Analysis: What are the reasons behind Hibs' recent struggles?
While this is by no means panic stations for Neil Lennon and his Hibs side, it is the roughest period of his managerial tenure at Easter Road so far.
Expected to be firmly in the hunt for second place, a spot they occupied just a few weeks ago, five games without victory have left them in seventh position after 13 games. There is more than enough time to turn things around, and you’d expect a manager of Lennon’s calibre to do just that, but for the meantime concern is growing among the support.
Of course, they’re not the only Edinburgh side struggling at the minute, as rivals Hearts have slipped from first to third in the table after failing to score in four consecutive league games. The reason there is no ‘what’s wrong with Hearts?’ article is simple: we know what’s wrong with them. They lost four of their best players to long-term injury and the back-ups haven’t been good enough to fill their role. At Hibs things are a little more complex.
Quality lost in the summer
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Though Hibs were mightily impressive as a complete unit in the second half of last season, the area of the team which stood out the most was the central midfield three of Dylan McGeouch, John McGinn and Scott Allan. Circumstances then dictated that all three left in one summer window.
Losing quality players is an excuse that will only take you so far. If you’re a Scottish football manager, especially for a non-Old Firm side, you’ll be expected to replace your best players most seasons. That being said, saying goodbye to three undeniable stars from the same area of the park is a pretty tough break.
Though the central midfield corps is not perfect by any means (and we’ll get to that in a minute) there is still a decent amount of quality there. The problem is that this was a squad which finished fourth in the league with one of the best midfield trios witnessed over the past two decades. Take that away and even if you do replace with them talented players, there’s still going to be a drop off.
The search for balance in the midfield
Having said all of that, things could be better. Try as he might, manager Neil Lennon has yet to find the right balance in this area of the park. Injuries have played a part - which will become a running theme throughout this article. There was promise in the Mark Milligan, Emerson Hyndman and Stevie Mallan triumvirate after the team followed the penalty shoot-out defeat to Aberdeen (which Hibs dominated) with victories against St Mirren and Hamilton, the latter of which was a 6-0 hammering. Hyndman has since played only one minute of football thanks to injury and Hibs have failed to win any of the last five games where he’s been absent from the starting XI.
Three games is a small sample size, though, and there are still concerns whether Mallan and Hyndman are the long-term answer as the attacking duo in the three-man unit. Both are a little on the small side and don’t possess the power of a McGinn, for example.
Mallan himself has been something of an enigma so far. Nobody can question his set-piece delivery and shooting prowess. The guy is absolutely lethal from anywhere inside 40 yards with the football and this quality demands his selection, regardless of what else he brings to the table. Lennon appears to see his long-term development as someone similar to McGeouch, which is a comparison he made shortly after the former St Mirren man’s signing. He wants Mallan to pull the strings and become a deep-lying playmaker, while supporters have been calling for him to be fully let off the leash and play as an out-and-out No.10.
Perhaps surprisingly, Hibs have been better at keeping possession through 13 games this season than they were last term (54 per cent compared to 51.9). They’ve also scored the third most goals in the league, though that stat may be a little misleading. It’s been either feast or famine for a lot of this campaign: they’ve scored three or more on four separate occasions, but netted zero or one in a further seven league games.
Summer signings taking their time to settle
Daryl Horgan has been utilised in the centre of the park on occasion, but again there are questions as to whether this is the best use of the former Preston man. He thoroughly impressed in his initial few games, whether on the wing or through the middle, but has since regressed. Being moved around the final third has perhaps hindered his momentum as his manager searches for the right formula. He’s got a strong pedigree and the talent is there, he just needs to find his rhythm.
The same goes for Thomas Agyepong but in a different sense. Similar to Boyle the Manchester City loanee could add pace from the wide areas, but has struggled to stay fit. He’s played in six games, starting once, and lasted only 27 minutes as a substitute at the weekend before limping off again.
In defence, post-transfer window signings Miquel Nelom and Charalampos Mavrias have played exactly one game and eight minutes combined. The two both have excellent pedigrees but highlight the risk associated with signing players outside the transfer window who’ve not had a full pre-season.
Lack of spark from the Kamberi/Maclaren partnership
There’s always going to be an element of chance when it comes to transfer business. Of the players signed who never played for the club prior to this summer, Mallan, Hyndman and goalkeeper Adam Bogdan all deserve pass-marks, while there’s still a decent chance at least two of those mentioned in the section above will come good. What’s arguably been the most significant blow is that the two stars re-signed from last year’s team, Florian Kamberi and Jamie Maclaren, have been two of the biggest disappointments so far.
Kamberi’s goalscoring stats have been impressive enough at first glance, bagging seven goals in 14 appearances. However, that record has been padded by the hat-trick he netted against Faroese side NSI Runavik, who gave up 12 goals to Lennon’s side in 180 minutes of football. Overall his play hasn’t reached the level of last season where the Swiss target man seemed to have his own gravitational pull, such was his ability to hold up play and bring others into the attack. Maclaren, the predatory hitman of the two, has nabbed only one goal in 11.
Injuries and general fitness troubles have played their part. While Maclaren didn’t play for Australia during the World Cup, he still had an interrupted summer and the need for Hibs to negotiated his return on loan from Darmstadt meant he didn’t join up with the squad until the league season was almost upon them. He’s also missed a couple of matches since coming back - the wins over St Mirren and Hamilton - which coincided with Kamberi’s return to the starting XI after enduring his own struggles after picking up a knee problem. As a result, they’ve started just three games together this campaign. Even though they hit it off immediately in January, that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen this time around, especially since they’re without Scott Allan, the man who continually found Maclaren with those reverse through balls and linked so effectively with Kamberi.
The forced rotation in attack - with Boyle, Oli Shaw and Lewis Allan all having a shot - may have contributed to the club’s poor shooting thus far. Hibs have attempted the third most shots in the league, but have the third worst accuracy. Though, admittedly, Mallan’s penchant for striking from distance will have had an impact too.
Lack of continuity in defence
Hibs may not have had the devastating injuries Hearts have endured, but they’ve still not had their problems to seek. Little knocks, strains and pulls have consistently forced Lennon into making his changes to the attack, middle and defence. The most notable of which have been the absences of captain David Gray and centre-back Paul Hanlon, while up-and-coming defender Ryan Porteous has also been forced to sit out a few games.
In the last six matches, Hibs have changed their back-line on five occasions. As a team they’re still performing well at that end of the pitch, but unfamiliarity is causing communication and position errors in the defence. Hibs have allowed very few shots on goal (128, the second fewest in the league) but give away quality opportunities when they do arrive.
Hanlon returned from injury for the Dundee game at the weekend. Though it didn’t stop the team’s bottom side from erasing a two-goal lead, his presence should improve the area in the long run.
Problems on the right
Hibs have found themselves hampered by the play on the right wing, especially in the 3-5-2 formation, these past couple of months.
Boyle initially picked up where he left off the previous season. However, the winger’s form has dipped since his call-up for the Australian national team. This issue has been accentuated by the injury to David Gray. The hero of the 2016 Scottish Cup final had started this season on fire, looking back to his best and contributing at both ends of the park following an injury-plagued 2017/18 campaign.
Behind these two there is a lack of options for right wing-back until Mavrias can get up to speed. Vykintas Slivka has been used there in an experiment Hibs fans would never like to see repeated, while Agyepong is another who’s largely unavailable.
Steven Whittaker, on paper, would be the preferred solution. Not only is he an experienced, international full-back with attacking instincts, Hibs fans themselves have fond memories of him excelling in the role. However, despite the fanfare over his return and a weight three-year contract last summer, he’s shown very little in the past 17 months to indicate he’s the same player who left Easter Road in 2007.