How Martin Boyle became the 'new Scott Allan' - and why the pair linking up again at Hibs is a mouthwatering prospect
Martin Boyle has posted his best attacking return to date this season in a Hibs shirt, with the bubbly attacker’s career-best coinciding with the prolonged absence of mercurial playmaker Scott Allan.
Allan was sidelined for several months after being diagnosed with a heart condition and while he has been able to return to action, he has been working back to full match fitness on loan at Championship Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
His stats last season would have been impressive in a regular season, never mind one cut short by a pandemic, so as well as the concern for the player’s health there were questions as to how Hibs would fill the gap.
Step forward Martin Boyle
Boyle on the wing, Boyle up top
When Christian Doidge and Kevin Nisbet suffered something of a downturn in form around the halfway point of the season, Boyle was eventually moved up top with January arrival Chris Cadden taking his spot on the right.
The benefits of this were numerous: Cadden is far better suited to the wingback role in a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 set-up; Boyle being pushed up front and playing more centrally offered Hibs something different in attack, and there was less pressure on Doidge and Nisbet in front of goal.
After overcoming his own dip as a result of off-field issues, Boyle looked reinvigorated as a centre-forward. After all, he had started the season as an auxiliary striker, scoring both goals in the opening-day 2-1 win against Kilmarnock.
No goals please, we’re central midfielders
The 27-year-old's habit of chipping in with goals and assists from whichever role he fulfils has perhaps masked another issue: the lack of a goal-scoring central midfielder.
The dearth of goals from Melker Hallberg, Jackson Irvine, and Joe Newell has been somewhat overshadowed by the exploits of Boyle, and Doidge and Nisbet in front of goal.
Hibs’ top-scoring central midfielder this season (so far) is currently on loan in Turkey. Stevie Mallan has individually outscored every other player to have played the position this season albeit his four strikes consist of a penalty and three goals against lower-league opposition in the Betfred Cup. Ross did experiment with Mallan in the midfield as a tentative stand-in for Allan and when it didn’t work, moved on to a different approach.
Boyle the new Allan?
When Allan does return to the fold in the summer, he will be like a new signing.
Across his three stints at Easter Road he has proved to be such a vital player in terms of assists and, especially in his second and third spells, goals.
Had he been fit this season, would he have matched his numbers from last term? And might that have helped Hibs make more of a challenge for second?
We will never know if Boyle would have produced the same numbers had Allan been in the team too. The Australian internationalist has virtually replicated Allan’s stats from last season over the same number of games: 12 goals and ten assists from 41 games compared to Allan’s ten goals and 11 assists from 40 games.
The plan was presumably not for Boyle to replace Allan – after all, the two are very different players – but the duo have combined for ten goals in green and white i.e. assisting each other. That's more than Allan x Doidge, Allan x Florian Kamberi, Allan x Jason Cummings, Boyle x Doidge, Boyle x Nisbet… the list goes on.
The argument for Boyle as a winger
Boyle’s pace makes him a handful for any full-back. Sceptics need only watch the torrid time he gave Borna Barisic during the 2-1 defeat by Rangers at the weekend to be convinced.
Sometimes his crossing leaves a lot to be desired, but when it works it often results in a goal. His sheer speed can often leave defenders flat-footed, unsure if Boyle is going to cross the ball or run at them, or cut inside.
Many opposition teams are so concerned by the threat he poses that they stick two men on him, creating space for Paul McGinn, Chris Cadden, or Jackson Irvine to come across and support him.
He is able to hit the byeline, or cut inside, or take two players out of the game. Simply put, he is a nightmare for opposition full-backs. Managers know that most of Hibs’ attacks will come down the right side when Boyle plays, and try to take action. Even then, it doesn’t always work.
The argument for Boyle as a centre-forward
This season Boyle has played 25 games in his “natural” position of right winger, scoring three and laying on six for his team-mates. In ten games as a centre-forward he has scored seven and assisted four. While he would be unlikely to maintain that form for an entire season and finish with circa 25 goals and 15 assists, his effectiveness on the flank or up top and ability to switch mid-game is invaluable for Hibs.
The prospect of a revitalised Boyle and a fully-fit Allan combining next season is a mouthwatering one.
Summer transfer activity aside – a striker and left-winger are top of the shopping list – Hibs could be playing an entirely different brand of football next season. Allan’s return and likely intention to make up for lost time combined with Boyle’s increased consistency and versatility opens Hibs up to a host of new strategies and tactics which could be hugely important in tackling unknown European opposition.
The Jack Ross Project is beginning to take shape, piece by piece. There have been ups and downs this season but in a campaign blighted by Covid-19 Hibs look to be coming out the other side in a better state than when they entered it – and Boyle’s performances have been a big, big part of that.