Joel Sked focuses on Hearts, Kilmarnock and Hamilton Accies in the latest tactical look at the SPFL.
Walker a key man for Hearts
In a season disrupted by injury, the 22-year-old has become a key player for Hearts in what has been an impressive season back in the top flight.
He has played a major role in some fine performances, which have seen Hearts pick up 16 points from the last 24 available, with Walker top-scoring in the eight games with five goals.
In the wins over Kilmarnock, Inverness CT and Partick Thistle, Walker started from a wide position but he prefers to move infield where he can not only pick up the ball in dangerous central areas but also link with Sam Nicholson, who takes up wider positions, before taking on the full-back or combining for one-twos.
Since the trip to Dens Park where Hearts won 1-0 – Walker scoring the decisive goal – he has played as a No 10 or second striker. It is in this central attacking role where he is best suited – a similar move last season resulted in Walker finding the back of the net eight times in 11 outings. Against Dundee he was one of two No 10s, driving forward from a deeper position to link with Juanma or run beyond him.
He is at his very best at getting into intelligent positions between the midfield and defence and centre-back and full-back, where he can get the ball in space and penetrate the opposition. His technical proficiency off both feet, the ability to take the ball on the turn and his time spent as a winger, allowing him to take on players in tight spaces, as well as his shooting from long range makes him an incredibly dangerous and unpredictable opponent.
Killie tighter at the back under Clark
Similar to the title race, the Ladbrokes Premiership’s relegation battle took a significant turn in the last round of games with Dundee United losing and both Kilmarnock and Hamilton Academical earning three points. It left the Tangerines stranded at the bottom with the gap to Kilmarnock stretched to eight points.
The Rugby Park men will now have their sights firmly fixed on getting out of the relegation play-off position. The most recent performance and result, the 3-0 home victory over St Johnstone, was the reward for weeks of gradual progress under Lee Clark who arrived following the club’s last victory – 2-0 at Fir Park in February.
There have been two goalless draws and a range of narrow defeats. There is no question Clark has tightened up what was a porous rearguard. Clark has made sure Killie are less of a soft touch and more competitive. He has strived to add more power to the spine of the side with Miles Addison coming in at centre-back and Julien Faubert performing a dynamic role in the centre of the park.
The organisation and dynamism was evident throughout the team in the win over the Perth Saints. Everyone knew their defensive responsibility, wide men Josh Magennis and Greg Kiltie tracking back purposefully with Killie dropping into a 4-4-1-1 without the ball. Yet, with players who are able to cover ground quickly, as well as positive and combative play from the experienced Faubert and Gary Dicker, Killie were able to get forward at pace.
Magennis played a key role on the right and was a popular recipient of Faubert’s passing range, motoring past Tam Scobbie on a number of occasions, while Kallum Higginbotham was inventive in his favoured central attacking role.
The effect Clark has had on the defensive shape has been more apparent than any attacking impetus, as he searched for the right blend and balance. He has recognised that for added firepower he has to get Kris Boyd and Magennis in the same team. Boyd notched two goals against St Johnstone, while Higginbotham added the other.
Crawford the ace in Hamilton pack
Four points ahead of Kilmarnock are Hamilton Accies. They may have not hit the highs of last season but an excellent start to the season gave way to a faltering winter. The Accies won more games in August and September than they have since the first day of October. However, in their latest win, a 2-1 victory over Dundee at New Douglas Park, there were signs of a resurgent side.
Canning stuck with the three centre-backs, aided by the return of Lucas Tagliapietra, for the visit of Dundee. Changes were made further forward and had a more attacking outlook. Rather than a 3-4-3, Canning opted for two strikers with a supporting No 10. This allowed Hamilton to be more aggressive and push Dundee back with the pressure that comes from dealing with two strikers.
One aspect of Hamilton’s play from the opening matches of the season was their aggressiveness and the tempo which they played with and without the ball. They were tough opponents and it looked like New Douglas Park would be one of the toughest grounds to visit. For one reason or another that did not transpire.
Last year’s talisman Ali Crawford has found his second season more difficult at Premiership level. The 24-year-old was exceptional last season, hitting 11 goals from midfield. He epitomised the intensity which Hamilton pressed from the front, while mastering the art of late runs into the box, coupled with his impressive shooting outside the box. Three goals came in Hamilton’s opening nine games but after their 2-1 win at Rugby Park in September it was another nine games before he found the back of the net again and then another 12 games before he reached his tally of five against Dundee.
Against Paul Hartley’s men Crawford looked back to his best playing in a more attacking role and his strike after 30 minutes was an archetypal Crawford goal, running onto a loose ball in the box.
With the towering presence of Lucas back to marshal the defence and Ali Crawford released in a freer role, Canning has the players available to get the best out of squad and system.