How might Hibs line up against Aberdeen amid transfer exit rumours and injuries?
It wasn’t that long ago that Lee Johnson felt his Hibs squad was too big.
He had a point; at one stage there were close to 30 players registered as members of the first team and although not all of them were actually making the squad on a weekly basis, there were too many players caught in a limbo between the first team and the club’s development squad and not getting any real gametime for either.
"The first thing we need to do is trim the squad. We’ve got far too many players at the club who I don’t see as infiltrating the first team over short to medium-term. It can cause you problems when you have an overinflated squad because people want to play football,” he said, at the end of the November.
Since then, eight players have left on a temporary or permanent basis although only two of them – Nohan Kenneh and Elias Melkersen – could really be described as first-team regulars. They could be joined by Kevin Nisbet and Ryan Porteous before Saturday afternoon and with at least four first-team players sidelined through injury, the previously-bloated squad is now looking somewhat stretched.
David Marshall will almost certainly continue in goals, while Chris Cadden is likely to take up his usual right-back berth. The defender was struggling himself with injury but returned last weekend and played the full 90 minutes against Hearts while Lewis Miller is also back fit and available. Left-back will come down to Marijan Čabraja or Lewis Stevenson. The latter was deployed in midfield in the Scottish Cup but Joe Newell, suspended for last weekend, is available for selection.
Centre-back is where the real issue lies. Rocky Bushiri is out having sustained an injury in the cup defeat while Porteous could well be a Watford player come 3pm on Saturday. There are questions over Paul Hanlon’s fitness although the boyhood Hibee would almost certainly play through the barrier as he has in the past.
Regardless of whether Hibs play a back three or a four-man defence – they went with 4231 in the last home game against the Dons but 3421 at Pittodrie – Will Fish will almost certainly play. Who partners him depends on Hanlon’s fitness, or more accurately, his chances of lasting 90 minutes.
It’s not just this weekend’s match, either: with Bushiri facing a lengthy spell on the sidelines and Porteous likely to depart, Hibs will need enough bodies in defence. They are working on centre-back additions but having the experienced club captain fit and available would be a good starting point.
Other than that, it’s either bringing Darren McGregor back into the fold, who hasn’t been involved in a matchday squad since the first week of November never mind playing; recall Kyle McClelland, who is not long back from an ankle injury, from his Cove Rangers loan spell or turning to the youngsters.
Newell’s return gives Lee Johnson more options in midfield than he had last time out but with Jake Doyle-Hayes and Kyle Magennis sidelined, two potential starters are unavailable. The arrival of Jimmy Jeggo from Eupen bolsters numbers slightly, and there is always the chance Stevenson could be used in midfield again depending on what formation is used.
Even so, in terms of natural midfielders Josh Campbell, Ewan Henderson – who hasn’t started a game since early November – Jeggo, and Newell are the only squad options for Johnson, unless Murray Aiken is again bumped up from the under-19s.
Leading the line
There isn’t a great deal of time before Hibs and Aberdeen do battle for the hosts to bolster their attack, assuming Nisbet leaves. At the time of writing the centre-forward options would appear to be Harry McKirdy, who is yet to complete a 90 minutes for Hibs and open his account, and Élie Youan, who has mostly been used as a wide forward, with Martin Boyle and Mykola Kukharevych both out for the foreseeable.
Many supporters are keen for Ethan Laidlaw and Josh O’Connor to get a chance – the pair combined for the opening goal in Hibs’ midweek Reserve Cup win against an experienced Livingston side, with O’Connor adding another assist and goal in a 3-1 victory – but it would be hugely unfair to ask either to step up and immediately replicate Nisbet’s recent output. However, giving them greater exposure to the first team, and building up their minutes with sub appearances would surely be beneficial for the players, and potentially the team if they are able to contribute in front of goal.
That being said Hibs still need an experienced forward. The capture of Jeggo (30 years old, experience in several leagues, international caps) may mark a change of direction in recruitment from young project signings to tried-and-tested players who can hit the ground running and impact the team. But as has been said by so many managers, including Johnson, January is a hellish month for picking up players. Factor in the move to a director of football model at Easter Road and it’s unclear if any arrivals will be long-term signings, or stop-gap acquisitions until the summer.
It’s not unthinkable that Hibs will add to their squad before Saturday, and there remains an outside chance that Porteous could play his final game for the club against the Dons, but at the moment – omitting Nisbet and Porteous and the injured Boyle, Doyle-Hayes, Kukharevych, and Magennis – the available squad would appear to be Marshall, Schofield, Cadden, Miller, Fish, Hanlon (if fit), Megwa, Stevenson, Čabraja, MacIntyre, Campbell, Jeggo, Newell, Henderson, McGeady, McKirdy, Youan, Tavares, Laidlaw, and potentially O’Connor.
With the transfer window closing at midnight on Tuesday, just hours after Hibs face Ross County in Dingwall, supporters will be fervently hoping the club is able to add to the squad before the deadline – if they don’t, it could be a long, and anxious, second half of the season.