For Hibs fans who also religiously follow the national side, there was one slither of silver lining to take from Thursday night’s debacle in Kazakhstan.
Scotland may have embarrassed themselves and their long-suffering supporters on an unprecedented scale with the 3-0 defeat, but there was a little bit of joy for the Easter Road faithful to see one of their own making his international bow.
Marc McNulty was rewarded (if you can call it that) for his excellent form in recent weeks with the final nine minutes against the Kazakhs. It was far too late to do anything about the result, but it will have been a proud moment for the 26-year-old and those who adore him nonetheless. Since January, that adoration has extended past his friends and family to include several thousand Hibbies.
There was a fair bit of excitement when the club were able to force over a loan deal for the striker on transfer deadline day, a move that was completed despite Hibs being without a manager at the time. Other than a barren loan spell at Bradford City in 2016, and his struggles this season breaking into the Reading side in the Championship, he’s scored goals wherever he’s been. When Jamie Maclaren failed to replicate the form of last season after rejoining from Darmstadt in the summer - with his loan ultimately cut short in January - there was a void Hibs needed to fill. McNulty was advertised as the elusive scorer who could play alongside Florian Kamberi and be the perfect foil for the broad, technically strong target man. In actuality, he’s been even better than that.
His link-up play
With all due respect to Maclaren, you cannot imagine the former striker operating as the lone forward in a 4-5-1 and performing as masterfully as McNulty did in last Saturday’s 2-0 win over Motherwell. The Australian impressed in the latter half of last season, and could easily have rediscovered his form like several first-team stars have under new manager Paul Heckingbottom, but he didn’t have as many strings to his bow as his replacement.
As well as being a threat in the opposing penalty area, McNulty also excels at dropping deeper to link with team-mates. Watching him closely, what immediately stands out is his ability to think and move the ball quickly. You don’t realise how much strikers can dither in possession with their back to goal until you see someone like McNulty do the opposite. His touch is sharp and he gets it to a team-mate before the pressure can arrive. Often he’ll play a first-time pass, sometimes even when he’s not looking at his target - as he did in the build up to the penalty he won and converted against Motherwell. It’s the skill of a chess-master thinking several moves ahead.
He also uses his body well. He’s not a towering behemoth, though he’s broad and sturdy in the 5ft 10in frame he’s listed at. He gets the most out of that by angling himself into defenders, winning fouls or spinning around the corner. This allows him to be an effective hold-up option despite his lack of height.
As expected, he’s got the instinct to sniff out a chance or two every game inside the penalty box, but it’s been his off-the-ball movement outside the area which has been a pleasant surprise to supporters.
Like a small child who’s uncovered the hiding place of his nan’s sweetie box, McNulty is constantly on the move. No pouting, no taking a breath, and none of the posturing you see when a player stands back for a second to marvel at the impressive pass they’ve just made (forwards do this more than you would think). No, he just gets on his bike and looks for the next position in which to hurt the opponents. This includes running the channels when the situation presents itself.
Even when Hibs don’t have the ball he’s useful as he’s eager to close down defenders and put them under pressure as they seek to pass it out from the back.
His predatory instinct is even better than assumed
Through seven starts and two substitute appearances, McNulty has thus far bagged seven goals, and it hasn’t been a fluke.
At the risk of coming across as an, erm, “football hipster” with advanced statistics, Expected Goals (xG) is a decent tool for judging a striker’s menace in the final third. It quantifies the quality of chance rather than the end result. McNulty, in the Ladbrokes Premiership to this point, has the highest xG mark of any active player in the league per 90 minutes - only Moussa Dembele has better for the entire season. His 0.97 average means over the course of an entire league campaign he should score 37 goals. This number is obviously inflated by a small sample size and the three penalties he’s taken thus far, but considering top goalscorer Alfredo Morelos is at 0.62, it’s impressive nonetheless.