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Daniel Stendel at Hearts 2019/20 - tactical analysis tactics

Daniel Stendel at Hearts 2019/20 – tactical analysis

After Craig Levein was sacked by Hearts after a poor start mid-way through the 2019/20 Scottish Premiership. Hearts chairwoman Ann Budge was actively looking for the right replacement to take Hearts out of the relegation fight they found themselves in. She appointed an unlikely candidate in the form of German, Daniel Stendel, a manager who has previously managed in the Bundesliga with Hannover and more recently managed Barnsley where he impressively got them promoted to the Championship in his first season. The German is famed for his aggressive pressing, high energy football philosophy (a stark contrast to how Levein setup his team) this sent out a huge statement that Budge wanted a new approach to help galvanise her Hearts team.

The German came to Tynecastle via the Oakwell and had a very slow start to his tenure at the Jambos losing his first four games but he was still trying to embed his style of play and philosophy into his players. Unfortunately after the winter break even with slight signs of a turnaround by beating Steven Gerrard’s Rangers in the second league game back from the break, his side struggled once more.

Hearts struggled to pick up crucial results with the German only managing 12/42 points available leaving them rooted to the bottom of the table as the league was ceased and then subsequently decided on points leaving them four points adrift from safety. This resulted in Stendel being replaced by former Hearts player and Dundee United boss Robbie Neilson for the upcoming 2020/21 season.

This tactical analysis of Daniel Stendel at Hearts will give an in-depth analysis of the tactics he used for his time in charge, showing the positive elements and the areas that he ultimately failed to get right, leading to poor results and him being replaced.

Formations and team shape

When Stendel was appointed in mid-December he was thrown straight into the hot seat as he had only a couple of days before his first game in charge, so while still finding his feet he stuck to Levein’s 4-4-2 formation early on. Once he felt comfortable he looked to overhaul his team’s shape and formation, embedding his philosophy and style of play on the team which resulted in him changing to 4-2-3-1.

Stendel is very flexible with his formations but has used the 4-2-3-1 formation the most (using this formation 43% of the time), which provided a good balance to play a more attractive high energy style. With this change in formation, he also made big changes to his personnel as he froze out key figures like Christophe Berra and Glen Whelan who did not fit in with his high energy style he wanted to implement.

Daniel Stendel at Hearts 2019/20 - tactical analysis tactics

Instead, he brought in younger players like John Souttar, Andy Irving, and Euan Henderson to inject some energy, flair, and creativity into his side coupled with some new additions and experience in Liam Boyce and Steven Naismith as we can see from the side he started the most in this formation above.

However, as results were not going Hearts’ way, Stendel in his last few games became a slight bit more conservative with his team shape although he still kept the same demands on his team to keep up his philosophy. Stendel employed a 4-4-1-1 and made some alterations to his side that was struggling defensively as they were conceding 1.9 goals per game. His first decisive move was to drop his sweeper-keeper, Joel Pereira, for a more traditional shot-stopper in Zdenek Zlamal in a bid to stop his side leaking goals.

Daniel Stendel at Hearts 2019/20 - tactical analysis tactics

The German also decided to put more physicality in the middle as he brought in Oliver Božanic and Loic Damour as enforcers trying to strengthen the core of his team as we see above. We can see a clear change in personnel and formations, as shown above, this was in direct response to the build-up of pressure from negative results and a leaky defence which we will be addressed in this analysis.

Pressing system

Stendel’s philosophy is based on his teams being aggressive, playing on the front foot and attacking the opposition setting up to try and win the game, instead of looking to contain the opposition and setting up his side not to be beaten, being passive is not in his beliefs of playing the game. One of the main principles and fundamentals of Stendel’s aggressive style is his team’s high pressing and his Hearts team was no different. The German wants his team to defend from the front by pressing the opposition high to either force them back or force mistakes in advanced areas of the pitch in which to capitalise on.

With Stendel employing such a high press it puts opposition teams under severe pressure forcing them back or almost overwhelming them into a mistake. This is illustrated below as Motherwell are looking to build out from the back as the ball is played into the pivot, this acts as the trigger to the press, causing Lewis Moore to come in off his wing and apply the press from behind, the opposition midfielders blindside, while Naismith springs out to apply the pressure from the middle.

Daniel Stendel at Hearts 2019/20 - tactical analysis tactics

These actions are also supported by the Hearts midfield and forward line as Conor Washington cuts off the passing option backward. This forces the Motherwell midfielder to try and access his left-back but Stephen Clare does well to press and collapse this space which forces the left-back to take a bad touch which goes out for a Hearts throw-in. As a result of this aggressive press, Hearts have stopped Motherwell’s build-up, forced them back, and also has set them up with an attacking platform in which to create an opportunity in the opposition half.

Another key element of Hearts’ pressing system under Stendel that ensures they win the back high up the pitch but also make a favourable counter-pressing environment to win the ball back is Stendel employing a narrow shape.
The German instructs his players to get around the ball area as his ball far full-backs and wingers tuck in to ensure his side is both vertically and horizontally compact, thus effectively giving his side a greater chance of winning back the ball quickly or the ability to pick up any loose balls.

We can see Hearts’ providing an effective counter-press against Rangers below, Hearts have committed nearly all of their outfield players around the area of the ball, note how the Hearts winger and full-back on the opposite wing have tucked in to provide a compact shape horizontally.

Daniel Stendel at Hearts 2019/20 - tactical analysis tactics

Naismith has the ball but as soon as he is challenged by a Rangers defender, all the Hearts’ players in this area collapse in on the space around where the ball lands overwhelming the Rangers defender as he coughs up possession and Hearts are able to create a half-chance from his effective counter-press.

Attacking shape creating opportunities

Stendel tries to embed in his team to value the ball, this is reflective in him wanting his team to press and win the ball back as aforementioned. Once they win the ball back he wants his team to value the ball by being aggressive, attacking the opposition, trying to penetrate the opposition’s defence to create as many attacking opportunities. His Hearts’ side achieved this by creating forward passing options by creating diamond shapes.

The German looks to penetrate the opposition defence by creating these diamond shapes primarily in the half-spaces, which looks to create overloads and quick passing combinations in these areas in an attempt to open up space.

We see this attacking shape set up in the move below, as Hearts are in possession of the ball and are looking to attack down the right half-space. They have created a structural connection from their positions as they make an attacking diamond shape creating multiple angles and passing options for Clare at the base of the diamond.

Daniel Stendel at Hearts 2019/20 - tactical analysis tactics

Clare moves the ball out to the more open passing option in Irving, by setting up in this shape Hearts were looking to create an overload in the half-space but Hamilton are alive to it and has moved numbers across to create numerical equality. Because of this when Irving receives the ball he looks to have only one passing option if he wants to move the ball forward, which is into the player at the tip of the diamond inside which would lead to him being surrounded by Hamilton players.

The Hearts player at the tip of the diamond if he receives the pass could lay the ball back to Jamie Walker at the opposite of the diamond on the run but Hamilton’s left-back could shift across into the space with Walker’s marker closing the space on the other side. Hearts do not have to try this particular passing combination and are able to find a variation in this current situation to open up space and find a free man to penetrate the defensive line in behind, as shown below.

Daniel Stendel at Hearts 2019/20 - tactical analysis tactics

The Hearts player at the tip of the diamond (highlighted with the blue ring) plays a key role in this move as he drops off Hamilton’s defensive line almost exaggerating the movement which causes his marker to follow this run out pulling him out of position, creating space in behind. Walker recognises this space and makes a third man run and Irving has the vision to play the through ball in behind into the space, unfortunately, Walker does not finish this brilliant engineered attacking move off, flashing his shot just wide.

With teams figuring out and countering Stendel’s sides ability to create overloads attacking the half-space by committing players to create numerical equality as aforementioned with also the fact that the Germans side sets up in a compact narrow shape around the ball, this draws more opposition players toward the ball and gives Hearts the opportunity to look switch the ball out and position a player on the ball far side in space.

Stendel used this tactic effectively against Rangers, as Hearts are trying to attack down this near side through quick combinations which draw Rangers over to the ball to match Hearts numerically, Stendel’s side has drawn Rangers in and as Gerrard’s side commits more bodies to this area, Hearts, in turn, have positioned a player out wide on the far wing in order to exploit the defensive unit inbalance.

Daniel Stendel at Hearts 2019/20 - tactical analysis tactics

The ball then makes its way to Boyce who is able to lift his head up and switch the point of attack out to the freeman on the ball far wing in space. Rangers do well to recover and shift back across but Hearts again add another clever attacking variation on the play as we can see below.

Daniel Stendel at Hearts 2019/20 - tactical analysis tactics

The Hearts winger identifies that the Rangers defensive unit in desperately trying to recover across almost overcompensating for switching off shift across too much have the left the once overloaded area on the near side free. Boyce has held his position after starting the move from this near side also note the Hearts forward circled in red does a great job of pinning the Ranger left-back ensuring Boyce is free. the Hearts winger on the far side is able to switch the ball against the grain of the Rangers defence to Boyce in space who is able to compose himself and tuck home the winning goal.

Defensive issues

The downside to Stendel’s aggressive tactics is that it will often lead to oppositions teams being able to create favourable opportunities because the Germans high pressing philosophy is a high-risk high reward and by instructing his players press high from the front, to make this effective and close spacing in between the lines each line of pressure must move higher in accordance to collapse the space and as a result creates a high defensive line.

This high defensive line creates space in behind for the opposition to potentially exploit. If the opposition is able to play a good ball over the top and has a willing runner in behind exploiting the huge space afforded to them by Hearts they can easily bear down on goal creating a very favourable 1v1 with the keeper.

We can see the extent of the risk of playing such a high line against Celtic below, where Celtic just inside their own half and looking to set up an attack, Hearts reaction to the high press have pushed their defensive line higher. This has created huge space for Celtic to exploit in behind and Hearts are not able to drop and close this space in time before a Celtic player can play the ball over the top.

Daniel Stendel at Hearts 2019/20 - tactical analysis tactics

However fortunately for Hearts on this occasion the player being played in behind takes a poor first touch and so Hearts are just able to recover. This was just the warning sign where Celtic ran out 5-0 as they were easily able to play the ball through exploiting Hearts’ high defensive line.

Another area that adds to exposing the space in behind leading to defensive issues is Stendel’s narrow shape has mentioned in the previous points above. This tactic aids them in the way the German wants his team to press and counter-press to win the ball back but this narrow shape is a  very risky tactic and can be a hindrance.

If the opposition team are able to play out and around Hearts’ narrow compact shape, the opposition can then attack the huge space being afforded out on the ball far wing and in behind, which we can see below, as Rangers are able to play out the compact area by keeping possession and playing the ball out backwards to a teammate behind.

Daniel Stendel at Hearts 2019/20 - tactical analysis tactics

The Rangers midfielder anticipates this move and breaks out to the huge space to receive the ball off his centre-back and is able to turn to pick his head up and play a through ball for Ryan Kent in behind to exploit. With three passes Rangers are able to play around the press and play a ball through to create a big goal-scoring chance.

Even when Stendel went a slight bit more conservative with his team shape and personnel as mentioned in the first point, the opposition were still able to invite Hearts onto them and hit them on the transition, as we can see below. Motherwell have won the ball back and have launched a counter-attack with huge space to exploit, Michael Smith tries to fill in the huge space but this has left him in a 3v1 situation with space either side of him.

Daniel Stendel at Hearts 2019/20 - tactical analysis tactics

The Motherwell player decides to play the ball out to the player out on the right side of Smith and so Motherwell are in on goal. These glaring defensive issues in Hearts’ system made it easy for even conservative teams around the bottom like Hamilton to get results by hitting Hearts on the counter-attack grabbing crucial goals to keep them ahead of Stendel’s team.


Daniel Stendel has a very clear philosophy that looks to attack teams in an aggressive manner which can be very effective in overwhelming opposition teams while also being more attractive and interesting than the passive conservative style that is usually played by teams fighting at the bottom of the league table.

There were certainly some green shoots to Stendel’s tenure with Hearts putting in fantastic displays against Rangers and city rivals Hibernian. However those results were not achieved often enough and Stendel ultimately struggled as his side leaked goals, as shown in this analysis, and came up short in vitally important games with teams around them.

The German had a mammoth task as he tried to overhaul his Hearts team tactics and playing style, trying to embed his philosophy which takes time while also at the same needing instant success by picking up results. Stendel is a manager who needs time to embed his philosophy and build a squad that fits his style and meets his demands, at Hearts he did not have time, they needed a manager to bring stability and short term success to survive and ultimately Stendel did not achieve this.