'If we want to be dominant, we MUST build from the back' - Hibs coach urges patience
Control the ball to control the game. It’s a philosophy that places great demands on players. Including those who, not so very long ago, were under strict orders to operate on a no-risk basis in virtually every situation.
The Hibs coaching staff understand why some fans still get the heebie-jeebies when they see their goalkeeper place the sole of his boot on top of the ball – in open play, with strikers actually invited to come flying in – while weighing up his passing options. Which don’t appear to include simply shelling it up the park and hoping a centre forward wins a flick-on.
But players are rolling the ball to David Marshall, an increasingly common ploy at goal kicks, and asking him to lead a patient build-up not simply because it looks snazzy. There’s a deep-rooted logic, familiar to any coach who has ever attending a UEFA talk-in about emerging tactics, in splitting your central defenders and pushing fullbacks high in order to create space.
Done well, a couple of well-placed passes can leave four or five opponents out of the game, bypassing their attempts to press - and creating a significant overload for the team in possession. See the opening goal in Saturday’s 2-1 win at Dundee as a case in point.
So, while there are clear and obvious dangers should the ball be turned over so close to your own goal, the rewards for consistently getting it right are equally apparent, with Hibs goalie coach Miguel Miranda insisting: “The big teams, the teams who want to be more dominant, to have possession and control the game, they will demand that the goalkeeper plays out better from the back.
“If I play in a low block team, a counterattack team, maybe it’s not so important. But it’s vital if you want to be dominant.
“And we want to be dominant. We think Hibs is a very good team so we should be in control, not just give the ball to the opposition, but control the ball. In theory, whoever has the ball controls the game.”
In nine of Nick Montgomery’s 12 games at the helm since replacing Lee Johnson, Hibs have enjoyed majority possession; remove their games against Rangers and Celtic and they’re averaging about 55 per cent. If you could argue all day over the value of a statistic heavily influenced by whether an opponent actually WANTS to have the ball, this is clearly a factor in how the new gaffer intends to play.
And it can’t happen without a goalie who is comfortable with the ball at his feet. The fact that David Marshall has surprised staff with both his ability and willingness to become an auxiliary outfielder is, then, a real bonus.
Miranda, who worked with the likes of Ederson – arguably the best goalkeeper-playmaker in the modern game - and Jan Oblak when he was a youth coach at Benfica’s academy, explained: “When I started coaching, the game was changing, demanding much more from goalkeepers to play out from feet. The importance of playing well with the feet, having good distribution, became really big.
“If you watch modern football now, it’s a requisite for all the big teams. They all want a goalkeeper who can play out well, use the sole of his foot to control the ball.”
On that specific issue, of goalies almost posing with the ball and teasing opponents to come at them, Miranda is adamant that this is no affectation throw in as a footballing flourish, explaining: “I like it when goalkeepers use the sole of their boot because they’re in control.
“If you touch the ball wider out of your feet, you are chasing the ball, you have to look down, so you have to worry about two things – the opponent and the ball. Being more in control, in contact with the ball, means you only have to worry about the opposition. You are more powerful and usually you make better decisions - because you see the whole picture.”
A long-term working relationship and friendship with Sergio Raimundo was the initial connection between Miranda and Montgomery, with all three teaming up to lead underfunded underdogs Central Coast Mariners to the A-League title. The goalie guru has enjoyed every minute of their time together.
“First of all, as a person, Nick is one of the best people I’ve met in my entire life,” said the Portuguese coach. “He’s amazing. It’s almost impossible not to like him, which is a very good thing in professional football, because the players must like and respect the manager. If you are the best coach in the world and the players don’t believe you, it’s pointless.
“His human qualities are amazing. But he’s also a very good coach, so he has both elements. Sergio is the same and they work amazingly well together – a great team.
“It was amazing, what we did at Central Coast. We knew it would be difficult because we had such a young team, the smallest budget in all 12 teams, real underdogs. We were not even close to being competitive, supposedly.
“But when we go for something, we go to win. We never go into a club thinking fourth or fifth is enough – we want to be the best.”