On March 13th, the Scottish Premiership was suspended due to COVID-19. On May 18th, the season was ended, with points on average being used to determine league standings. For all but two teams, this meant that their seasons would be cut eight games short. Celtic clinched a spot in the Champions League, while Rangers and Motherwell would represent Scotland in the Europa League. And for Heart of Midlothian, it meant relegation. For just the second time in 37 years, Hearts would have to spend a season outside the Premiership.
Coming into the season, Hearts was given the fifth-best odds of winning the Premiership by oddsmakers. At the moment of me writing this, Transfermarkt.com gives Hearts’ squad a market value just shy of 12 million Euros, good enough for third in the league. And the fan support was there too. They averaged 16,750 spectators per home match, good enough for third in the league. To put it bluntly, Hearts wasn’t going to be a title contender, but at the very least looked like a capable team that might be able to put up a fight for Europa League.
Despite the potential for Hearts, the end result of their campaign was downright atrocious. Four wins, eleven draws, and fifteen defeats. 31 goals for, 52 goals against. They weren’t last in goals scored or goals allowed. As for losses, four other teams shared the distinction of being 15-loss clubs. They just were never able to turn their other games into wins.
In hindsight it’s easy to see why this team could have gone sideways. For starters, they were a terrible team out of the gate. Out of their 30 games, they trailed at halftime in 14 of them. There were more games where they trailed by multiple goals at the break (6) than when they held a lead (3).
That has to do with their offense. Out of their 31 goals scored, only seven came in the first half. They only seemed to come alive at the end of games. 13 goals, a whopping 42% of their season total, came after the 75th minute. In researching this, I found that Hearts’ play in games past the 75th minute had actually netted the club six points more than if no goals had been scored at all.
I also was able to break down their results by formation. The bulk of their games had Hearts playing either a 4–2–3–1 or a 4–4–2 formation, combining for 19 games according to Transfermarkt. There wasn’t much difference in results between the two, with a 4–2–3–1 being slightly more effective. I checked to see if the number of forwards in a formation changed the points per game yielded, but didn’t find too much difference.
However, I was curious as to why the club used so many four-back formations. Out of their 30 league games, only four didn’t feature a four-back set. Their two games with five defensemen were both losses, while their two three-back games resulted in a win and a draw. They had used three-back formations more frequently in the 2018–19 season, and it worked well for them. They managed to net 20 points in 10 games under these formations, while earning 30 points in their other 23 games. But this season after a midseason draw against St. Mirren, the three-back formation wasn’t to be seen again. In fact, their final 15 league games were all recorded as some four-back variation, with the team only racking up 12 points in that stretch.
I also looked at the quality of opponent to see how they fared against top and bottom-half teams respectively. And while I did find that they averaged more points against bottom teams than top teams, one statistic really stood out. Out of the 13 league games in which Hearts failed to score, seven of those games came against bottom teams. Two of those games were 1–0 losses, while three of them were scoreless draws. One of those draws was against St. Mirren, the team with the weakest offense. The other two came against newly-promoted Ross County, who oddly had the league’s worst defense, allowing 60 goals through 30 games. And while I can’t honestly say that Hearts was relegated because of these games, it is a testament to how disappointing this season has been for the club.
And yet, Heart of Midlothian still has one final shot to save the season. They can’t stop themselves from being relegated, but they are still active in the Scottish Cup. They last played a Cup game in February, when a 1–0 win over Rangers pushed them into a semifinal match with cross-city rivals Hibernian. And while the Cup will not carry a Europa qualifying spot for next season, it still gives the club an opportunity to take home a piece of hardware they haven’t captured since 2012.
There is no doubt that Heart of Midlothian is going to be the odds-on favorite for promotion next season, and I fully expect them to do so. Their last foray into the Championship was a masterpiece, beating Hibernian by a 21-point margin for the league title. But the question isn’t if they’ll make it back to the Premiership, it’s a matter of what they’ll do when they get back. They have the potential to be something special, to challenge the Old Firm. They fit the profile and they have the fan support. The only question is whether or not they will continue to squander the opportunity they have been given.