Shankland is so much more than a goal scorer
The headlines surrounding Lawrence Shankland will look towards the 16 goals he has plundered so far in the maroon and white since his summer move from Belgian football. He now has more than half a season to get the four goals which will see him become the first to hit the 20 mark for Hearts since John Robertson in the 1991/92 season. The striker spoke recently of being reminded about that fact every time he hits the net. If you look beyond those goals – one of which earned a win in Europe and eight more which have helped the team pick up 12 Premiership points – you will see one of the most intelligent strikers in Scotland. Now the captain in the absence of Craig Gordon, it's his movement which allows the team to rotate and move. St Johnstone defenders didn't know whether to stay or go with him, while his presence in deeper areas caused all sorts of issues with the Saints midfield. When he gets into such positions he is an excellent link man, a focal point who will take the ball under pressure and create space for him and team-mates. He is getting the best out of Josh Ginnelly who is stretching opposition with his pace through the middle. Shankland possesses excellent awareness and technical skills. Not only was he the most fouled player in the game but he also created the most chances. An excellent individual performance.
The Hearts support
Prior to the match, Robbie Neilson told the BBC that the club’s supporters have played a “massive part” in helping the team in Europe and domestically. They didn’t fail to live up to the billing in Perth. Not only are the fans continuing to turn up in big numbers – 3,500 at McDiarmid Park – but they are providing a vocal backing, created by the Gorgie Ultras. The new supporters group were in situ well before kick-off creating a good atmosphere prior to a ball being kicked. That continued throughout the match, growing louder and louder and helping the team get over the line. The Ultras have been engaging positively with the club as well as the community, collecting toys for children at Christmas before the recent home clash with Kilmarnock. Their influence has been seen in Europe, is growing at Tynecastle and on the travels in Perth and Dingwall it has shown how beneficial an organised and sensible singing section can bring. Unfortunately the group’s drum was taken off them before entering Tannadice on Christmas Eve. Hopefully those disruptive and pointless decisions by policing will be a rare occurrence because such groups improve the atmosphere at games significantly.
Clark and the defence
Zander Clark, back at his old stomping ground, will be pleased with his night’s work on his first start for Hearts. The big moment arrived towards the end of the first half when he produced a fine save down to his right to thwart Stevie May. The former St Johnstone goalkeeper is a more than capable replacement for Craig Gordon and his final 18 months at the Perth Saints were perhaps his best and most consistent. He has shown himself to be more than capable in big games and big moments, doing so on the way to the Saints’ double in 2020/21 and then doing his very best to keep the club in the top flight last season. He will hope to have better protection in front of him going forward, however. If there is one concern for Hearts beyond the injury situation is the defensive record. They have conceded 30 goals in 18 matches. More than 10th place Motherwell. There have only been two clean sheets all season.
Callum Davidson may regret his starting XI choice looking back on the defeat at home to Hearts. He lamented a poor start but the strength in depth at St Johnstone could be seen by strong performances off of the bench for Jamie Murphy and Alex Mitchell. The home side couldn’t get to grips with the midfield battle early on with Melker Hallberg, Graham Carey and Ali Crawford all largely anonymous for large spells of their time on the pitch. Davdison has had a dilemma trying to get Mitchell, Ryan McGowan, Liam Gordon and Andy Considine into a three-man defence. It won't be such a hard decision going forward with McGowan surely ensured of a starting berth in midfield, adding bite to that central area with Daniel Phillips, excellent in the recent win over Ross County, a possibility for the Dundee United game on January 2. Such a robust duo will give the team a much more formidable base.