The 3-5-2 formation has served Hibs well in 2018 but, after Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at Livingston, manager Neil Lennon concedes that he may have to return to the drawing board as he aims to get the most out of his first-team squad.
The visitors tasted their first league defeat of the season at the Tony Macaroni Arena on Saturday, going down to a determined home side as goals from Shaun Bryne and Scott Pittman overturned a 1-0 goal deficit after Hibs took the lead through Daryl Horgan.
Just as troubling as the result was the performance. Hibs looked comfortable prior to Byrne’s equaliser, but even then it was hardly a confident display. After being pegged back on 58 minutes they barely created another chance the rest of the match.
Lennon never shies away from criticising his players in public if he believes he deserves it. But on this occasion he included himself among the group of key individuals at the club who need to do better.
“I don’t know where that performance in the second half came from. We knew it would be attritional and physical. You have to be ready for it,” he said.
“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. We tried it against Ross County and there was no fluency there.
“I’m not happy with the level of performance. We looked tepid and that’s not been us at all.
“The balance looked right but I will take responsibility for the defeat. I have a bit of work to do with the players and the team. That is one of the poorest performances from my time here.”
The 3-5-2 system worked almost to perfection in the second half of last season as it allowed the undoubted talents of Scott Allan, Dylan McGeouch and John McGinn to flourish in the centre of the park, while also providing a platform for each of Florian Kamberi and Jamie Maclaren to ruthlessly exploit opponents’ defensive frailties.
However, with the aforementioned midfield trio having all moved on, and with Kamberi struggling to recover from a knee complaint, Hibs have thus far failed to reach their previous heights.
Lennon did make a change in the second half on Saturday. Introducing Thomas Agyepong for Stevie Mallan, the Hibs boss moved the pieces around into a 4-4-1-1 with Agyepong playing as a second striker with Horgan and Martin Boyle taking up residence on the wings.
It didn’t have the intended effect. Livingston scored almost immediately after the substitution – with Lennon unhappy that the referee had allowed the home side to restart the game without instruction from the official – and refused to create another clear-cut opportunity for the rest of the game.
“We tried to change the formation in the second half because we weren’t affecting the game after Livi equalised,” said Lennon. “Maybe I made the change too soon, but we didn’t look anything like ourselves for the last 25 minutes of the game.
“There’s been a few changes and maybe it’s a bit of a transitional phase we’re going through, but I need to manage that. The number of games isn’t an excuse. Some of them looked a bit leggy but we’ve had a full week to prepare and there’s been a lot of work on the training ground.
“The two goals weren’t of a physical nature, they were two very good, individual goals but we’ve turned our back on it and we’ve gone to ground. It was awful defending.”
One curveball thrown by the manager was the addition of Lewis Allan to the starting XI. The 21-year-old hadn’t played for Hibs since the 6-2 drubbing at the hands of Rangers in the Challenge Cup more than three years ago, yet he was given the task of partnering Maclaren in attack. Though the striker failed to score, going close with a low shot parried by Liam Kelly in the first half, he drew praise from both his head coach and one of his more experienced team-mates.
“I thought Lewis Allan, making his full debut, was excellent,” said Horgan. “He gave us a real platform but we didn’t capitalise on it. The opportunities I got in those areas I should have done better and we should have done better as a team.”
Lennon added: “Lewis Allan played quite well, he just ran out of steam a little at the end.
“We had a few physically big players out. Having [Darren] McGregor, [Marvin] Bartley and [David] Gray would’ve helped. We’ve also got [Mark] Milligan to come in and hopefully he can make a difference.”