Hibs analysis: How Elie Youan has been transformed in a single season
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At 8.37am on the morning of May 11, the official Twitter account sent out a post which read: “Sleep well last night, Hibees? zzz.”
As it’s uncommon for football teams to check in on people’s slumbering habits, it was quickly deduced this was an attempt to tease an upcoming announcement regarding Elie Youan, who celebrates scoring by pretending to take a standing snooze. And tease they certainly did. It’s customary for tweets such as this one to hang in the wind for around 10-15 minutes before the story is announced. Hibs fans had to wait four hours (!) before learning, mercifully, that yes, Youan would be signing for the club on a permanent basis.
It was news worth waiting for. The Frenchman has established himself as a fan favourite among the Easter Road faithful, with it having becoming increasingly customary for “lifetime contract for Youan plz” to appear in the replies for just about every social media post. And yet, had this deal been announced a few months ago, it’s safe to say the reaction would have been a lot cooler.
The 24-year-old certainly had his moments in the first half of the campaign. He tallied up decent assist numbers and had matches where his pace and dribbling ability frightened the life out of the opposition defence. This reporter remembers being thoroughly impressed (and, being a Jambo, more than a little worried) by his showing in the eventual 2-1 away defeat to Livingston back in August as Hibs dominated the second-half.
But, overall, his time in a Hibs shirt could have been categorised by his display in the 3-0 Scottish Cup defeat to Hearts in January. He was a menace throughout the match, particularly in the second period as Hibs tried to get back into things, but neither he nor Hibs managed to get on the scoresheet. It seemed to be Youan in a nutshell: threaten but never actually do anything.
Then six days later everything changed. And not just for the player, but the club as a whole.
Aberdeen came to town for a league encounter that was widely dubbed ‘El Sackio’ by Scottish football fans and the mainstream media. Jim Goodwin’s job in the north east was hanging by a thread having just been knocked out of the Scottish Cup by Darvel, while the perception was that Hibs boss Lee Johnson wasn’t going to be in his role for much longer as Hibs’ elimination in the same competition a day prior was their second consecutive 3-0 defeat to their bitter rivals.
Whether Johnson would have survived another defeat, only those in charge of the club will know for sure, but such a question was soon an irrelevance as they battered the Dons 6-0. Goodwin left his post, Johnson remained and Youan was suddenly a new player.
Josh Campbell grabbed the headlines with a hat-trick, but Youan was excellent leading the line after Kevin Nisbet was left on the bench following his move to Millwall falling through. He netted the third goal, a header at the front post just before the break, and he suddenly couldn’t stop scoring. He netted in each of his next two games before a brace at Livingston took him to five in five.
It may be too simple to say Aberdeen was the catalyst for everything, but then they do say football is a simple game. Even Youan himself credits that match with changing his mood and that of his team-mates.
“The 6-0 win against Aberdeen created something in the changing room," he said in March, “and now we are happy and chilled every day at the training ground but we also give everything."
This leads us on to an aspect of football so simple that it’s often underestimated: confidence. Here was a player coming from a different country, on a deal with no guarantees it was going to last longer than a season, playing a new style of football and doing so on a team under pressure. Now, Hibs aren’t exactly blowing opposition away regularly at the moment, but the plan – both in the short and long-term – looks a lot clearer. And Youan is thriving.
Take his goal against St Mirren in the last home game. It’s very similar to the chance he had against Hearts in the 3-0 defeat at Tynecastle earlier in January. Only this time he was more decisive. He now knows what he wants to do. So the action ends up with the ball in the back of the net, and not with the covering defender taking it off his toes.
His improvement isn’t just limited to goalscoring though. He’s making better decisions in the final third. Again, it’s something that’s easier to do with confidence. When there isn’t constant noise in your head about what options there are and what could go wrong, it’s a lot easier to just make a quick choice and execute.
But his improvement isn’t all on the player himself. Johnson and his staff deserve credit for the way in which he’s developed tactically. Youan was always a willing worker, though he lacked the discipline. Now he understands his role in helping out defensively while retaining the shape and solidity of the team. He was excellent in this regard against St Mirren, constantly racing back and regaining possession to launch fresh attacks.
Typically clubs wait to the end of the season before invoking clauses to sign loan players permanently, but this was such a no-brainer for Hibs they decided to do it with four games to go. He’s young, he’s got the attributes to play at a higher level and he’s already improving. All going well, it’s an investment they should make a terrific return on.