Hibs team, tactical questions, and fans' behaviour: Talking points ahead of the Edinburgh derby
For the first time in 18 months on Sunday we will be treated to a Scottish Premiership Edinburgh derby with blood, thunder, and fans in their numbers.
There are numerous Hibs talking points ahead of this meeting of bitter rivals; some selection-based, others focused on events off the park.
If Paul Hanlon is given the green light to play, Jack Ross has a decision to make over whether he starts the club captain or Darren McGregor. There are, no doubt, arguments for either centre-back starting and having a positive selection dilemma isn’t the worst pre-derby conundrum to have facing a manager.
However, if Hanlon is fully fit it is hard to envisage him being named on the bench. He might not be afforded the same appreciation as some of his team-mates but his stats speak for themselves.
Nathan Wood is unlikely to be pitched straight in to action either, barring an injury crisis, but will provide cover from the bench.
Whichever combination Ross chooses, it is vital that the defence is on it for the 90 minutes. Hibs have started the season strongly but there have been times when they have still lost goals all too easily – especially from set-pieces.
Midfield match-up: Gogic or Newell?
The midfield is often where matches can be won and lost. Hearts have utilised a 3-4-3 in most matches this season and Beni Baningime and Peter Haring are likely to be the two players in the middle of the park for the hosts.
Hibs, in their 4-2-3-1 set-up, tend to partner Joe Newell with Jake Doyle-Hayes and have Kyle Magennis sitting in the ten position. Baningime and Haring are physical players who can use the ball well but Doyle-Hayes and Magennis are more than capable of digging in and freeing up Newell to pull the strings.
Alex Gogic certainly provides a physical presence in midfield but the Cypriot internationalist hasn’t been in top form so far this season and may be best kept among the substitutes as an option later in the game if Hibs are looking to protect a lead or beef up their defensive ranks.
We all know what Scott Allan can do and the playmaker was influential in Hibs’ last victory in Gorgie – but he is another who may be tasked with making a difference off the bench rather than a starting option.
If Michael Smith is fit then he will fulfil a role on the right of midfield for Hearts. Should the Northern Irish internationalist not be available, Andy Halliday will likely take his place, with Liverpool loanee Ben Woodburn continuing as the right-sided forward in Hearts’ front three.
Josh Doig has one assist from his three league matches so far but that came against Ross County and Hearts are likely to cause Hibs more problems in attack than the Staggies. The Scotland Under-21 internationalist is a sight to behold when he gallops down the touchline but could be asked tough questions defensively from Woodburn and potentially Halliday.
Last season Ross occasionally brought Lewis Stevenson back into the fold, especially if Hibs were playing a back four, with Doig thriving in a left wing-back role in the 3-5-2. However, Doig has improved since last season and will be especially eager to show his former team what they’re missing. Whoever Doig is up against on that side, it will be a thrilling back-and-forth.
Derby matches aren’t usually the time to drastically change things but Hibs could take a leaf out of Tottenham’s book and attempt to counter Hearts by lining up in a 3-4-3 themselves and pressing high, avoiding the attackers from seeing too much of the ball.
Hibs did play 3-4-3 in pre-season at times and have the bodies to do so but how likely is it that Ross will spring a surprise on Sunday?
If Boyle was to miss out, the available personnel appear far better suited to the 4-2-3-1 rather than a 3-4-3 and as the old adage goes, if it ain’t broke…
The Scott quandary
James Scott’s versatility is a big boost for Hibs as he is able to play anywhere across the front three.
Against Livingston he started as a ten tucked in behind Kevin Nisbet but was shifted out wide to accommodate Scott Allan when Jamie Murphy was forced off injured.
But once the on-loan Hull City forward was played in a wider role his influence diminished. Tigers fans have bemoaned the fact that he was often played on the flank and never given a chance centrally, as he was at Motherwell, but with Murphy almost certainly out of the derby he may be the preferred option on the left wing.
The only thing that might top the return of the derby is the fact that there will be a full house in attendance, and it would be great if both sets of supporters can contribute to the atmosphere and make headlines for all the right reasons.
Followers of both teams have let themselves down at this fixture in recent seasons and it was especially disappointing to hear one particularly derogatory chant aimed at Dundee forward Jason Cummings from a mercifully small section of the Hibs support at Dens Park.
Edinburgh derbies are highly-charged events no matter where they are played but it is no excuse for some of the antics at previous meetings.
The atmosphere at Tynecastle Park on Sunday should be electric. A first league derby in 18 months, fans back in their numbers, both teams going well at the top of the league.
All eyes will be on Gorgie come midday on Sunday. Hopefully both sets of players, and both sets of fans, can make it a memorable occasion for all the right reasons.