It would be fair to say that noted laptop enthusiast Ian Cathro has had a rocky start to his managing career. Cathro has seen losses to Rangers, Dundee, and Aberdeen, as well as a draw with Partick Thistle and being taken to extra time in a Scottish Cup tie with struggling Championship Club Raith Rovers in his short tenure as Hearts manager. Even his surely enjoyable 4-0 win over laptop doubter Kris Boyd and Kilmarnock saw him lose Callum Paterson for the rest of the season to injury and perhaps beyond that.
Paterson had been having a great season before that, among the leaders for Hearts in goals and had the highest expected goals at the club, which for a defender is some feat. Paterson’s contract is up at Hearts at the end of the season. His injury could mean he will stick around at Tynecastle rather than head to pastures new, but regardless Cathro now faces the pressure of bad results piling up without one of his leading scorers to this point. Is the young manager doomed without Paterson or can others pick up the attacking slack in Callum Paterson’s absence?
Paterson’s goals and expected goals were pretty close, meaning he was not overachieving in an unsustainable fashion. Before his injury, Hearts had the best expected goals for numbers in the league for a club not named Celtic, with an xG total of 41.47 and 1.97 xG per game in the league (for comparison, the league average xG per game is 1.58). While your small sample siren should be going off in your head, in the 3 games (in the league versus Aberdeen and the two ties in the Scottish Cup versus Raith Rovers) Hearts had an expected goals of 0.68, 0.95, and 1.82 (this was in 90 minutes in the 2nd Raith fixture). Before the injury, Hearts had averaged 13.65 shots per game. In these three matches they had 7,8, and 15 shots. You shouldn’t press the panic button yet if you’re a Hearts supporter due to the aforementioned sample size, but you could say their attack has slowed down in those three matches after looking at those numbers. But is it all doom and gloom for Hearts supporters?
Before we go on, can we first have a moment of silence for Tony Watt. Scoring 1 goal while averaging 0.51 xG per game is really some feat in being unlucky. Like a shining star, Tony burned quickly, hot and bright before burning out.
Anyways, when we look at Expected Goals per 90 minutes over Goals per 90 minutes for Hearts, Callum Paterson is among the best at Hearts for both. But look, some hope! Bjorn Johnsen split time while previously mentioned burning star Tony Watt and Conor Sammon struggled finding their asses with a map. However, Johnsen is now settled in Hearts’ first XI and has knocked in 6 SPFL goals with an xG total of 6.11. Johnsen’s xG per 90 minutes and Goals per 90 minutes both better than Paterson’s, logical given that he’s an actual striker. Hearts fans can be hopeful that Johnsen can help carry the goal scoring load lost with Paterson (Oh, hi US Soccer, lets go ahead and give him a US cap the next possible chance you have).
I have referred to Callum Paterson as a defender a few times so far, but the defending part of his job might be the weak part of his game. It might be fair to compare him to some attacking midfielders Hearts have instead. Jamie Walker has scored 9 goals, though 4 of those are from the penalty spot, and has a rather respectable xG total of 4.66 and a xG per 90 of 0.27. You can’t see it, but I am nodding my head at these numbers. Furthermore, Walker had already averaged more shots per game than Paterson. There may be even more opportunity for Walker to be the focal point of Hearts’ attack with Paterson out that could see the creative attacking midfielder get more goals, shot quality, and shots improve.
If Jerry Seinfeld has taught me anything, it is that things usually even out. Paterson may be gone due to injury for the season, but Hearts have just got back Sam Nicholson from a long injury layoff. Before getting hurt, Nicholson had a very impressive goal haul at 4 goals in about 600 minutes from an xG total of 1.6 and an xG per 90 of 0.23. I have a word of warning though. Nicholson averaged 1.88 shots per game in his limited time thus far this season. It isn’t feasible to think Nicholson will be able to continue a goal pace of 0.58 goals per 90 minutes with those xG and shot numbers. However, like Walker, Nicholson will get more opportunities in the Hearts attack with Paterson out.
Johnsen, Walker, and Nicholson all missed time due to injury or not being picked. Now that each seem to have a spot in the Jambo’s first XI, there are some numbers to suggest together they can replicate the missing goals that Callum Paterson’s absence brings. However, pressure is starting to mount on Ian Cathro to get some results. Things will not get easier for the young manager, as his first match in the league after the winter break is at Celtic Park against a Celtic squad running at full tilt trying to break records that the Lisbon Lions set. They also competing for second place with Aberdeen and Rangers squads that are starting to find their form and have spotted each a 6 and 8 point head starts respectively for the race for second. Cathro will need these three performing at maximum capacity if they have any hope in reaching that second spot.