Comment: Does Hibs boss Neil Lennon need to target striker in January?
At the start of the summer, it looked like the hardest task facing the Hibs recruitment team would be plugging the sizeable gaps left by the departure of Dylan McGeouch, expected sale of John McGinn and expiration of Scott Allan's loan deal.
At the beginning of the campaign, the defence was settled, Adam Bogdan was brought in on loan to provide cover for the injured Ofir Marciano and Daryl Horgan, Emerson Hyndman, Stevie Mallan and Mark Milligan were added to the squad, joined latterly by Thomas Agyepong, Charalampos Mavrias and Miquel Nelom.
On the surface, Hibs looked well-stocked in defence and midfield, and appeared to have an attacking arsenal of which many clubs would be envious. Kamberi, the all-action forward who can hold the ball up, create space, ragdoll defenders and pop up with goals from anywhere; Maclaren, the nippy poacher to feed off the scraps; Martin Boyle, the unpredictable speed merchant to terrorise defences and Oli Shaw, the up-and-coming youngster who has already chipped in with vital goals.
As if to prove a point, Neil Lennon’s side have already notched six more goals this season than they had after 11 games last term, with Boyle, Kamberi and Mallan scoring four each. Shaw and David Gray have added two apiece while Thomas Agyepong, Daryl Horgan, Maclaren and one own goal make up the remainder.
But the crux of the matter is that Hibs lack a like-for-like replacement for Kamberi. The closest we’ve seen to a stand-in was Lewis Allan in the 1-0 away loss to Livingston earlier in the season. The Borderer performed well, but is still learning his trade and it would be a big ask for a player with just one top flight appearance to his name to step into the breach if the Swiss striker was sidelined for any length of time.
The second issue is the personnel. Kamberi and Maclaren combined to plunder 17 goals between them in the second half of last season, ably aided by the midfield triumvirate of Scott Allan, Dylan McGeouch and John McGinn. With the mercurial trio now departed, there is extra pressure on Thomas Agyepong, Emerson Hyndman, Daryl Horgan and Stevie Mallan to supplement the attack.
Despite the season having kicked off in early August, it’s now November and Kamberi and Maclaren are yet to start a league game up front together, through a combination of injury, lack of match fitness and suspension. Neil Lennon has had to tweak his tactics and formation, occasionally deploying a 4-1-4-1 formation with Kamberi as a lone striker, and sometimes partnering the Swiss forward with Boyle or Shaw in a front two.
Friday night’s trip to Pittodrie to take on Aberdeen could be the first time Kamberi and Maclaren will start up front for Hibs this campaign, and with the Capital club ideally needing a win to keep pace with the teams at the top of the league, it could be perfect timing for Lennon. The pair could pick up where they left off, but what steps do Hibs take if they don’t?
There has been much talk about a third spell at Easter Road for Scott Allan. If the playmaker was a standout in his first stint at Hibs, he was a revelation in his second spell last season. Five assists and three goals in 12 games speaks for itself. There was a clamour amongst fans for Allan to come back for the 2018/19 season but the transfer window came and went and he remained at Celtic. To date he has featured on the Celtic bench three times - all during the Champions League qualifying matches - and hasn’t made the squad since.
At last month’s AGM, Lennon refused to rule out a fresh move for the 26-year-old come January but, while it seems as though Allan plays his best football at Easter Road, there’s no guarantee it would work for a third time.
Would Hibs fans rather the club acquired a striker capable of scoring ten goals in the second half of the season, or would they rather get Allan, who could provide the ammunition for the Hibs forwards but may take a while getting up to speed after so long without a competitive game?
In the meantime - without Allan - there are plenty of goals in the current team, but injuries to one or two players have taken their toll.
The loss of David Gray on the right flank has been keenly felt in the Hibs ranks, both in goals and chances created. The full back, who had never registered a senior goal prior to joining the club, has scored five this season in all competitions, links up well with Boyle on the right flank and provides extra grit in defence.
Milligan’s temporary redeployment in defence has deprived the team of his influence in the middle of the park, unless it’s mere coincidence that with the veteran Australian in defence, Hibs have drawn one and lost two, scoring just twice and conceding five. In Milligan’s last match in midfield, Hibs scored six without reply.
There’s no need for Hibs to panic just yet: they have scored more goals this season than they had managed at the same point last term, with defenders, midfielders and strikers all contributing.
But they need their strikers to be firing on all cylinders. Maclaren’s comments in the wake of the defeat to St Johnstone - Hibs’ first league loss at home in 2018 - suggested he felt he was capable of better. Granted, Hibs were without Kamberi’s services after the 23-year-old was sent off against Hearts in the previous match, but many felt the team Lennon sent out to face the McDiarmid Park side was more than capable of securing a result against Tommy Wright’s charges – including the Easter Road coaching staff.
Prior to last week’s derby, Hibs had scored in every Ladbrokes Premiership game this season. They’ve now gone two matches without scoring and on both occasions, it’s been a midfielder - Mallan - rather than a striker who has come closest to finding the net.
Hibs fans of a certain age may recall, with some fondness, the season in the mid-1980s in which Steve Cowan and Gordon Durie combined up front and scored 42 goals between them. Durie’s power and Cowan’s skill blended almost perfectly for one memorable campaign, but attempts to replicate it the following season ultimately failed. Comparisons with Kamberi and Maclaren are obviously premature, but it serves as a reminder that not every partnership lasts.
The best case scenario for Hibs is that the duo are able to pick up where they left off this Friday night and hit the goal trail once more.
But if they fail to reignite the double act, it will be interesting to see if, come January, Lennon feels he needs to supplement his squad with a striker, or whether bringing in someone like Scott Allan is key to Hibs rediscovering their cutting edge in front of goal.