Marvin Bartley is hopeful that facing a higher calibre of opposition this season will benefit him as he continues establishing himself as a regular in Hibs’ starting XI.
The combative defensive midfielder found himself in and out of the team in his first season at Easter Road as Alan Stubbs occasionally preferred to field more attack-minded players in the Championship. It was a similar story in the first of half last term under Neil Lennon, before the Englishman started to become one of the first names on the Northern Irishman’s team sheet in the second half of the title-winning campaign.
As the only bona fide destructive anchorman on the books at Hibs, Bartley knows he has a good opportunity to maintain his regular status now that his team are facing more dangerous opponents in the Premiership.
“I just aim to do my job, and then it’s up to the manager if he picks me,” the 31-year-old Englishman told the Evening News. “It’s been the same wherever I’ve been throughout my career. I do my thing and if the manager sees fit to play me, then he plays me. I take it one game at a time and I aim to give my all in every game I play. I feel like I’m getting a good run of games now. But when I’ve been out the team before, the manager’s never said it was due to bad form.
“It’s normally been due to the way other teams set up against us. During the two years in the Championship, we had a lot of teams sitting behind the ball and not offering much going forward, so as a defensive midfielder, sometimes I wasn’t needed in the team so much. I had to understand that from a tactical point of view. But I think all teams in the Premiership want to attack, so I feel like there’s more of a role for me to play at this level. Even Hamilton coming to our place recently, I think people probably thought they would sit behind the ball and wouldn’t attack too much, but they ended up scoring three goals. We have to show teams respect and be ready for the possibility they’re going to attack us. As a defensive midfielder, that probably helps me stay in the team.”
After spending his first two years in Scotland in the Championship, Bartley has detected a marked improvement in the level of opposition Hibs have faced since returning to the Premiership last month. “I’ve definitely noticed a step up in quality this season,” he said. “If you give the ball away in this league, it’s a lot harder to get it back. You get punished for your mistakes a lot more. Look at the St Johnstone game last week, they only had one shot on target and scored from it. Teams in the Premiership seem to be a lot more clinical. They players are generally better all round in this league.
“I couldn’t pick a standout player – Glen Kamara at Dundee was a tough opponent – but it’s been more a case of teams being collectively stronger than having individuals tearing you apart. Teams seem to work as more of a unit rather than as individuals. They’re all working together so they’re harder to play against. I can’t think of a player off the top of my head who’s been extra special, but I feel like we’re coming up against better midfield units at this level.”
Bartley has been heartened by the fact Hibs last Saturday went toe-to-toe with one of the strongest midfield units in the division and were widely deemed to have come out on top even though the match in Perth ended 1-1. “St Johnstone have started very well and are still unbeaten, and they they normally do well in the league, so it was always going to be a good test for us as a team and a midfield unit,” said Bartley. “I think we came out on top in the midfield battle, but we’ve got to continue doing it. It’s no good just doing it for the first few games when we’ve got that buzz of being back in the league around us. It’s important we remain consistent.”
Bartley played a big part in Hibs controlling the game, although he was aided significantly by a high-quality display from midfield sidekick John McGinn. “He’s a fabulous player – he picks the ball up and drives really well,” said Bartley. “I think we complement each other well when we play together. It’s a joy to play beside him. He puts a shift in alongside you, and that’s all you can really ask. Players always have good games and bad games no matter what level you’re playing at, but the one thing with McGinn is you’ll always get 100 per cent from him. Even during the speculation, away at Dundee, he was still giving everything. He played very well at St Johnstone – if he could perform week in, week out at that level he’d probably be at Barcelona!”
Hibs played 4-2-3-1 at McDiarmid Park, with Bartley and McGinn patrolling central midfield and Anthony Stokes dropping off main striker Simon Murray to play in the No.10 position. Hibs have also utilised a 3-5-2 formation and a midfield diamond this season. While Bartley’s role rarely changes, he believes the fact Lennon has a squad of players who are comfortable in different systems will stand them in good stead.
“We’ve got good players who can play in a few different positions and slot into many different formations,” he said. “That can help us during a game. If things are not going too well, he can change it after 20 minutes, without necessarily having to change the personnel. The gaffer looked at the formations he wanted to play and he’s got players in that suit those styles. He went about his business very shrewdly in the summer, and he’s built a good squad with a lot of flexibility.”