Defensive line-up highlights increasing gloom at Hibs
They may have been wearing their luminous away kit at Rugby Park on Saturday, but their season is now looking increasingly gloomy.
This trip to Kilmarnock descended into a dark day for the Easter Road side in more ways than one.
Underlining the apparent lack of confidence and spark within the squad at present, Neil Lennon felt compelled to start with one of the most defensive lineups witnessed by the Hibs support in years.
The starting XI contained four centre-backs, a holding midfielder and two full-backs, leaving Stevie Mallan, Florian Kamberi and Martin Boyle as the only players renowned for attacking.
The aim was to stifle a Kilmarnock side who have been going exceptionally well under Steve Clarke over the past year and a bit. For context, only six weeks previously, when Hibs started the day second in the Premiership, Lennon sent out a side containing Boyle, Kamberi, Mallan, Emerson Hyndman, Vykintas Slivka and Daryl Horgan for a more formidable-looking match away to Celtic.
In the end, Hibs left Ayrshire on Saturday having been battered by a team who looked superior all over the pitch.
The only source of cheer for the travelling support came during a farcical second half when the floodlights went off twice, causing stoppages to play which threatened to have the match abandoned.
This would have been Hibs’ only hope of a result on a chastening day when they failed to win for the sixth game in succession and slipped to eighth place in the table, nine points beneath their hosts.
Although their progress this season has been hampered by a spate of injuries, Hibs are now, worryingly, in a position where the only genuine key man still to come back into the mix is captain David Gray. Kamberi, Maclaren, Darren McGregor and Paul Hanlon have all missed segments of the season, but all four have featured within this demoralising run.
This is clearly still a talented Hibs squad, but the players have simultaneously lost their spark and ruthlessness and are lacking cohesion as a unit.
Unless they can find some positivity in their upcoming fixtures, which is not beyond possibility given that their next two games are against St Mirren and Hamilton Accies, it seems likely that Hibs will have to look towards the January transfer window to find some fresh impetus.
Any analysis of their recent malaise will show that they have not been particularly poor on a weekly basis. They played well in patches at Celtic Park, defended superbly with ten men at Tynecastle, offered little at home to St Johnstone, were unfortunate to lose at Aberdeen and should have beaten Dundee after opening up a two-goal lead. Saturday, however, was the low point of Neil Lennon’s two-and-a-half-year reign, with Hibs abject in all areas.
Some frustrated fans took to social media afterwards calling for the manager to go, and although questions can be asked of Lennon after Saturday’s over-cautious team selection, a six-game slump does not merit dismissal against the backdrop of his overall achievements at the club and the fact he is striving to maintain progress following the departure of one of the most accomplished midfield units seen at Easter Road in the past 50 years.
In that regard, Lennon hasn’t been helped by two of his most creative signings, Thomas Agyepong and Hyndman, having been unable to find any rhythm, while the likes of Horgan and Mallan have flitted in and out of form. Given the calibre of players lost in the summer, Hibs really needed their signings to perform consistently to a high level, and, for a variety of reasons, they have been unable to do that thus far.
None of this, of course, should deflect from the fact that the team, regardless of how it was set up, should have been capable of more than was shown on Saturday. Although their threat was understandably stunted by the lack of attacking players on the pitch, with so many natural defenders, they certainly shouldn’t have been picked apart as easily as they were in a wretched first-half performance which was as insipid as anything witnessed since Hibs were relegated in 2014.
Kilmarnock took the lead in the sixth minute when Eamonn Brophy had all the time he needed to fire past the exposed Adam Bogdan from eight yards out after Jordan Jones had got the better of Hanlon on the left and cut the ball back.
The same player scored again from the penalty spot in the 34th minute after McGregor fouled Jones. Defensive pair McGregor and Steven Whittaker were both hooked at half-time as attackers Horgan and Oli Shaw entered the fray. As assistant manager Garry Parker stated afterwards, it could have been any of the Hibs players who were taken off at the break.
The second half brought slight improvement but even then, a Horgan chance aside, they never really looked like finding a way back in.
Indeed it spoke volumes about Hibs’ plight that the only reason for excitement among the travelling support was provided by the two blackouts which threatened an abandonment. There was no such luck as the lights came back on long enough to allow the match to be completed. Greg Stewart’s stoppage-time goal merely compounded one of Hibs’ darkest days for some time.