Hibs boss Neil Lennon was understandably unhappy with the team’s performance in losing 2-1 to Livingston on Saturday leading to introspection around the 3-5-2 system. Joel Sked looks at the options available.
“Maybe I’m trying to fit square pegs in round holes at the moment but we like the way the formation has worked over the last 18 months,” Neil Lennon said after the match.
As he alluded to, there is a feeling among some that he is playing last season’s formation with this season’s squad. However, Hibs have been missing key individuals and waiting for new recruits to bed in. Add in European involvement plus the John McGinn transfer saga and it has been a bit of an unconventional start to the campaign.
With everyone fit Lennon has a squad which offers him a number of options in terms of systems with plenty of flexibility:
This formation worked so well last season, allowing Dylan McGeouch, Scott Allan, John McGinn to play in the same midfield with Flo Kamberi and Jamie Maclaren ahead of the trio. Many Hibs fans will have allowed their mind to wander to imagine what a full season of that quintet could have led to.
The Livingston result and performance should not see it consigned to the past. There has been a reliance on Steven Whittaker at the base of the midfield, while there has been little consistency in terms of the individuals spearheading the attack.
• READ MORE: Analysis: How Hibs’ squad shapes up for season ahead
But it is a system which gets Maclaren and Kamberi in the same team and their best position. There was a period when centre-backs were so comfortable playing against one striker. Adding a second causes all sort of problems for the opposition, while giving the team two targets in attack.
It is in midfield where there is a key requirement. Marvin Bartley or Mark Milligan have to be available. With a trio of centre-backs behind, they give the midfield a solid base and give Hibs a physical and robust centre. Stevie Mallan, who has been played in a deeper role, or Emerson Hyndman can link the midfield and attack.
Daryl Horgan, who was expected to play as an out-and-out winger, has impressed behind the strikers. It gives the midfield that balance which each player offering different qualities.
With Lewis Stevenson, a natural full-back, on the left, Martin Boyle’s pace and directness offsets that on the right.
If the system is not working it can, without a substitution, be switched to...
Horgan moves left, Stevenson moves back and the defence move over with Efe Ambrose at right-back. There are many who would prefer David Gray in such a position, the cup-winning hero is a more natural fit on the right-side of defence than the Nigerian.
What it does is highlight the flexibility within the Hibs squad that, without too many changes, they can switch.
The 4-4-2 is very popular within some circles of British football. It is seen as simple and traditional. On paper it looks just that. Yet, the teams who operate with the system and do it well are ones coached to within an inch of their life.
The system has its weaknesses, namely the space between the defensive and midfield lines and when it comes to getting a foothold against a three-man midfield.
Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers has been on record saying: “When you’ve got the ball, 65 to 70 per cent of the time it’s football death for the other team.”
Atletico Madrid are the most famous recent example of a 4-4-2 that works to perfection. It requires an impressive work-rate and understanding of positioning. Hibs don’t lack in the former with the likes of Horgan, Kamberi, who would work back into midfield, and Boyle.
Plus, in Lennon Hibs have a coach who has the capabilities of coaching his team to play the shape effectively.
The arrivals of both Horgan and Ghanian Thomas Agyepong suggested Lennon was looking at a move away from the 3-5-2 with his trio of wingers when you include Boyle.
There is no doubt Hibs have the players to play the system really well with variety in the centre of defence, plus options at right-back, and so much potential going forward.
If Horgan played centrally, Lennon could put the searing pace of Agyepong and Boyle on the wings. Such a move, especially at Easter Road, would see the opposition full-backs (or wing-backs) pinned back and the defence wary of pushing too high, exposing the space behind them.
It would have positive ramifications. Either Horgan, plus Mallan and Hyndman, would get an abundance of space in the middle of the pitch or Hibs would dominate possession and territory if the opponents sit in.
Kamberi would likely be the lone striker such is his selflessness in chasing defenders, running channels and acting as a focal point. It would mean Maclaren, who Hibs fought so hard to re-sign, would be left as a bench option.
There will come a time when Lennon feels his side need to be stuffy and hard to beat, to fight and battle before they can allow their football to do the talking.
In Horgan and Boyle he possesses two hard-working wingers who will not only track opponents but are able to get the team up the pitch quickly with their pace and ability to run with the ball.
In the centre of midfield Lennon is blessed with options for such a formation. Milligan and Bartley would make a formidable duo with a more creative option beside them in Hyndman or Mallan. And that’s not forgetting Vykintas Slivka who could work alongside Milligan and Hyndman or Mallan to provide greater quality on the ball.
Kamberi, again, would be the most obvious option in attack due to his ability to occupy defenders.
Such an approach could be used at Celtic Park or at Tynecastle where there is generally a battle to win the right to try and play football such is the compactness of the pitch.
The 4-4-2 diamond was something which worked from time to time under Alan Stubbs.
The main benefits for this Hibs team is that it allows for Lennon to get two strikers on the pitch, while fitting plenty of midfield creativity into the middle of the pitch. However, under his management Hibs have thrilled with their pace and energy, their intensity and counter-attacking ability.
It is a system which puts a lot of responsibility on the full-backs who have to act as de facto wingers to provide width in attack, while not trying to neglect their defensive duties. It is hard to argue against the fact Hibs don’t really have the full-backs currently to perform the role they way it is needed within the system.
Going forward, taking account the players Lennon has available to him when everyone is fit, the 3-5-2 formation still appears to be most suitable. It offers both balance and flexibility. It allows for width, two strikers and three midfielders.
Yet, a key facet of the team is that is can be flexible and move to different formations which will continue to keep square pegs in square holes.
Join our Facebook group Our Edinburgh to share images and news from and around the Capital