Hearts v Hibs: What options are available to Shaun Maloney to turn his struggling side into a winning one at Hampden?

Saturday’s dismal 3-1 defeat to Hearts at Tynecastle was the nadir under Shaun Maloney. Now the under-fire manager needs to do whatever he can in his power to ensure things don’t get much worse seven days later.

By Craig Fowler
Tuesday, 12th April 2022, 7:00 am

Hibs go into the Scottish Cup semi-final with their rivals on a run of two victories in 14 games against Premiership opposition this year. Something needs to change if that sequence isn’t going to extend to 15 matches and the club is again left licking its wounds after a Hampden showdown against the other half of Edinburgh.

It may be time for a change in formation with the 3-4-3, as Maloney has mainly used, not getting the desired results. After all, the personnel just doesn’t seem to be there at the moment.

It’s certainly been a tough outing for Elias Melkersen these past three games. The striker still has the movement to cause problems for opponents but lacks the physicality and nous at 19 years old to confidently lead the line by himself. He was bullied by Craig Halkett for much of Saturday and getting him a strike-partner should certainly help relieve some of the burden. Though exactly where the manager can turn for such a player is another matter.

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Shaun Maloney watched his Hibs side lose 3-1 to Hearts at Tynecastle on Saturday. Picture: SNS

Kevin Nisbet is out for the season, Christian Doidge has been a shadow of himself since returning from injury (and is now also injured again) while James Scott has yet, in a Hibs shirt, to look anything remotely like the player who cost Hull City a seven-figure sum from Motherwell.

There’s the plethora of attacking-midfield options in Chris Mueller, Sylvester Jasper, Drey Wright, Ewan Henderson and Scott Allan. Yet aside from Jasper, and he’s been quiet since the win over Motherwell, none of them have come close to the consistency required.

The midfield two also seem to lack an ideal balance between them. There’s a lot to like about both Jake Doyle-Hayes and Joe Newell as players, but is there enough variety in the partnership to succeed, particularly in a 3-4-3 where there’s a lot of space to cover and roles to fill? Hearts boss Robbie Neilson this season has often spoken about the need for the two central midfielders in his own 3-4-3 to play with real dynamism. If they’re flat then it leaves the team a man down in attack and the potential for opposing midfielders to hurt between the lines.

Harry Clarke at left wing-back is an unusual wrinkle which could be altered. Maloney’s justification has so far been to focus on Clarke’s “speed and power” which he reckons has been absent from the Hibs’ attack for most of 2022. These are two traits which Chris Cadden brings on the other flank, so playing Clarke on the left enables him to get both into the team and Clarke playing further up. There’s also the possibility of Clarke getting on the end of Cadden’s crosses, though it’s not a tactic that worked at all in the derby with Cadden attempting three deliveries from wide, none of which were directed at Clarke.

Playing Clarke at right-sided centre-back with Cadden ahead of him is how many presumed the team would function: two players capable of carrying the ball at pace, charging at the opposition, putting them on the back foot and creating advantageous overloads on the flank. It’s simply not possible to do the same with Rocky Bushiri as the right-sided defender, but it is possible to keep a threat from the wide-left position while placing Clarke in the back three as Josh Doig is certainly capable. With Paul Hanlon likely to slid into the left-sided centre-back role this weekend as Ryan Porteous returns to the side, and the captain himself capable of getting forward and moving with the ball, it would give Hibs a slightly-watered-down version of their right-sided strength on the other wing.

Bushiri himself is another drawing questions around his performances. Having started strongly he’s looked increasingly wobbly in defence. On Saturday he was pulled each way and every way by Hearts’ main creative outlet Barrie McKay. Even if Maloney doesn’t want to bring Clarke into the back three – and, in fairness, he was still one of Hibs’ better players at Tynecastle so perhaps there’s no need to move him anywhere – the manager should still start this weekend with a quintet of Cadden, Clarke, Porteous, Hanlon and Doig, which does give the Hibees a solid base at the national stadium.

It would be tempting to get rid of the three-man defence and go 4-4-2, but that doesn’t feel like the right answer either. They would still lack the required dynamism in the centre, while there’s no real stand-out option to play alongside Melkersen in a system without much support from central areas. Placing someone, whether it be Mueller, Henderson or Jasper, in between attack and midfield in a 3-5-2 just might give them enough, especially if they lean into their underdog status and look to use the size of the Hampden pitch to get Melkersen and Jasper running in behind or exploiting space on the counter attack.

Porteous, as mentioned, will be back in the fold. He will help the team both defensively and going forward as his passing out from the back cannot be overlooked. But, as the form of 2022 has showed, Hibs will need a lot more than his presence alone to get a huge one over on their Capital rivals. All eyes are now on Maloney to see how he figures to do that.

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