become persistent. Can Hearts mount a title challenge? How does this Hearts team compare to the George Burley side that came close to doing just that 10 years ago?

With each query, the head coach simply shakes his head and dismisses them.

It is too early to judge where Hearts might finish this term, but some observations are still valid.

The team is winning games without necessarily being eye-catching. The performances are strong, assertive and based upon attacking intent, but the arrival of new players in the summer means that relationships on the field are still building.

Most tellingly for Hearts, the team still has the winning habit and mentality that built up during last season's emphatic Championship campaign. The players still believe that every game can be won and that any setback can be overcome. That alone is an influential dynamic.

The fixture list has also been accommodating, since the opening five games has only brought two encounters with sides that finished in the top six last season: St Johnstone and Dundee. The next league assignment is against Hamilton, but there is then a testing run, with a trip to Inverness, the visit of Aberdeen to Tynecastle and then an away fixture with Celtic.

It is at the end of that run of games that a more accurate assessment of how Hearts will fare this season can be made.

The comparison with the side of 10 years ago is tempting, because of the neatness of the timescale and because of the bold way that the current team has started this campaign.

Burley's side won their opening eight league games and it wasn't until a 2-0 derby loss at Easter Road in their 13th fixture that they dropped all three points in a match.

Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson
Head coach Neilson played in the 2005-06 team at full-back

Chaos off the field became a factor, with Burley leaving abruptly and Graham Rix then Valdas Ivanauskas guiding the team during the remainder of the season. They finished second, 17 points behind Celtic, but the following years only brought further turmoil off the field under owner Vladimir Romanov.

These are different times at Hearts, although there are some similarities in the qualities of the two sides.

The team that Burley constructed was also strong and capable of a relentless approach. There was a central core of experience, with the centre-backs, Steven Pressley and Andy Webster, behind Paul Hartley and Julien Brellier in midfield. Neilson was the right-back, while Takis Fyssas played on the left of the defence.

Saulius Mikoliunas, Rudi Skacel, Edgaras Jankauskas and Roman Bednar provided much of the attacking thrust and the team was often able to overwhelm opponents early in games. Neilson's side is more of a work in progress, although the foundations from last season remain significant.

The central midfield pairing of Morgaro Gomis and Prince Buaben works so well because the two players' qualities dovetail and they know each other's games. They are more effective as a partnership than as individuals.

Callum Patterson and Juwon Oshaniwa provide athleticism from the full-back positions and there are options in the attacking third.

Juanma is a powerful figure at centre-forward, Osman Sow and Gavin Reilly can play in a variety of positions, while Jimmy Walker, Sam Nicholson and Billy King provide youthful spirit and enterprise.

Neilson insists that this campaign is about re-establishing Hearts in the Premiership, although that will mean in the top half - Hearts want to recover their former status as swiftly as possible after a year in the second tier - but the example of Aberdeen shows that a side can be built on a realistic budget and be strong enough to be capable of dominating all the other teams in the top-flight outside Celtic.

Juanma has scored four goals for Hearts this season
Summer signing Juanma has scored four goals for Hearts this season

The meetings this season between Aberdeen and Hearts will be intriguing, albeit a case can be made for Derek McInnes having assembled a squad with greater experience and strength in depth.

Aberdeen are where Hearts want to be, but with five wins out of five and two more games that are, on the face of it, winnable before they face Aberdeen and Celtic, Neilson's side can continue to build momentum.

Celtic are widely expected to retain the title, but the season may take on an interesting dynamic if they qualify for the Champions League group stages and have to balance the demands of that competition with their domestic assignments.

Aberdeen will also be keen to prove that they can challenge Celtic in individual games - they lost all four to Ronny Deila's side last season - as well as over the course of much of the season by impressing against the rest of the teams in the division.

Hearts have made an impressive start to the campaign and there is much promise in the work being carried out by Neilson and the squad that he and Craig Levein, the director of football, are building. There is still work to be done if further progress is to be made.

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