Motherwell-Hibs post-match: Listless display sounds the alarm bells for many onlookers
Trips to Motherwell have been grisly experiences for Hibs in 2019.
The previous one, a grim 1-0 defeat in January which led to an angry post-mortem, proved to be Neil Lennon’s last match in charge. Their latest visit to Fir Park, which brought a demoralising 3-0 defeat, placed Paul Heckingbottom at his lowest ebb since succeeding Lennon in mid-February.
Remarkably, considering the level of discontent among the Hibs support at present, these defeats in Lanarkshire represent the only two occasions the Easter Road side have lost, in any competition, to opponents outwith last season’s top four this calendar year. With this in mind, it is reasonable for anyone outside Edinburgh to wonder why the Hibs fans have turned so vociferously – and so quickly – against Heckingbottom after his impressive early months in charge brought so much hope. “Hecky, Hecky get to f***” was the chant from a section of the travelling support at Fir Park on Saturday as Hibs endured a second consecutive away hammering in this fledgling Premiership campaign.
Since the end of last season, which finished with three consecutive defeats, there has been an ominous vibe developing around Hibs. Recruitment has been underwhelming at best despite chief executive Leeann Dempster’s claim on Friday that this has been a “strong” transfer window for the club. The warning signs were there in a 1-1 Betfred Cup draw at League Two side Stirling Albion in the first competitive campaign of the season. That match at Forthbank could have been dismissed as a one-off early-season blip if it hadn’t been followed by unconvincing wins at home to Alloa Athletic and St Mirren.
Worryingly for Heckingbottom, there has been a notable backlash following each of his team’s past four matches – the 6-1 defeat at Ibrox; the nervy extra-time win at home to Morton; the home draw with struggling St Johnstone and Saturday’s meek showing at Motherwell. Much of the troubles have stemmed from a lack of defensive assurance, with 14 goals shipped in those four games. In this regard, Heckingbottom is entitled to rue the fitness issues that have plagued key defenders Darren McGregor, David Gray, Lewis Stevenson, Ryan Porteous and Tom James this summer, meaning he has been unable to develop any continuity and solidity at the back. Even Ofir Marciano, who looked so strong in the second half of last season, has lost some of his assurance between the sticks.
This defensive frailty is exacerbated by the absence of a proper combative midfielder to provide protection when opposition tails are up.
On Saturday, Hibs started with Vykintas Slivka and Stevie Mallan as their main men in the engine room. For all that they can bring to the team individually and in an attacking sense, they were never likely to have the required grit to work as a pairing at a venue like Fir Park, where some element of brute force is usually a prerequisite to victory.
As Heckingbottom noted, Hibs looked “pretty” at times when in possession but they lacked the aggression and ruthlessness to win their battles in key moments. The manager, who claimed after Saturday’s defeat that he knows what is required to solve Hibs’ problems, now appears to be heavily reliant on Josh Vela, once he is fully up to speed, or Melker Hallberg, when he is ready for action, stepping in to make a difference.
If the midfield could gain greater control of matches, it should, in theory, make Hibs a more effective attacking side. As it stands, when Scott Allan and Florian Kamberi are nullified, as was the case for long periods at Fir Park, Hibs don’t carry much of a threat.
Motherwell were more effective when it mattered and claimed their victory thanks to a first-half Sherwin Seedorf strike and goals in the final ten minutes from Liam Donnelly and Jermaine Hylton.
Under Alan Stubbs and Lennon (in his first two years), there was a feeling that something big was happening at Hibs and that they looked equipped to carry a genuine and prolonged challenge at the top end of Scottish football. Things have gone awry, however.
All the indications so far this season suggest that they are drifting back towards their pre-relegation levels of mediocrity under the likes of Colin Calderwood and Pat Fenlon. With a horrible September fixture list beckoning – Kilmarnock away, Hearts home, Kilmarnock away in the Betfred Cup and Celtic home – Heckingbottom must somehow find a way of injecting some inspiration into an increasingly beleaguered group of players and supporters if he is to ride out this storm and get Hibs back on an upward trajectory.
Motherwell (4-3-3): Gillespie; Grimshaw, Gallagher, Hartley, Carroll; Polworth, Campbell, Donnelly; Seedorf (Hylton 66), Long (Cole 66), Scott (Maguire 88). Subs not used: Carson, Dunne, Tait, Ilic.
Hibs (4-5-1): Marciano; Whittaker, Jackson, Hanlon, Stevenson; Horgan, Slivka, Allan, Mallan, Middleton (Shaw 63); Kamberi. Subs not used: Maxwell, Porteous, Vela, Hallberg, Newell, Doidge.