How Hibs are shaping up going into the final nine games of the season - game management, psychology, determination
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It was markedly different from the sombre and ashen-faced reaction following the 6-1 pasting in October when the players couldn’t wait to disappear down the tunnel at full time. So too was Lee Johnson’s post-match press conference. Five months ago he had laid into his players, criticising their ‘schoolboy defending’ and ‘horrendous errors’. But perhaps stung by shipping ten goals in two games to Ange Postecoglou’s side, and having endured a chastening defeat by a slick Rangers side last midweek, Johnson went with a more pragmatic, secure approach to this encounter; flooding the midfield and bolstering the defence.
When Josh Campbell buried his penalty past Joe Hart to put ten-man Hibs 1-0 up just before the break, Johnson and his side may have allowed themselves to dream a little bit. That hope lasted only seven minutes into the second period when Jota restored parity with a Celtic penalty but a dogged Hibs were eight minutes from escaping with an unlikely draw, until Oh Hyeon-gyu bulleted a header past David Marshall and Sead Hakšabanović curled in a third.
Defeat again, yes, but Hibs gave a good account of themselves and there’s a lingering ‘what-if’ around Élie Youan’s second yellow and subsequent red card, and what might have transpired had Hibs finished with a full complement of players on the park.
One factor that helped Hibs gain something of an upper hand was their game management. Lee Johnson was booked by referee Steven McLean after a second ball was kicked onto the pitch from the away dugout during the first half to prevent Celtic from taking a quick free kick. The remainder of the match was peppered with drawn-out goal kick routines, length throw-in times, and general spoiling, particularly after Youan’s red card. There’s another s-word for that type of approach but with the Evening News being a family publication, you’ll have to use your imagination.
But all joking aside the tactics, while not universally appreciated – even Johnson cast a disapproving eye over his bench after his booking – were largely effective. It prevented Celtic from keeping their trademark relentless tempo and it irritated sections of the home support. Against a team with Celtic’s strength in depth it was always going to be a tall order to keep them out forever, and so it proved late on.
Hibs can be proud of the performance – as Johnson himself pointed out before the last meeting, it is difficult to compare the two teams in a like-for-like manner. It was perhaps sensible that he didn’t do likewise this time around, however.
No.2 Jamie McAllister took on media duties in the lead-up to the match and made a point of highlighting the improvement in the team’s mentality from the October game. Whether it was tactics, personnel, or simply good old-fashioned psychology, Hibs did not look as overawed and rabbit-in-headlights as they had in the autumn. Jake Doyle-Hayes was snapping and snarling around the midfield, Lewis Miller impressed at right-wingback, Josh Campbell put in a power of work, and David Marshall pulled off four or five fine saves that would have had a few of the older members of the home support recalling his stint between the sticks for the Hoops at the start of his career.
But most notable was that Hibs went there with the mindset of getting a result by hook or by crook. It flies in the face a little of Johnson’s assertion that Hibs will always have a go against Celtic and Rangers but sometimes managers need to be pragmatic. Johnson was, Hibs were better and they weren’t too far away from taking something from the game. The big question is can they take that into their remaining nine games?
The race for third?
The stop-start nature of Hibs’ league campaign continues: an early exit from the Scottish Cup combined with the Viaplay Cup final and the international break, has left the club with a weekend on, weekend off schedule. There are benefits to that of course – injured players get more time to recover, the coaching staff can spend longer working on drills, and players who need a rest can get one.
Next up for Hibs is a home game against a resurgent Motherwell side who lost their first game in five at the weekend against Rangers. Aberdeen travel to St Johnstone, and Hearts travel to Kilmarnock. With all three firmly targeting third place the last few games should serve up something of an intriguing battle.
Hibs have players returning from injury – Mykola Kukharevych, Harry McKirdy, and Kevin Nisbet were all unused subs against Celtic and the likes of Kyle Magennis and Joe Newell remain sidelined but are approaching a return – and also seem to have hit a bit of form if you take away matches against the Old Firm.
But with the race to avoid relegation heating up, and the fight for a top-six berth also raging along with the jostling for the various European places, it is set to be an intense end to a campaign that, not that long ago, looked like being another damp squib for a transitional Hibs team.
Nine games is still a long way to go and in football, particularly in the Scottish game, anything can happen. The games against each other in the various sub-plots will be fascinating.
As for Hibs, one of Johnson’s favoured phrases is, ‘control the controllables’. For the Easter Road side that extends to getting as many points as possible. There are signs that the long-term project being masterminded by Johnson is taking shape, but it will mean little if this season is another that ends with a whimper rather than a bang.