How do Hibs stop Lawrence Shankland, Dundee United's threatening talisman?
Former Hibs defender gives insight into one of Scottish football hottest properties
The last time Hibs encountered Lawrence Shankland was in a Championship fixture away to Morton in April 2017. That was, incidentally, the afternoon when Neil Lennon and Jim Duffy kissed and made up at Cappielow a week and a half after their infamous technical-area bust-up at Easter Road.
On the day in question, Shankland scored a penalty to cancel out Jason Cummings’ first-half opener for Hibs in a 1-1 draw in Greenock. Shankland and Cummings were born just a week apart but at that point the latter was the one looking likeliest to kick on and lead the Scotland attack in the not-too-distant future.
While Cummings savoured his 21st goal of a fruitful title-winning season which would end with him making a lucrative move to Nottingham Forest just a couple of months later, Shankland’s spot-kick was only his sixth goal of a campaign which finished with a relatively modest eight, spread across two loan spells at St Mirren and Morton.
While Cummings’ star was on the rise, Shankland seemed at that point to be little more than an Aberdeen misfit destined for a career in the lower reaches of the game. But after a remarkable two-year renaissance with Ayr United, in which he bagged himself a sensational 63 goals, Shankland is now preparing to reacquaint himself with Hibs this weekend as a fully-fledged Scotland striker.
With 24 goals for Dundee United (and an additional one for Scotland) to his name already this season, the 24-year-old is currently the hottest striker in the country apart from Rangers’ Alfredo Morelos, who has 28 in all competitions. Buoyed by a hat-trick in his last outing against Partick Thistle on Saturday, Shankland is the most obvious threat to Hibs’ hopes of reaching the fifth round of the Scottish Cup at the expense of Robbie Neilson’s rampant United side who are 17 points clear at the top of the Championship after winning 11 of their last 12 games.
Brian McLean, who incidentally was an unused substitute for Hibs in the aforementioned April 2017 match at Cappielow, has seen Shankland up close this season by virtue of being a Morton player and he believes that the key to keeping him quiet is to stop the supply to him.
“I didn’t play in our two games against United this season but I watched Shankland quite closely from the sidelines,” said McLean. “The first time we played them they took six off us and he got a hat-trick. He is a top-class player, albeit at Championship level he probably gets a bit more space in and around the box to slow things down and do what he wants to do. He’s not afraid of taking an extra touch to compose himself and get himself some extra time or space to get a shot away, but he’s equally comfortable just bashing it into the net instinctively.
“He is an all-round striker because of his height. People underestimate his size but he’s over six foot - he scores with both feet and he’s an aerial threat at set-pieces. His link-up play is probably the best in the league. He could quite easily fit into a Premiership side so Hibs will definitely have to be wary of him.”
McLean believes Shankland will view Sunday’s televised match at Tannadice as a great chance to further enhance his credentials. Despite making his full international debut in October, Shankland is yet to score at Scottish Premiership level - although he did open his account for the current campaign by scoring in a 1-1 Betfred Cup draw way to Hearts in July. “He’s not proven at Premiership level yet but that will be on his mind come Sunday,” said McLean, who had a short stint at Hibs in 2017. “With the game on television, he’ll be wanting to show everyone what he’s all about. It’ll be a great test for him and it’s another great platform for him to show what he can do.
“Confidence is massive for any footballer and the fact his confidence is high at the moment makes him especially dangerous to Hibs. He’s clearly enjoying life at Dundee United and he’s had the international call-up and will have benefited from being around that environment. He’s getting pushed in the right direction and he’s excelling. It’s no surprise that so many people are sniffing about him.”
As a former player of both Hibs and Dundee United, McLean will be an interested spectator on Sunday. He is particularly intrigued to see how his former Hibs defensive colleagues deal with Shankland. “I was speaking to (Morton team-mate) Jack Baird about him and he said he’s just so awkward to play against because for such a big guy, he’s so good with both feet,” McLean explained. “As a defender, he makes it difficult for you to play against him. Because of his height, you don’t want to get too tight and allow him to feel you.
“You have to tread carefully with him because he can spin off your shoulder if you go too tight or if you don’t go tight he can drop into the space and turn. You need to stop him getting the time on the ball to link up the play and move United forward. It can be a bit of cat and mouse when you’re against a striker like that. He needs to be pressed from both sides - from behind him and in front of him. That means both the centre-backs and the midfielders will need to be aware of what he’s doing and try and suffocate him that way.
“It’ll be a good duel with Shankland and the Hibs defenders, especially if Ryan Porteous comes back in after his red card against Rangers. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to playing against that type of striker. Paul Hanlon and Darren McGregor have been through countless tasks so I’m sure they’ll make sure he remains composed if they’re playing alongside him.”