Daniel Stendel has not been shy making changes since his appointment as Hearts manager. A number of players and staff have been demoted or allowed to leave, and new personnel have arrived in their place. But the most important modifications have been tactical.

There was no immediate upturn in results, though draws with Aberdeen and Ross County evidenced a new style of play. At a time when most clubs would be pragmatic, faced with a relegation battle, Stendel has decided it’s his way or the highway and implemented his own ideas in the belief they will serve the team well. And last Sunday they finally did as Hearts earned their first league win since early November, beating Rangers 2-1 at Tynecastle.

Rangers set up to defend in their usual compact 4-3-3, with Joe Aribo and Ryan Kent flanking Jermain Defoe in a narrow frontline. They blocked off passes into central midfield, forcing Hearts to reconsider building through the centre as they have done since Stendel came in. Instead, they went out to their full-backs and looked to progress in the wider areas.

The problem for Hearts was that, when forced wide it was difficult to come back inside. Occasionally they were able to release Sean Clare and Aidy White into space down the touchline, but often these attacks broke down around the midfield area. Still, Hearts weren’t allowing Rangers’ front three to press forward, and the game turned into a frenzied encounter played at a high tempo.

In the chaos, Hearts thrived. The aggression that Stendel wants from his players – something that probably played a part in why slowing former captain Christophe Berra was dropped – was on full show here. When they lost the ball they pressed Rangers in a bid to instantly regain it. They hunted in packs, taking away their visitors’ time and space, looking to win possession back and counter through Steven Naismith, who took on the role of linkman between midfield and attack.

Glasgow Times:

Gaps did open up between the Hearts defensive lines in these transition moments, but Rangers were unable to capitalise for the most part. Either they made the wrong decision, trying to release Defoe in behind too early, or they did get through before faltering at the final hurdle. Steven Gerrard’s men got in on goal a few times, but generally were unable to finish their counter-attacks.

At centre-back, John Souttar and Craig Halkett were key to this aggressive pressing game. Whenever Hearts were looking to regain possession, they were responsible for pressuring Defoe and making it hard for Rangers to play forward on the break. With both full-backs pushing up in attack, Souttar and Halkett were on their own and had to commit to the duels. Goalkeeper Joel Pereira was active in coming off his line to sweep up any balls that got in behind them.

Berra is an excellent defender in the air, but he doesn’t do well when asked to defend a lot of space, where his lack of pace can be shown up. Bearing this in mind, Stendel’s decision to opt for Souttar and Halkett over him made a lot of sense here. He was also helped by the fact that Rangers didn’t have Alfredo Morelos available – their top scorer would have given the Hearts centre-backs a much tougher time 1v1 than the less physical Defoe.

Glasgow Times:

All in all, the Hearts pressing was high-risk, high-reward stuff. Two minutes into the second half, it didn’t work. Souttar won his duel with Defoe but the loose ball broke Rangers’ way. Kent raced away on the counter and found Borna Barisic on the overlap, who cut the ball back for the Englishman to score.

But ten minutes later, it did work. After a turnover in Rangers’ favour, Halkett pressured Glen Kamara from behind, refusing to let the Finn turn before tackling him. The ball fell to Hearts striker Liam Boyce, who cut the ball back for Naismith to equalise.

Rangers’ best moments came on the counter-attack, because they simply weren’t allowed to breathe when they tried to gain organised possession.

Hearts would press from a 4-4-1-1 shape with Naismith covering Steven Davis before supporting Boyce in pressing centre-backs Connor Goldson and Nikola Katic. When Naismith stepped up, Andy Irving or new signing Toby Sibbick would step up onto Davis. Meanwhile, young Hearts wingers Lewis Moore and Euan Henderson would cover Kamara and Ryan Jack.

At goal kicks, Allan McGregor would look up and see Boyce and Naismith covering Goldson and Katic man-to-man. Basically, when Rangers’ centre-backs tried to build out all of their short options were covered. They were forced long, and back into the chaotic game of mutual non-control Hearts evidently preferred.

If Stendel’s tactics were bold, his substitutions were even bolder. He decided against having a single defender on his bench and, at 1-1, chased the win rather than sitting back on the point. He brought on Conor Washington and Uche Ikpeazu, dropping Naismith into midfield. By the time Boyce had scored a deserved debut goal to seal the win, Hearts had four strikers on the pitch.

It’s this kind of bravery – in personnel decisions, tactics and in-game changes – that will give Hearts fans hope. They may still be bottom of the Premiership, but finally they are looking upwards again. For that, Stendel can take the credit.