The pathway for Hibs to defeat Hearts on Sunday - and why it could save their season

Craig Fowler explains why Sunday's match might be coming at the perfect time for Hibs and under-pressure boss Paul Heckingbottom.

Wednesday, 18th September 2019, 4:46 pm
Hibs boss Paul Heckingbottom. Picture: SNS

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"The penny will drop this week. Vela will remember how to play football, Doidge will remember how to score sitters, Hanlon will remember how to defend.

"It will be glorious."

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This was an impromptu message from a Hibs-supporting friend to this writer on Tuesday, deciding that he's had enough with 30 years of pessimism and will be backing his side to win this Sunday's Edinburgh derby. Of course, the timing is pretty ironic, seeing as the majority of his Easter Road-attending brethren do not share such optimism despite hosting a team bottom of the Ladbrokes Premiership table.

Hearts fans are currently in a permanent state of outrage when it comes to their team, though things aren't much rosier in Leith. A support that was once fully behind manager Paul Heckingbottom just a couple of months ago is becoming increasingly united in their desire to see him shown the exit door.

The league season started underwhelmingly with a narrow and scarcely deserved victory over St Mirren and it's just got worse from there: a five-goal defeat to Rangers; requiring extra-time to beat Morton; booing the manager in the draw to St Johnstone, and then meekly losing away to Motherwell and Kilmarnock in each of the past two Ladbrokes Premiership encounters, where they conceded five goals and scored none.

Sacking a manager after seven months is typically looked upon as a panicky move, especially when said-manager started his career at the club brightly and has only suffered a truly rough patch over the period of a few weeks. But for someone as meticulous as Heckingbottom has the reputation for being, the most alarming aspect of the Hibs side at present is the lack of discernible plan on how things will improve.

The midfield is the biggest problem area in a team full of problem areas. Nobody is in particularly good form and against Kilmarnock last weekend the central three were largely all over the place as Melker Hallberg, Stevie Mallan and Josh Vela attempted to play alongside each other for the first time.

The defence has been frightfully exposed on the counter-attack, none more so than the opening goal on Saturday where a 50-yard diagonal found acres of space in behind new signing Jason Naismith.

There have been problems in front of goal also with Florian Kamberi netting just once against top-flight opposition, Christian Doidge looking far from convincing, and even creative fulcrum Scott Allan starting to struggle as he suffers from being shifted around the park.

Even the sure-handed Ofir Marciano has suffered with an unusually high number of errors between the sticks.

Players have dropped out of the side, others have been drafted in, and the formation has been altered. Nothing has worked. Heckingbottom doesn't appear to have the answers at the moment and he's running out of time before things turn mutinous in the stands.

But this is football. And it can all change with just one game.

A visit of Hearts, statistically the worst team in the league, represents the perfect opportunity to implement a plan that the players will believe in. Regardless of what the manager does, the home side will still be considered favourites and any sort of victory could be enough to boost confidence and morale throughout the club, helping them all to pull in the same direction.

An issue that's hampered Hibs this season is the fact that few of the new signings have looked up to the task. Heckingbottom has talked of them struggling to adapt to Scottish football, but a derby win could help speed up the process. Albeit brief, the mere act of walking round the pitch at full-time with delighted home fans singing 'Sunshine on Leith' may help build a connection and make them feel more at home.

Matches such as this one can sometimes provide the right sort of catalyst for teams and players struggling for form. Managers tell their players not to play the occasion, but would that really be a bad thing at the moment for Heckingbottom? His team have been accused of being too soft and, regardless of the personnel, Craig Levein will have the visitors fired up. Losing the physical battle and ultimately the game this Sunday would be unforgivable from the fans' perspective. And what better way to teach a new signing just exactly what is expected of them in Scottish football than to kick a few guys in maroon shirts?

Of course, tactics will still come into it and there are a number of directions Hibs can give to their players in order to hurt Hearts on the scoreboard.

Firstly, let the Hearts defence play out from the back. Captain Christophe Berra - and, to a slightly lesser extent, his fellow defenders - seem to have little confidence in possession right now and often the default setting is to go long or go backwards. Other teams have been laying off Berra when Hearts look to play it out from the back, while doubling up on the others and pressurising them when they try the same tactic.

Against Motherwell, Hearts decided to just lump it long. The problem with such an approach is twofold: Uche Ikpeazu is deceptively poor as an old-fashioned, knock-it-long-to-him target man, and there rarely seems enough support or hunger from the midfield to win the second balls.

What the Hibs centre-backs need to remember is to avoid getting into a physical battle with the striker. His greatest skill is his ability to roll around a defender and motor away. However, when he's given space to turn, his assertiveness drops considerably and he'll often pass off to a teammate.

The midfield, likely to contain the experienced Glenn Whelan and energetic Loic Damour behind a No.10, will be up for a fight, though they also showed in the 3-2 home defeat to Motherwell that it's startlingly easy to play through them with a couple of well-executed balls through the centre. Echoing the problems at Easter Road, the pair are having to fashion an understanding in a struggling team in a league they've never played in before.

Once Hibs approach the box there isn't too much they should be intimidated by. Hearts are leaking goals left, right and centre, have injury problems to deal with and first-choice goalkeeper Joel Pereira has only just recovered from injury.

The visitors have more than enough to hurt Hibs if they don't perform. But if the home side can stay focused against Ikpeazu, be slick in midfield, and carve out chances that a misfiring striker can't even pass on, then perhaps, finally, the "penny will drop".