How Hibs can adapt to Martin Boyle absence - returning players, tactical tweaks, January signings
One of the most telling comments about Hibs throughout 2022 has been the oft-repeated, ‘they’re not a one-man team, but...’
The ‘one man’ is of course Martin Boyle, and the ‘but’ refers to the fact that the Easter Road side seem alarmingly toothless without him in the side. During the calendar year Hibs have won just four league matches – two against St Johnstone, and one each against Ross County and St Mirren – without the Australian internationalist in the squad.
It was evident during Boyle’s brief sojourn in Saudi Arabia, and in the three matches before the World Cup break that the 29-year-old is something of a cheat code for Hibs. His pace, trickery, eye for goal, and infectious enthusiasm mark him out as a priceless component. But the Capital club needs to play at least 24 matches and possibly more without his talents, so what’s the answer?
Return of Nisbet
The last thing Hibs will want to do is pile any more pressure onto Kevin Nisbet but the 25-year-old is primed to make a return to competitive action when his side travels to Rangers on December 15. Being without the Scotland striker and Boyle for the majority of the second half of last season rendered Hibs all but blunt in the final third. Nisbet will almost certainly be involved in the friendlies against Middlesbrough and FC Edinburgh and we should find out what sort of condition he is in, with team-mates insisting he is champing at the bit to return to action. While he is no stranger to the weight of expectation, you’d imagine Lee Johnson will be praying to all the gods that the striker comes through the friendly matches unscathed and can hit the ground running in the cinch Premiership. However, strikers also need service…
Johnson has repeatedly said that Hibs fans haven’t seen the best of Aiden McGeady. The veteran winger featured in all of the Premier Sports Cup group matches before suffering a recurrence of the problem that dogged him during his final year at Sunderland in the first half of the 1-0 victory over Norwich in the final pre-season friendly. The 36-year-old is on the cusp of a comeback, and how Hibs could benefit from someone with his ability pinging balls into the box for Nisbet, and Mykola Kukharevych. But as with Boyle, Hibs can’t rely on just one player.
Tweaking the tactics
Boyle has so far been mostly used as a centre-forward or right-winger, but with the talisman out of action until the summer, a rethink might be needed with no obvious replacement to step into his boots. It boils down to Johnson’s view of Boyle as a ‘difference-maker’. Further adding to Johnson’s problems is a lack of options at right-back. With Lewis Miller still out of action, there are no obvious candidates at full-back if Chris Cadden was to be pushed into midfield and if Cadden remains in a back four, there are no obvious candidates to play on the right of midfield.
On top of that, a three-man defence wasn’t really working for Hibs either, and it’s hard to imagine them returning to such a formation, unless a personnel change sparked by returning players can get the best out of it.
Players stepping up
There aren’t any obvious youngsters who could seize the opportunity so the onus is on the first-team players who have maybe underachieved so far but have shown glimpses of what they can do – Élie Youan, for one, or possibly Runar Hauge who will return to the club after a loan spell with Dundalk.
Harry McKirdy, albeit not an out-and-out winger, could go some way to helping fill the void after a spirited substitute appearance against Kilmarnock while Elias Melkersen might also provide an option in the wide areas. Perhaps the club might also U-turn on their decision to allow Stevie Bradley to leave in January, the youngster having impressed on loan, also at Dundalk, and in Scotland with Ayr United.
The Campbell conundrum
With Jake Doyle-Hayes due to return to training after recovering from an injury of his own and thereby bolstering the central midfield options, could Josh Campbell be an option on the right side? His engine enables him to play most positions – so far this season he has filled in at left-back, left-wingback, right-wingback, central midfield, and attacking midfield – so while not an option to replace Boyle, he could make life easier if Johnson chooses to mix things up.
January transfer window
But the most likely option for Hibs appears to be the transfer market. Johnson has already voiced his intention to move on five or six players, but even with a trimmed-down squad, January is never the easiest month to recruit players. A like-for-like replacement for Boyle will be near-impossible to source, but Johnson’s knowledge of the British football market and possibly his links with the City Football Group might mean an experienced figure or highly-talented prospect similar to Kukharevych is obtainable.
Free agents don’t seem to be as popular these days and a quick glance at the available, and affordable, wingers feels like getting the menu after a starter and substantial main course at a restaurant, reading through all the options, and then opting for just a coffee instead. There are some eyebrow-raising options out there but Hibs don’t feel like the sort of club to make a hasty decision.
But, at the same time, it feels like Hibs need another experienced head in there. At 29, Boyle is one of the elder statesmen of the Easter Road first-team squad and it’s not just his technical ability that the side will miss but his experience and knowledge of the Scottish game as well – especially with a rather daunting run of games coming up with Rangers, Livingston, Celtic, and Hearts all on the horizon.