Hearts v Hibs tactical breakdown - How Neilson combats Martin Boyle, Alex Gogic role, midfield battle, right-hand side popularity
The first Edinburgh derby of the season is much anticipated with Hibs top of the cinch Premiership and Hearts sitting second on goal difference.
It is the first meeting between the sides at Tynecastle Park since December 2019 and will be played in front of a sold-out crowd and the Sky Sports television cameras.
There is a feeling, with both sides at the top of the league, it could be the best derby since 2006 when Hearts won a topsy-turvy encounter 3-2.
With that in mind, let's temper that expectation of a Sunday afternoon goalfest in Gorgie.
Hearts and Hibs are second and first in the Premiership respectively when it comes to goals the teams were expected to concede (xGA) in the league with just 2.81 and 2.41.
What that tells us is that both sides are good at limiting opponents to more difficult chances.
Hearts, for example, are sixth for shots against per 90 minutes (Hibs are fourth) which suggests that while they may be giving up shots, they are doing so from areas which aren’t overly dangerous.
Now that's out the way and a slight dampener has been put on a high-scoring classic, we can look at the fascinating tactical battles to be aware of across the pitch.
There will be decisions to make on players carrying injuries or knocks in both camps with Martin Boyle for Hibs and Michael Smith for Hearts both being subbed in international games with injury complaints.
The likelihood is both teams will set up in their default. That means 3-4-3 v 4-2-3-1.
Boyle and how Hearts combat him
The winger is arguably the best and most dangerous player outside of Celtic and Rangers.
His absence would be a huge blow for Jack Ross so the Easter Road side will be doing all they can to make sure he is fit after missing Australia’s 1-0 win over Vietnam.
He will be coming up against a formidable left side.
Stephen Kingsley returned in a bounce game last week after missing the last two games and the reason he is most likely to start ahead of Taylor Moore is due to his experience as a full-back and being comfortable moving across to engage with opponents out wide. In front of him will be Alex Cochrane, as a duo they will look double up on negate space for Boyle.
It is somewhat surprising that Hibs focus only 43 per cent of their attacks down the right. Boyle is more adept at tweaking his positioning during games to make him less predictable and even more dangerous.
Ross, without Christian Doidge and Jamie Murphy, will likely go with James Scott on the left and Kevin Nisbet through the middle. That front three allows the team to be fluid and not stationary. It would make Hearts have to defend zonally rather than going man-to-man in the final third.
The middle third is of great interest on both sides, posing questions of both Neilson and Ross.
Peter Haring, Beni Baningime, Andy Halliday, Cammy Devlin, Aaron McEneff and Finlay Pollock are battling for two roles in the Hearts midfield.
Despite Devlin playing 70 minutes in a bounce game following his arrival from Newcastle Jets, it would be a surprise if it isn’t Haring and Baningime.
The first 30 minutes – at least – are a battle in the Edinburgh derby. Haring and Baningime are ideal for such a game, reacting quickly to situations, picking up loose balls, winning 50-50s. It could mean a role for Alex Gogic in the Hibs midfield. He may not have had the best of seasons so far, but the fixture is tailor made for someone with his qualities.
It will then be interesting to see if Ross continues with a double pivot and a No.10 in Kyle Magennis, or if he flips the shape and plays a No.6 and two No.8s.
Joe Newell is expected to return. A fine footballer, his strengths are on the ball and in possession, not battling in a congested midfield. Dropping him deeper and almost between the centre-backs could afford him more space, allowing Hibs to build and play possession football.
Playing a No.10, they would struggle to get space behind Hearts’ two central pairing and in front of the back three, Coming on to the game from deep could be more beneficial for Magennis.
The right way for Hearts and central overloads
While Hibs focus 43 per cent of their attacks down the right, it is 42 per cent for Hearts.
That should be little surprise to anyone who has watched the team in action. Smith plays a smart role in moving infield when necessary, opening up space for John Souttar, who showed his danger with a wonderful cross to set up Haring against Dundee United, with either Ben Woodburn or Josh Ginnelly in the final third.
Ginnelly set up Armand Gnanduillet for the second goal off the bench in the win at Tannadice and he may have the same role on Sunday when space opens up and the game becomes stretched.
Woodburn will have a dual responsibility. A prevention role, stopping Josh Doig bombing forward. The left-back is one of the most proficient attackers on the left.
In an attacking sense, moving infield to help create central overloads and support Liam Boyce with Gary Mackay-Steven offering diagonal runs from the left, the former Aberdeen player having scored eight goals in 18 appearances against Hibs.
As an aside, both Smith and Doig are in the top ten for crossing success rate in the league.
If the game turns into a cagey, tense, close affair, the game could be won from the bench.
Due to injuries, Hearts go into the game with greater depth. Neilson could turn to Gnanduillet, Ginnelly, new signing Barrie McKay, Devlin and even the seldom seen Jamie Walker.
Contrast that with Hibs. Their attacking options could be Scott Allan, Drey Wright and possibly Jamie Gullan.
No matter what, the high noon showdown will be captivating.