Name: Osman Sow
Club: Heart of Midlothian
Match: Heart of Midlothian 5-1 Cowdenbeath (20/9/2014)
Osman Sow must be the type of forward that any Scottish football manager would wish for. Exceptionally tall but quick, lanky but with broad shoulders and a good enough leap to match his stature, Sow is the perfect specimen to lead the line in this country. His physical qualities are not in doubt, so the question must therefore revert to if he is good enough, technically and mentally, to play at a higher level.
Sow scored his third goal in five league matches at the weekend, with two of three coming directly from penalty kicks. Scoring one-in-two is par for the typically seasoned second tier striker, but that should be the minimum expected this year for a player with Sow’s obvious ability (and the potential to get much better). His solitary penalty strike in the 5-1 thrashing of Cowdenbeath doesn’t tell the story of a performance that saw him awarded the sponsor’s man of the match prize.
The first impression he gave in the weekend’s match was as a bit of a lurker. With his strike partner James Keatings wanting to drop off the frontline to link with wide midfielders Jamie Walker and Billy King, Sow stalked the far side of play, looking for the moment to dart a run across the blind side of a defender. This was a recurring theme throughout the game, but it was particularly prominent during the first 15 minutes with the tie goalless. It didn’t matter which side the play was building from: Keatings and Sow were happy to swap over to keep their roles in the side distinct from one another.
It was probably for good reason: on the very occasional moments where the functions were reversed, such as in the fifth minute of play, Sow would misread the intention of the placing of the pass and the move would break down. In the ninth minute, he came short to gather a throw-in into his body but the ball looped over his head in a moment of poor judgement with his team-mate.
With Cowdenbeath typically playing a three centre-back system, it allowed Keatings and Sow to remain high up the pitch. However, there were instances in the first half where the Blue Brazil’s central midfielders were able to run beyond the forwards, due to having more numbers in the middle when matched against the home side’s 4-4-2 system. Nonetheless, Sow’s pace – and Cowden’s relative lack thereof in defence – meant that the visitors’ backline couldn’t push up too high, and there was space to exploit on the counter attack. Hearts’ problem was that they were too slow with their approach against a well set opposition when they were in possession, and thus found it difficult to make many opportunities in the first half.
Sow stalked the far side of play, looking to dart a run across the blind side
Hearts’ full-backs were allowed a lot of possession around and beyond the halfway line, with Adam Eckersley and Callum Paterson looking for Sow and Keatings with various angled balls. Eckersley did better in that regard than Paterson, who was making his first league start of the season after injury and sometimes lacked the technique to find players with his cross-field passes. It was too predictable, though, and neither forward particularly benefited from good service from within the final third.
Sow was always looking for the ball in behind the defence for him to run on to, but very seldom was he allowed to do so. Danny Wilson often looked for a clipped ball behind Marcus Fraser and later Darren Brownlie, but while getting the line correct on his long passes, Wilson’s length was normally either too short or too long.
With a lack of quality passes put in front of him, Sow had to settle for collecting the ball into his body and winning aerial duels. In that respect it took him a while to impose himself, but he wasn’t helped by the lack of willing runners around him on the occasions he was able to flick the headed ball behind his marker – it took until the second half, clearly with explicit instruction from the manager, for Sow’s team-mates to anticipate his hold-up play.
Without having a huge impact in the first half, Sow was still having an influence with his movement off the ball. With Keatings dropping deep on a more regular basis to make up for the numerical deficit in midfield, Sow had an increasing licence to stalk from side to side, dragging the defence out of shape enough for Keatings and others to capitalise on. When it came to attacks happening in open play, Sow refused to take centre stage and would drift to the opposite side to make room for others.
At first glance it might look as if he was hiding, but he selflessly stretched the space among the centre-backs to give opportunities to other goal-scorers in the team. Among Keatings, Walker, King and (to a lesser extent) Scott Robinson, Sow had plenty of others to get into scoring positions at his expense. It is not avoiding the play for the sake of it or due to a lack of confidence; Sow clearly has tactical intelligence and fills in spaces that others vacate.
In the 12th and on two separate occasions around the 59th minute, Sow dropped to the edge of the penalty area when King had the ball close to the byline, falling back unnoticed while Walker and others surged forward to get on to the failed cut-backs. It was clever and unselfish play for the leading striker to make room for the onrushing midfielders who had the momentum into the box, knowing that if the ball fell short then he was in a prime position to finish.
His best moments in the first half came when he had space to run into
Sow’s best moments in the first half came when having space to run into, specifically two occasions that sandwiched Cowdenbeath’s equaliser. During the first, with Cowden’s defence at stretching point, Sow demanded the ball to be played ahead of him, but instead it was pinged to the right-hand side of the penalty area for Keatings, beating the outstretched leg of Nat Wedderburn. In the meantime, Sow reacted quickly to try to race into space in front of the penalty spot but was being wrestled by John Armstrong, so checked his run and sidestepped to the far post unmarked. Keatings cut the ball back for Walker, who made the wrong decision in shooting in front of a couple of blockers when he could have released Sow beside him. Cowdenbeath then counter-attacked with a through pass played to Kudas Oyenuga, whose shot was saved before the rebound was put away by Calum Gallagher.
Wedderburn was injured from Hearts’ previous attack, presumably from the stretch during the missed clearance. The big defender was limping behind the backline, giving Sow the space to have the ball played into his stride for the first time in the match. Wedderburn recovered to double mark Sow on the edge of the box, but when it looked as if the striker had nowhere to go, the forward dropped a shoulder to cut inside onto his favoured left foot to fired an accurate low shot from the edge of the box. The shot seemed pre-determined to end inside Robbie Thomson’s right-hand post, but it was expertly tipped around for a corner. It was Sow’s biggest goal threat in the first half during which Hearts grew increasingly complacent and sloppy with their passing, but a more direct approach in the second period had the striker involved more, which had a big say in Hearts eventually winning the match handsomely.
The striker’s workrate never wavered from the first moment
The homes side played eight long balls toward Sow in the first half, to various degrees of success, but the obvious instruction was to play more direct in the second – Sow received the same amount of long range passes in just the first 15 minutes after the restart. He won the majority of them, with his team-mates better aware to his ability to cushion the ball down, both in front of and behind the Cowdenbeath rearguard. He expertly chested a chipped pass by Wilson under duress on the 47th minute to win a freekick, a move from which Walker scored a header from to put the home side ahead. Yet even before the early goal, Sow was involved: in the previous attack Sow drove forward at the Cowden defence and played a precise wall pass with Keatings, before striking with his left foot toward Thomson’s bottom left corner. Once again, the goalkeeper thwarted him with an outstanding save.
When the Blue Brazil changed to a back four on the hour mark, it opened up more space and Sow relished his aerial duels with Darren Brownlie. Wilson and goalkeeper Neil Alexander constantly looked for the striker to hold the ball up and bring the wingers into play. Sow’s confidence was increasing but his workrate never wavered from the first moment – he rarely allowed centre-backs the time to pick a pass from defence and was unfortunate not to get more out of a blocked clearance on the 71st minute. Shortly afterwards, he made up ground to beat Brownlie to a looping clearance by Wilson when it seemed as if he was too far away to challenge his marker.
By that time, Keatings had been replaced by Soufan El Hassnaoui, with the substitute continuing in the former’s deeper forward role. In the quarter of the match that Sow and El Hassnaoui had on the pitch it seemed that they might be too similar to play together in the long-term. Nonetheless, they combined excellently within just three minutes of playing together: leading up to a Hearts goal kick, El Hassnaoui gestured to Sow to flick the ball behind the defence, which the latter did to allow his partner to collect. El Hassnaoui then held the ball up long enough to play a pass into Sow’s path, who only had the goalkeeper to beat from about ten yards – Sow made the wrong decision in shooting with power, slicing his effort high and wide of the goal. It was a rare (but not exclusive) lapse of thought by the Swedish striker.
Sow’s biggest weakness seems to be his link-up play, which is directly attributed to his concentration
Indeed, Sow’s biggest weakness seems to be his link-up play, which is directly attributed to his concentration. He can hold off his marker, cushion a header or trap the ball with his chest as proficiently as any forward in the SPFL, but his mindset seems to waver, resulting in some bizarre moments. As early as the third minute he was free in the penalty area to get on to a fine Eckersley cross, but there was no explanation to him heading the ball back out of the penalty area, instead of directing it toward the Cowdenbeath goal. At other times he would complete the difficult work by holding off his defender before passing to no-one in particular and wasting possession.
Those moments were seldom, however, and his general performance improved greatly as the match wore on. He took his penalty kick with aplomb, finally beating Thomson with a driven low shot into the corner that was too both too powerful and accurate for the goalkeeper to get to. He also had a say in the final two goals, setting up Dale Carrick on the edge of the penalty area for the latter’s pivoting finish (while following in on the ‘keeper in the off-chance of a parried save), and his next aerial challenge resulted in a loose ball for Carrick to run on to and score from 20 yards. Sow relished the faster, more direct style than in the first half and his confidence was soaring.
So is he good enough on a technical and mental level to play at a higher level? Undoubtedly so, but he needs to improve on his concentration, which should happen with a season as a first choice striker. Hearts signed Sow on a two-year contract, giving him the time and security to develop to become one of the country’s elite forwards. Given that the club seem a good bet to be promoted this season, even at this early stage, he will soon be lighting up the Premiership – and possibly beyond – in the not too distant future.