Rewind 12 months, and all looked fine in Edinburgh.

Hearts had been stabilised by the return of Craig Levein and were embarking on an incredible unbeaten run, while Hibs were fresh off a season that saw them threaten Aberdeen and Rangers before finishing fourth with their best top-flight points tally in the 38-team era. However, the capital city’s footballing fortunes have declined drastically since.

Ahead of their meeting this Sunday, both Hearts and Hibs are struggling desperately. Hearts prop up the Premiership table with just two points from a possible 15, while Hibs are only two points better off and haven’t won since the opening weekend. The circumstances only make the upcoming clash all the more important – victory could be a season-changing boost; defeat would see pressure on the losing manager intensify to almost unbearable levels.

The truth is that neither team looks tactically well-prepared for the first Edinburgh derby of the campaign. Craig Levein’s side are hampered by a dysfunctional attack, while Paul Heckingbottom’s men have consistently been undone by an equally dysfunctional defence.


One of the main issues with Hearts this year has been their build-up play. I reference ‘this year’ and not ‘this season’ because the problem has existed since last term’s unbeaten run came to a halt. Without a regularly fit Steven Naismith, Hearts just don’t have the same capability to play through midfield. Forwards aren’t dropping and showing for the ball like they did this time in 2018, and that’s giving the centre-backs fewer options when playing out.

Levein addressed this after the 0-0 draw at home to Ross County, suggesting his players were struggling for confidence. “When players get nervous sometimes they do tend to think 'I don't want to make a mistake so I'll play safe,'” he said. “But playing safe is not the answer to playing good football.”

Naismith’s absence, alongside the injury to Jamie Walker, leaves Hearts without their most creative attacking players. This has led to a lot more long balls, a lack of combination play and a worrying shortage of shots – only Hamilton and St Johnstone have averaged fewer than Hearts’ 9.3 attempts per 90 minutes. However, it isn’t all about injuries and confidence.

Christophe Berra is a highly experienced and influential player, and remains a solid defender, but his limitations building out have been plain for all to see. He doesn’t have the mobility to drive forward with the ball at feet, and his passing isn’t progressive or accurate beyond short distances. Hibs may put pressure on him to force mistakes this weekend, as Celtic did below, or they may sit off and cover his passing options, confident that he won’t do much with the ball at feet even when completely free.

HeraldScotland: There’s not a lot Levein can do about his captain’s limitations, but the absences of link players Naismith and Walker to connect attacks could be covered to an extent by the starting of Steven MacLean. The 37-year-old holds the ball in well and always seems to find a teammate even when receiving with his back to goal and a marker right behind him.


Hibs are a more entertaining attacking watch than Hearts, but a lot of that has to do with individuals who can make a difference as opposed to any working structure. Heckingbottom has actually struggled to establish what his best team looks like – despite possessing fast, tricky wingers he set Hibs up in a winger-less 4-3-2-1 system in the recent defeat to Kilmarnock. Put simply: there’s no obvious attacking identity present at Easter Road.

Heckingbottom wants his side to play expansive, flowing football, but this is stunted by the number of players Hibs have in front of opposition defensive blocks. When trying to play through teams, there’s a need for options moving between the lines and in the channels between defenders, but this isn’t happening enough at Hibs.

Below is one example of this issue. Kilmarnock did their usual thing and defended passively inside their own half for the most part. There was no pressure on the Hibs centre-backs, so they didn’t need extra players coming short. In this instance, though, there are five Hibs players in front of the ball: the two centre-backs, as well as Melker Hallberg, Lewis Stevenson, and Josh Vela.

HeraldScotland: This was a recurring theme, with poor positioning from the midfielders reducing the number of forward passes open to the centre-backs. Instead, it was left to Stevie Mallan to open the game up with a switch of play to the other flank, or for Scott Allan to penetrate with a dribble or an incisive pass. These are players who can produce magic, but they could do with some support from those around them.


The most interesting aspect of Hearts’ all-round play under Levein has been their pressing strategies. They have frequently foiled their opposition by setting up to press effectively in a variety of different ways. Against Celtic they defended in a 4-3-3 with a very narrow front three to force the champions wide, while against Aberdeen they set up in a 5-4-1 with a compact midfield four with Walker and Jake Mulraney ready to step up and close down the Dons’ defenders when possible.

HeraldScotland: Their variety of approaches makes it difficult for opponents to build out from the back. Indeed, only Rangers have allowed their opposition to play more passes uninterrupted by a defensive action per 90 minutes, on average, than Hearts’ 7.6. And this pressing leads to turnovers and countering opportunities, as Motherwell found out in League Cup action when Hearts constantly stole the ball in midfield before attacking the spaces in transition.

There’s no doubt that Hearts are better when they press and counter. If their press isn’t successful for whatever reason, their back line can appear uncertain and disorganised. But if the press works, Hearts can look to break away. Conor Washington is good at leading the line in these instances with his pace and movement making him a good outlet for balls over the top. Unfortunately for Hearts he is – surprise, surprise – out through injury.


No team has conceded more than Hibs’ 13 goals so far this Premiership season. Only St Johnstone have conceded as many. Looking at the underlying numbers, Hibs’ expected goals against of 10.3 is by some distance the worst in the league. They’ve also conceded far more shots than any other team – the nearest to their 98 shots against is Hamilton with 83. The stats underline Hibs’ defensive frailties, which have been exposed in numerous ways by different teams.

Motherwell targeted left-back Stevenson, hitting long diagonals out to James Scott to win the first ball or bring down, exploiting the height differential between the two players. Hearts may look to do the same with Uche Ikpeazu this Sunday. The burly frontman loves to hit the channels and could get success up against the left side of Hibs’ back four, featuring Stevenson and Paul Hanlon.

After the Motherwell defeat, Heckingbottom said that his players were “weak 1v1 in key moments”. This wasn’t an isolated incident, however – Hibs have won just 52.2% of their defensive duels this term, the worst record in the league.

In other games Hibs have been opened up in transition. Kilmarnock targeted the space left by Hibs’ advancing full-backs, while St Johnstone also found space to hit on the break when Hibs lost possession.

HeraldScotland: Hearts are weak at defending counter-attacks, but Hibs are arguably even worse. While Hearts concede 0.6 more counters per 90, only 32% of them lead to a shot compared to 59.1% of opposition counters leading to a shot versus Hibs. One possible reason is the lack of pressure on the ball when Hibs turn it over to the opposition.

Hearts have been struggling to fire going forward and aren’t helped by injuries to several key forwards going in this weekend. Fortunately for them, they are up against the worst defence in Scotland’s top flight right now. If Hibs don’t shore things up, they could suffer a damaging derby defeat.