How two formations could turn under-performing Hibs’ fortunes around

With each dispiriting performance, the case for a change in Hibs’ formation becomes stronger.

Wednesday, 4th September 2019, 4:55 pm
Hibs boss Paul Heckingbottom and his assistant Robbie Stockdale will be working hard on the training ground over the international break. Pic: SNS

Deployed predominantly in a 4-3-3 / 4-5-1 formation this season, Paul Heckingbottom’s team have lacked defensive security, midfield cohesion and a genuine goal threat. Significant and rapid improvement is required in all departments of the team.

While Heckingbottom’s preferred approach, which has been occasionally alternated with 4-4-2, worked well in his early weeks in charge, its effectiveness has been on the wane ever since the rousing victory at Tynecastle in early April. In their current set-up, Hibs don’t look a team about to ignite.

Although it would involve a significant change of tack from the under-pressure manager, there are several legitimate reasons for Heckingbottom to consider two formations which allowed Hibs to thrive previously under both Neil Lennon and Alan Stubbs – 3-5-2 and the midfield diamond within a 4-4-2.

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The 3-5-2 is not everyone’s cup of tea and all evidence so far suggests it isn’t Heckingbottom’s either. But given the need for something dramatic to change and considering the success Hibs enjoyed with it in recent seasons (Scottish Cup glory under Stubbs and qualification for Europe a little over a year ago under Lennon), it would be negligent not to at least ponder its merits. The ineffectiveness of Hibs’ wingers in the absence of Martin Boyle, the lack of a bona fide holding midfielder, the current inability to get two strikers in the team without sacrificing or diminishing Scott Allan, the availability of Ryan Porteous and the arrival of Jason Naismith all lend credence to the case for 3-5-2.

If using this formation, Heckingbottom would have the option of playing Porteous, Adam Jackson and Paul Hanlon as a three-man defence. All three are comfortable on the ball, and Jackson and Hanlon – who is well-accustomed to 3-5-2 – both look like they would benefit from having the extra security of Porteous in there beside them. Darren McGregor, due back from injury later this year, has previously excelled in a three-man defence.

Lewis Stevenson is arguably at his best as a left-wing-back and, when starting slightly higher up the pitch, he has the energy and drive to offset the absence of a winger. Likewise Naismith, who is renowned for rampaging forward on the right. Boyle and David Gray – both of whom are injured long term – are also equipped to play the right-wing-back role to a high standard when fit.

The presence of three centre-backs would take the focus off the absence of a Marvin Bartley/Mark Milligan-type enforcer in midfield. When Hibs played 3-5-2 under Lennon, Bartley generally wasn’t required. Instead, the team was able to play with three more attack-minded midfielders. This formation would, in theory, allow Heckingbottom to select any three from Josh Vela, Melker Hallberg, Vykintas Slivka, Stevie Mallan, Fraser Murray and Scott Allan without putting the team at risk of being overrun.

Allan needs to be deployed in a position that allows him to make the team tick, namely in a central role behind two strikers. He is not perfectly suited to a traditional 4-4-2 because then there is extra onus on him to be defensively switched on. This is why he was controversially moved out to the left when Hibs played 4-4-2 against St Johnstone recently. By placing him in an advanced central-midfield role with security behind him and two strikers ahead of him to work off his magnificent supply, he should be able to operate at his very best.

If Allan is having an off-day, which he will at times, Daryl Horgan, Joe Newell or Mallan could replace him in the most advanced midfield role – or Heckingbottom could tweak the formation mid-match, as he regularly does anyway.

Having Allan in his most effective position would help the strikers enjoy a more regular supply of chances, as should using two strikers together.

Hibs will surely be better served by giving Kamberi a strike partner over the long run. As someone who likes to run in behind, the Swiss should operate well alongside target man Christian Doidge and in front of Allan.

Doidge, who doesn’t have the mobility to play as a lone striker, will only benefit if he gets a regular run of games and the only way to get him in the team is to play him alongside – not instead of - Kamberi.

Another way of using Allan behind two central strikers is the diamond, which – as displayed under both Stubbs and Lennon – allows midfield to retain greater control in possession and be more compact when the opposition have the ball.

If either 3-5-2 or the diamond were to be deployed, wide men such as Newell, Horgan and Glenn Middleton would have to adapt their roles slightly, either to be used at wing-back, attacking midfield or as a second striker. In the grand scheme, however, reducing the need for wingers shouldn’t be a major issue against the potential benefits of an approach which could make the defence and midfield more secure, while also allowing Allan, Kamberi and Doidge a greater opportunity to hurt the opposition.