How Hibs nullified Celtic to earn a deserved draw - midfield balance, Doidge, system

Hibs became the first team to take points off Celtic in the Scottish Premiership this season. Joel Sked looks at how they did it.

By Joel Sked
Monday, 30th September 2019, 1:12 pm
Updated Monday, 30th September 2019, 4:09 pm
Hibs earned a deserved point against Celtic. Picture: SNS
Hibs earned a deserved point against Celtic. Picture: SNS

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The announcement of the Hibs line-up has become one of trepidation for Hibs fans. There is always at least one decision which does not go down well leaving supporters baffled. It wouldn't be a surprise if some fans simply ignored it until they were at least in the ground so as to prevent them just staying in the pub.

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Image 1: Hibs' 4-1-4-1 shape.

However, on Saturday, Paul Heckingbottom got the system and personnel bang on. There was a nice balance to the team, especially in midfield, something which will be explored further.

In image 1 you can see it was a 4-1-4-1 (albeit with the defence out of the picture). Melker Hallberg was at the base of the midfield with Scott Allan and Josh Vela in front. All three had different jobs.


A lot of derogatory terms have been used to describe the team as a collective by fans, fed up with meek displays, fed up watching their side be pushovers.

Image 2: Bodies back.

Yet, the players' attitude could not be questioned against Celtic. The energy and determination was there from the start. BT Sport commentator Stephen Craigan made note of Hibs not being able to play with such intensity for the full match. They pretty much did.

It wasn't a case of pressing really high up the pitch and forcing Celtic back. Instead they made it extremely difficult for them to play through the midfield. Christian Doidge sent a memo to the visitors early on when he chased down a loose ball and nipped it away from centre-back Christopher Jullien. It may have only went out for a throw-in but it let their opponents know it wasn't going to be the easy afternoon many predicted.

It is a simple thing. No matter how poor you are performing and how good the opponents are you can run, hard and fast. No matter the quality, players don't like to be unnerved and rushed. Hibs did that.

Defend narrow and compact

Image 3: Hallberg disrupting Celtic's counter.

It wasn't all easy going for Hibs' defence. The quick interplay of the midfield and Odsonne Edouard's quick-off-the-mark movement prised the home side open early on, while Lewis Stevenson had difficulty with Ryan Christie's movement as the forward dragged the left-back infield, creating space for Moritz Bauer to motor in to - he created Celtic's goal.

Yet, Hibs got a lot of success in packing the box with bodies and defending narrow where they could - see image 2.

When James Forrest had an abundance of space down the left, rather than anticipate the ball going to the winger, Tom James held his narrow position and would only engage when the ball was moved wide.

Meanwhile, the centre-backs would do their utmost not to get dragged out of position. Adam Jackson was tempted to follow Edouard early on but opted against it and retreated immediately into the defensive line.

Image 4: Hallberg tracking Ryan Christie.

This narrowed the space for Celtic's intricate passing - behind the back four and the spaces between defenders. With Neil Lennon's men having three central midfielders and two inverted wingers it meant the middle of the pitch would be crowded.

The space was in the wings with Hibs basically telling their opponents to use that space and cross as it would be dealt with. It was a tactic which largely worked well, it was just a pity that the goal conceded came from a cross. James failed to react quick enough to get out to mark Christie.

Eagle-eyed Hallberg

A big - and justified - criticism of the Hibs midfield is the lack of enforcer. A Mark Milligan or Marvin Bartley type. Yet, Melker Hallberg suggested he has the capacity to fill that role on Saturday.

Hibs weren't shy in pushing players forward when they attacked. But at all times Hallberg would try and stay central to offer a blanket of protection.

In image 3 you can see that the home side had committed with the Swede mopping up. He didn't win the tackle cleanly but it was enough to disrupt the Celtic attack. That is more than enough to allow players to get back behind the ball.

Image 5: Allan's movement and Doidge's run.

It wasn't just the fact that he gave Hibs a solid base, he put in a mountain of work drifting left or right to get in someone's face, so important when attackers are moving infield.

Get past Hibs' midfield line of four and opponents were still left to navigate Hallberg. In image 4 you can see him tracking Ryan Christie, not committing himself but staying tight and not allowing him space to pass.

Nullifying Callum McGregor

The Scotland international is rightly recognised as one of the best players in Scotland. He can have such a huge influence on Celtic.

Saturday was one of his quietest games, in part due to the man-marking role of Josh Vela.

The summer signing is one who has done okay since arriving from Bolton Wanderers. But there is still a certain confusion as to what his strongest role is in the midfield.

On Saturday he displayed his energy and ability to cover ground, as well as his awareness and concentration.

McGregor was not at his penetrative best, passing or driving with the ball. A lot of that is down to Vela.

Celtic's high line

Celtic's back line is such that it can afford to hold an aggressive line with powerful athletes across it. But even the best of high defensive positions can be undone by smart through balls and eager forwards.

That was an avenue Hibs targeted through Scott Allan.

The home side's goal showed that. Jackson played a fantastic pass to dissect the Celtic midfield to find Allan intelligently drifting off the blindside of Scott Brown. As we can see in image 5, Doidge is already on the move when the ball is heading to the midfielder.

Allan, who also displayed a different part of his game, mucking in on the defensive side, did well to find space throughout. Every time he did there was a team-mate getting on their bike to run in behind.


Saturday was probably the striker's best performance in a Hibs shirt and showcased his quality with his back to goal and his effectiveness outside the box.

In the second minute a clearance from deep was held up by Doidge, he held off Kristoffer Ajer and then won a foul, releasing the pressure.

He would be a constant out ball for Hibs. He went up against Jullien and used his body to keep possession, he enticed Ajer into a challenge which led to a booking.

But more than just holding the ball up and allowing the team to get up the pitch he is capable of linking play with cushioned passes onto runners, as seen in image 6 where he freed Allan.


Let's not pretend everything is rosy again at Easter Road but Saturday showed that there is a team and squad there for Paul Heckingbottom to work with.

Against weaker opposition they will need to show their ability to create chances and break teams down who sit in.

The biggest positive, however, is that there was a clear structure and game plan. One which the players followed.

Image 6: Christian Doidge link.