When Hibs resume the 2021/22 season with a trip to Celtic on Monday January 17 Shaun Maloney has several decisions to make. Fortunately, with Hibs busy in the early days of the transfer market there are several new faces to bolster his options in all areas of the park.
It is highly unlikely that all six new signings will be parachuted into the starting XI for the trip to Celtic Park. Ewan Henderson for one is ineligible but it would be a bold move to make wholesale changes to a team that has won its last three league games.
So what could Maloney do when Hibs are back in action?
3-4-1-2 – tried and tested
Maloney opted to start with a 3-4-1-2 in both games against Aberdeen and Dundee United so he could he look to do the same again if he is keen on continuity. The absence of Ryan Porteous and, possibly, Paul McGinn through suspension means a new-look defence but Harry Clarke and Rocky Bushiri could join Paul Hanlon in a back three while Darren McGregor and Lewis Stevenson have also operated there this season and provide plenty of options at the back.
Joe Newell should return from injury and could partner Jake Doyle-Hayes in the middle of the park although Josh Campbell, Alex Gogic, and Dylan Tait could also be pushing for a starting berth.
Chris Cadden and Josh Doig could take the wingback slots while Scott Allan, Drey Wright, and possibly Elias Melkersen could compete for the number ten role.
Up front Martin Boyle should keep his place while Kevin Nisbet is likely to partner him up top.
Assuming Maloney doesn’t change things too much and opts for a similar line-up to the team he picked for Dundee United Hibs could go with Matt Macey; Harry Clarke, Paul Hanlon, Rocky Bushiri; Chris Cadden, Jake Doyle-Hayes, Joe Newell, Josh Doig; Scott Allan; Martin Boyle, and Kevin Nisbet. This could give him a bench comprising Kevin Dabrowski, Lewis Stevenson, Josh Campbell, Elias Melkersen, Jamie Murphy, Chris Mueller, and Christian Doidge – and a pretty handy second-string side left over.
3-4-3 – width, width, width
Maloney reverted to a 3-4-3 in the latter stages of both his games in charge. If he opted to start with this the line-up would look much the same as above but with the possibility of Mueller or Murphy starting wide left instead of Allan as a ten.
4-3-3 – something different
With the new arrivals at Easter Road, the defence looks a lot more flexible now. Reverting to a back four with Clarke at right-back and Doig at left-back, and Hanlon partnering Bushiri in the middle would allow a midfield of Doyle-Hayes, Newell, and one other – potentially Campbell or Tait – while the three forwards could be made up of any three of Boyle, Doidge, Nisbet, Melkersen, Mueller, Murphy, Nisbet, and Scott.
4-2-3-1 – for a bit of balance
Hibs played 4-2-3-1 at times under Jack Ross, and during Paul Heckingbottom’s tenure too. This would likely see the same back four as the 4-3-3 option, with Campbell, Doyle-Hayes, and Newell possibilities for the holding roles and an attacking midfield combination made up of any three of Allan, Boyle, Campbell, Melkersen, Mueller, and Murphy.
Doidge, Nisbet, Scott or even Melkersen could play as the lone forward.
...and the rest
It’s still early days in the Maloney era so he may have more tactics and formations up his sleeve that might be utilised in the near future. While it’s hard to imagine a Maloney Hibs team playing 4-5-1 or 4-4-2 very often, one sign of a good team is its ability to adapt to different situations.
Once those suspended or injured are back in contention, Maloney will have more options, more competition for places and most likely, a group of players who continually raise their game in training and in games.
The Easter Road squad
We have a good idea of which players are considered starters, which ones are likely to be used off the bench, and those that appear to be very much on the fringes of the first team and possibly candidates for a January exit.
But six new arrivals – half a team – gives Hibs something different. The team would now appear to have not only a plan B but potentially a plan C as well if required.
The current crop of players who are likely to remain at Easter Road beyond the end of the transfer window can nearly all play in more than one position. Under Maloney the team is rotating in certain areas of the field, playing a different game than they were under Jack Ross.
As things stand, Hibs have a large first-team squad – 32 players – and while there will almost certainly be some departures, it’s worth looking at the numbers of players for each position.
Goalkeepers: Matt Macey, Kevin Dabrowski, David Mitchell.
Right-backs / right wing-backs: Cadden, Clarke, McGinn.
Left-backs / left wing-backs: Doig, Mackie, Stevenson.
Centre-backs: Bushiri, Clarke, Hanlon, McGinn, McGregor, Porteous.
Defensive midfielders: Campbell, Doyle-Hayes, Gogic, Hallberg, Newell.
Central midfielders: Campbell, Doyle-Hayes, Gogic, Hallberg, Magennis, Newell, Tait.
Right-wingers: Boyle, Bradley, Cadden, Mueller.
Left-wingers: Mackay, Mueller, Murphy.
Playmakers / No.10s: Allan, Campbell, Henderson, Magennis, Wright.
Centre-forwards: Doidge, Melkersen, Nisbet, Scott.
There are at least three players for every position, not including players who play one position but can fill in elsewhere e.g. Boyle up top or Stevenson at centre-back. If players are suspended, injured, or on international duty there is a replacement of the same standard ready to step in.
Viewing the Easter Road squad as a whole lays bare the work done behind the scenes to bring in quality players who will improve the team.
The next few weeks should give us more of an idea of what the new arrivals will do, and how Hibs are going to play under Maloney in the long-term.