With five points from the first four league games it is not been the best start to the season for Hibs but it should not prompt too much concern, writes Joel Sked.
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Hibs manager Neil Lennon cut a frustrated figure on the touchline at the Tony Macaroni Arena on Saturday as his side lost 2-1 to Livingston despite taking the lead.
Afterwards he stated that five points from the opening four games was not good enough. It was an opinion which was shared by the thousands of Hibs fans that made the journey to West Lothian, and spoke of the higher standards which have been instilled at the club since relegation. Those standards, especially on the field, have only been strengthened by Lennon.
As centre-back Darren McGregor noted “the last few weeks have been difficult” for the team but should not necessarily translate to a difficult season. He was correct in his assertion that “football can change so quickly”.
Following the 0-0 draw with Molde in the first-leg of the Europa League third round qualifier, Hibs had a realistic path to the reaching the group stages of the tournament. On the domestic scene, Lennon’s men had won comfortably against Motherwell.
Hibs have since exited Europe, drawn two and lost one in the league and seen John McGinn depart for Aston Villa. That feel-good factor has been somewhat eroded, the much sought-after momentum stalled. An understated end to the transfer window failed to inject the fans with a large dose of positivity. Taking the responses to the club’s tweet on deadline day that all business had been concluded as a gauge, fans were largely underwhelmed, disappointed or miffed.
However, eight players had arrived, six of which were internationals, representing Australia, Ireland, USA, Ghana and Hungary.
The summer’s recruitment was always going to be a challenge for Lennon and director of operations George Craig. Losing one of Scott Allan. Dylan McGeouch and John McGinn would be a blow. But all three departing saw an abyss appear in the Easter Road midfield. The trio were instrumental in making Hibs the team to watch last season.
The issue was compounded by the saga which transpired around McGinn, with Celtic embarrassing themselves in the pursuit. He continued to play - and play well - despite the transfer tumult. It put Lennon in an awkward place. The Scotland international simply couldn’t be left out which meant the Northern Irishman couldn’t fully move on and plan for the longer term with the uncertainty surrounding his midifeld maestro.
On top of that, Hibs’ preparations of rebuilding the midfield had to be undertaken while negotiating the Europa League qualifiers. When the league started they were playing Thursday, Sunday, Thursday, Sunday. Games are what players prefer, but for coaches, especially in the nascent period of the season, they’d prefer more time on the training pitch.
As soon as McGinn exited there were always going to be teething problems with the continued integration of Stevie Mallan before adding Daryl Horgan, while relying on Steven Whittaker at the base.
Hibs’ five pints do not represent how well the team have played. They were the better side and created the better chances against St Johnstone. It was a similar story against Aberdeen. They were positive, exciting and inventive against Derek McInnes’ side who set up in a way which suggested they were more than happy to take a point from Easter Road. In between those games they reached the Betfred Cup quarter-finals.
Saturday’s defeat to Livingston was a concern. Hibs players seemingly directed Livingston to Adam Bogdan’s goal the way shoppers on Princes’ Street were once directed to a golf sale. The pitch at the Tony Macaroni is bordering on an embarrassment but it can’t be used as an excuse for the way Hibs failed to bounce back and take the game to Livingston. Nor could it be used to explain Steven Whittaker’s shortcomings in midfield.
In terms of individual performances there are a number of positives. Ryan Porteous has shown that he is the long-term successor to Darren McGregor in the no-nonsense role at the back. Not just that but he has those qualities which every team requires, someone who can organise and rally, and someone who sets standards.
Mallan is being moulded into a No.8. There are suspicions among some in the Hibs support but he is a player who has levels to climb and he offers those long, forward passes which McGinn was so adept at, while his set-piece ability will be worth a number of goals and points. Alongside side him in midfield, Horgan looks like he could be one of the signings of the season. Sharp, creative and ambidextrous. The trio of Lewis Stevenson, David Gray and Oli Shaw, all at different stages of their careers, have impressed.
Lennon will be desperate to work with his full squad. Ofir Marciano, Marvin Bartley, Florian Kamberi, Mark Milligan, McGregor and Gray all missed the defeat to Livingston, while Thomas Agyepong, who has put in eye-catching performances for the club’s reserve side, will be closer to his peak as will other summer signings.
These additions will bring the team closer to last season’s squad. It will make Hibs more robust, offer Lennon more choice from the bench and give him greater thought regarding different styles and systems.
On paper there is an abundance of depth and balance. Lewis Allan offered enough against Livingston to suggest he will provide able to support to Kamberi, who has had his fitness struggles, Jamie Maclaren and Shaw. Martin Boyle, whose end product has been erratic this campaign so, Agyepong and Horgan provide creativity and blistering pace from the wings.
Australian international Milligan could be the key cog in the midfield to give the side a greater platform to dominate games and free the likes of Mallan, Emerson Hyndman and Vykintas Slivka.
Hibs have a run of favourable league fixtures against Kilmarnock, Dundee, St Mirren and Hamilton Academical coming up. The international break has come at the right time for the team to rest and recuperate before a resurgence. The last couple of weeks may have been trying but the bigger picture is bright.
Come the middle of October when Hibs face Celtic, Rangers and rivals Hearts, it is more than likely they will be in a better place. Mentally and physically as well as points tally.
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