Christian Doidge, Kevin Nisbet and why history suggests duo can fire Hibs to strong finish
Some strikers’ entire Hibs careers have been shorter than the length of time between Christian Doidge's fifth and sixth Scottish Premiership goals this season.
While the forward has never been a nailed-on 20-goals-a-season player, he summed up his run of blanks by admitting: “Sometimes it just doesn’t drop for you.”
The affable Welshman featured in 14 league games without finding the back of the net, with Hibs winning seven, drawing two, and losing five.
Strike-partner Kevin Nisbet only scored three goals in the same period, including a late equaliser in a game away to Celtic in January, yet Hibs didn’t really suffer too badly thanks to Martin Boyle running the show, ably assisted by a supporting cast of defenders and Alex Gogic.
But while Nisbet spent time on the bench, Doidge continued to start and played a key role in helping the team to four successive wins earlier this year.
Head coach Jack Ross said after the draw in Livingston: “It genuinely does not bother me that he’s been on this run without scoring because his play has been really good and he helps the team so much. But I’m pleased for him because he deserves it and it was an important goal for us as well.”
Strikers are always judged on the goals they score but in Doidge’s case, he brings so much more to the team than goals. When he manages both, that’s often when the side is at is most effective.
Despite the dual dry spells it always seemed a case of when, rather than if, Doidge and Nisbet might score again. Now that both of them have done the hard part, attention turns to the post-split fixtures and the Scottish Cup.
Bad omen for opponents
That the pair broke their respective goalless runs within seven days of each other seems ominous for opposition teams.
Of the 33 games the pair have played alongside each other, they have only assisted each other once apiece; Nisbet for Doidge at Livingston in the 4-1 win in August while Doidge was the fouled player for Nisbet’s penalty winner against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park in October.
But it’s the 19 goals and seven assists between them when they play together that should have upcoming opponents feverishly trying to work out a plan to keep both players quiet.
Could history repeat itself?
Doidge has spoken in the past of being a “streaky” player in terms of scoring in that he will draw a blank in several games before going on a fruitful run in front of goal.
On a related note, the striker has form for finishing seasons strongly – including the truncated 2019/20 campaign. Since the 2014/15 season Doidge has scored a combined 18 goals in 28 games played at the end of a league campaign, which bodes well for Hibs going into the post-split matches this year.
Late bloomer Nisbet has had similar stats for the past two seasons, scoring four in his last four at the tail-end of the 2018/19 campaign for Raith Rovers, and three in his last five appearances for Dunfermline Athletic before the pandemic brought a halt to the Scottish game.
If one or both of the strikers has a productive end to the season, Hibs should not only canter to third place but also stand a good chance of venturing to the latter stages of the Scottish Cup.
Provided the pair stay in the summer, it also bodes well for the early stages of the European adventure.
Tweaking the system with catalyst Boyle
There was a period of time towards the end of 2020 when neither Nisbet nor Doidge were really performing in Jack Ross’ preferred system. The acquisitions of Chris Cadden and Jackson Irvine in the January transfer window allowed the coaching staff to shake things up and in doing so, reinvigorate a jaded Martin Boyle and take some of the pressure off the defence by reverting to a back three, reorganising the midfield, and beefing up the attacking options.
It was no coincidence that Boyle embarked on a fine run in front of goal at the end of January. He has failed to find the net or register an assist in three of Hibs’ last eight matches and in keeping with the somewhat incredible stat that the side has only ever lost one game in which he has scored, Hibs duly failed to win any of the three games in which he drew a blank.
The Australian internationalist has scored 11 goals and laid on seven more for his colleague this term but just two strikes and two assists have come against top-six opposition in Aberdeen (the goals) and Rangers (the assists) and the final round of fixtures gives him a great chance to add to that tally.
With Doidge and Nisbet potentially on track for a purple patch, the chances of Boyle improving his stats against the top half of the table look high.
Rediscovering form and readjusting targets
The decision to redeploy Boyle as either a centre-forward in a front two or occasionally a wide forward in a front three was instrumental in freshening up the Hibs attack and, crucially, took some of the pressure off Doidge and Nisbet, allowing them to rediscover their own form in front of goal.
With the Euros on the horizon for Nisbet and Doidge still not giving up on his own international hopes, there are additional incentives for the pair as the season winds down. Nisbet will get a taste of Scotland duty during this week’s international break and his determination to stay in Steve Clarke’s plans could be a huge boost for Hibs in the last few games.
It would be premature to say Hibs are home and hosed in third place just yet, especially given previous post-split results haven’t been particularly kind to the Easter Road side.
But with the Scottish Cup still to come, and Hibs chasing a record number of away wins and a record points total, and the prospect of Doidge and Nisbet embarking on wee runs in front of goal, it’s just possible that, rather than hirpling over the finish line to polite applause, we might see Hibs finish the season with panache.