Analysing Hibs' problems in front of goal and how interim boss David Gray might try to fix them
Jack Ross mentioned it, Shaun Maloney was hampered by it, Ron Gordon has addressed it, and interim boss David Gray will have to deal with it: Hibs simply do not have enough in the final third.
As things stand the club’s top scorer in all competitions, 14-goal Martin Boyle, is plying his trade more than 4,000 miles away in Saudi Arabia. Their second-top goalscorer – Kevin Nisbet, nine – is injured and sidelined until late 2022. The player in third – Kyle Magennis, with four – is also injured and won’t be back for the remainder of the season.
Wingback Chris Cadden, who sits on three goals in all competitions along with the departed Jamie Murphy, is Hibs’ most prolific available player until the end of the season.
Since Boyle left, Hibs have scored just 14 goals in all competitions; three of them coming from recognised strikers – Elias Melkersen’s brace against Motherwell in the Scottish Cup quarter-finals, and Nisbet’s strike in the previous round against Arbroath.
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Hibs also drew blanks in eight league games during Maloney’s tenure. You can see the problem.
While Gray, who is in temporary charge until the end of the season, can only work with what he has available, he will hope to be able to engineer an upturn in fortunes in front of goal.
Boyle’s departure wasn’t planned, but it wasn’t entirely unexpected either. Without the versatile attacker, Hibs lack pace and goals.
Replacing him at any point wouldn’t be easy but perhaps especially not in January. Hibs have had limited success previously in winter transfer windows but they haven’t ever really needed to replace one key player in mid-season – certainly not one with the influence of Boyle.
Add to that the difficulty in finding a player capable of replicating what Boyle brought to the Hibs team and it becomes an even more complex task. Maloney admitted it would be hard to find a like-for-like replacement, although in Sylvester Jasper there have been fleeting glimpses of the trickery and desire to beat a defender that Boyle had in his locker.
Actual goals, though, remain a big issue.
Even accounting for the 2020/21 season when Boyle, Nisbet, and Christian Doidge all reached double figures, there was a feeling that Hibs needed something more in attack. What if one of them suffered a serious injury?
Jamie Gullan was unable to transfer his fine form for the Easter Road side’s youth teams into the first XI while players including Melker Hallberg and Drey Wright were used as auxiliary forwards on occasion.
Boyle’s versatility and aptitude as a centre-forward and a right-winger meant he could be used up top or wide in a 4-4-2, as one of the wingers or the ten in a 4-2-3-1, or even as a wingback in a 3-5-2.
The arrival of Cadden perhaps made it easier to utilise Boyle as a centre-forward when needed. But there was still that nagging feeling of being one short up top. James Scott was brought in during the summer transfer window at the start of the season but hasn’t had the impact he would have wanted while the Easter Road youngsters are probably a bit away despite Josh O’Connor making his debut in the 3-1 defeat by Aberdeen in mid-March.
Elias Melkersen was signed in January as a long-term project, the idea being that he could get minutes here and there as a substitute, building up to longer periods of time on the pitch. His Scottish Cup brace against Motherwell sparked hopes he could kick on but the injuries suffered by Doidge and Nisbet coupled with Boyle’s departure led to a lot of expectation being placed on him earlier than planned.
There are mitigating factors, including his age, the fact he played a full season in Norway before joining Hibs, and a lack of experience on grass pitches. With a proper pre-season he could hit the ground running next season, but Hibs still need to strengthen in attack.
With Nisbet out until late 2022 and Scott’s loan up in the summer, not to mention the thoughts of the new manager, Hibs are likely to be bringing in more than one new face in the final third.
MIdfield not chipping in enough
In 2018/19, Stevie Mallan had 13 goals, and Daryl Horgan seven. Even in the truncated 2019/20 campaign, playmaker Scott Allan bagged ten while Horgan, Mallan, and Greg Docherty managed three each.
Last season was something of an outlier with Boyle, Doidge, and Nisbet reaching double figures. Mallan still added four, albeit mostly in the League Cup group stages.
This season, Magennis notched four in 13 before suffering one long-term injury followed by another as he attempted to return to action. Jake Doyle-Hayes has two while the rest of the midfielders – Allan, Wright, Josh Campbell, and Joe Newell – have contributed one each.
Again, there are mitigating factors; Allan and Wright haven’t had as much gametime as the others for example, but it’s still a pretty poor return from the middle of the park.
What can Gray do?
Interim boss Gray might feel he can squeeze a bit more out of Hibs’ depleted squad between now and the end of the season.
He could play Melkersen and Scott as a two, or a different formation designed to get the most out of the available players.
While Hibs could be still mathematically be dragged into the relegation play-off spot, Gray will hope the change in manager can spark a reaction from his players, starting with Saturday’s trip to St Mirren, as they seek to avoid a nail-biting end to the season.
You imagine Hibs would take a 1-0 win if offered ahead of kick-off. Any goalscorer will do – just so long as the ball ends up in the net.