FOLLOWING the decision to end the 2019/20 Premiership campaign, it now seems a near certainty that Hearts will be plying their trade in the second tier next season. League reconstruction could yet serve as a get out of jail free card for the Gorgie club but, as it stands, they are going down.

But while supporters will undoubtedly feel aggrieved about the circumstances of the club’s relegation, it should come as no surprise. It is an outcome that has been coming ¬- even if the remaining league fixtures were fulfilled.

Clearly, demoting any side who still have the opportunity to escape relegation is problematic and is something that no-one wants to implement. It is understandable why clubs have voted to do so now, given the unprecedented circumstances, even if it doesn’t sit especially well with some. At the end of the day, nothing was conclusively settled and there was a chance – albeit a slim one – that Hearts could have survived.

However, the truth of the matter is that barring a minor miracle, Daniel Stendel’s side were going down. The capital club have been dreadful all season; four league wins from a possible 30 tells its own story. There is a reason why they are bottom, cut four points adrift of Hamilton. Aside from a couple of impressive performances in crunch fixtures – such as against Rangers in the Scottish Cup or in Edinburgh Derbies – the Tynecastle outfit have never really got going.

The decision to appoint Stendel as Craig Levein’s successor was an interesting and bold one. The two managers could hardly be more different in their approach to the game, and asking players embroiled in a relegation tussle to get to grips with an entirely new tactical system is a big ask. Levein’s dour, defensive brand of football is at complete odds to Stendel’s preference to play an aggressive, high-tempo game that relies heavily on pressing the opposition.

To be fair to the former Barnsley manager, Hearts have at times shined this season within Stendel’s system. The league win over Rangers was followed up with another victory over the Ibrox side in the Scottish Cup, while the 3-1 win over Hibs at Easter Road in March was an excellent example of Stendel-ball at its finest.

The problem, though, is that Stendel’s system only really reaped rewards when going up against teams that look to seize the initiative and play the game on their terms. The German’s tactical philosophy centres around reacting quickly whilst in transition from defence to attack and striking their opponents before they have the chance to organise. By capitalising on opposition players being out of position, Hearts can then exploit the inevitable gaps that appear and exploit space in the final third.

In theory it is a sound approach. But in practice, it has proved costly. Setting up in such an aggressive manner against the likes of Celtic, Rangers or Hibs – teams who will look to dominate the ball and commit players forward when attacking – is a high-risk, high-reward scenario. It is a brave approach that deserves to be commended and, as we have seen, it can lead to excellent results and unlikely victories.

The trouble, though, comes against the rest of the Premiership. And to be specific, clubs in the bottom half of the table where the football tends to be more cautious and pragmatic than what is on offer further up the standings. The likes of Hibs and Rangers have played into Stendel’s hands at times this season, playing the game on his terms and losing matches because of it. But whenever Hearts have come up against teams in the bottom half of the league, they have struggled to find a way through a deep and compact defence.

This inability to unpick a tight defence, coupled with the haphazardly high line that Stendel has persevered with, is ultimately what has cost Hearts this season. His side were blunt at one end and accommodating at the other, which leads to one inevitable outcome: relegation.

A look at Hearts’ points-per-game (PPG) under Stendel this season demonstrates just how varied the performances have been. Against top-six teams (assuming that St Johnstone are in the top half at the expense of Hibs), the Tynecastle club were averaging 1.0 PPG, losing only two out of seven games since Stendel was appointed. But against sides in the bottom half, Hearts’ PPG dropped to 0.71: a truly woeful return, with a 3-1 win at Easter Road the only victory.

Hearts may well have had eight games left to play in order to secure their Premiership status, but there is absolutely nothing to suggest that such a dramatic turnaround was on the cards. Seven of those eight fixtures would come against sides in the bottom half, and the capital club have recorded just a single league win against these opponents all season when they thrashed St Mirren 5-2 at Tynecastle under Austin MacPhee. In the most recent meeting between the two sides – the last fixture to have been played before lockdown – Jim Goodwin’s side came out on top in a 1-0 win in Paisley that perfectly demonstrated the inherent flaws in Stendel’s side. They were up against a robust, well-organised Saints side who put in an admirable shift. The visitors couldn’t find a way through the stubborn home resistance, mustering just one shot on target all night, before Jon Obika bustled his way through the Hearts defence to latch onto a searching ball forward and tuck it beyond Zdenek Zlamal.

It was a result that characterised the paradoxical nature of Stendel’s side, who often caught the eye in bigger games yet became unstuck against teams with a fraction of the Gorgie club’s budget. That Hearts will be relegated without completing their remaining fixtures is now seemingly inevitable and understandably, supporters will be angry about the nature of their demotion. But it is an outcome that should take nobody in Gorgie by surprise; after all, the warning signs have been there all season. Even if they played their remaining games, Hearts would have almost certainly been relegated all the same.