Aberdeen had the ability to self-destruct prior to Jim Goodwin's dismissal. In fact, they were far too easy to play against towards the end of his tenure, you only have to look at the final two league matches, 11 goals shipped without response. During his 23 Premiership games in charge this campaign, the Dons conceded, on average,1.86 goals per game. In Barry Robson’s six games it is down to 1.5 per game which includes a 4-0 lose at Celtic. Aberdeen still need further improvement in a defensive sense but it is one of a number of areas where they have progressed under interim charge. The reason has been largely two-fold. Firstly, key additions in Angus MacDonald and Mattie Pollock. They have added physicality and a no nonsense approach. Defend first, anything else second. Both made key contributions in the win over Hearts. MacDonald put important pressure on Robert Snodgrass in what could have been a big moment in the match, while Pollock was superb defensively but put in an incredible cross for Duk to head past Zander Clark and then netted the third. Secondly, the way the team play, putting pressure on the opposition means those opponents need to be more intricate, play and think quicker in possession.
Graeme Shinnie is loving his football again. He is looking like that driving force, Aberdeen talisman again. That was on show on Saturday where he dominated, running over, around and through the Hearts midfield. He is a tempo setter in the middle of the park. Not perhaps with the way he passes the ball but in the manner in which he hunts the opposition, closes down and drives forward in possession. He was at his very best at doing just that and in turn the supporters fed off his energy, work rate and willingness. He rallies the support, he rallies his team-mates. The Aberdeen red and captain’s armband just look natural to him.
You could pick apart just about any of the starting XI for Hearts but there are issues which are becoming abundantly clear. Robert Snodgrass’ influence in the middle of the park is diluted when he plays as part of a midfield pairing rather than having legs around him. Barrie McKay may have hit back at critics recently but his impact in an attacking sense has waned significantly. Alex Cochrane had perhaps one of his worst performances in a Hearts shirt in a season where he has been perhaps the club’s most consistent. He was replaced by Stephen Kingsley, who hasn’t reached the levels recently expected of him by supporters during a stop-start campaign. While it perhaps said a lot that Cammy Devlin was an unused substitute in a game where Hearts needed more intensity and energy.
Those who stayed at Pittodrie amongst the travelling support for the full-time whistle did so with the purpose of making their feelings known. Understandably so. Robbie Neilson went to clap the fans and was told in no uncertain terms what they thought as some gestured in the direction of the tunnel while others had their arms outstretched as if to ask ‘what was that performance all about?’. It was the same reaction for the players with James Hill appearing to bite back at some of the criticism. The same players can’t say they weren’t backed during the game. They were, even after going 3-0 down. However, there is an increasing divide amongst the Gorgie faithful regarding the future of Neilson. It is routine after a defeat for Hearts fans to debate the merits of their manager. That divide will swing one way or another depending on how the team does across these next nine matches and who finishes third.