Talking point: Hibs benefiting from Paul Heckingbottom's mid-game changes

Let's kick things off with a few facts about Paul Heckingbottom's reign as Hibs head coach thus far ...

By Mark Atkinson
Saturday, 6th April 2019, 6:23 pm
Updated Saturday, 6th April 2019, 6:44 pm
Hibs head coach Paul Heckingbottom is congratulated by chief executive Leeann Dempster after defeating Hearts. Pic: SNS
Hibs head coach Paul Heckingbottom is congratulated by chief executive Leeann Dempster after defeating Hearts. Pic: SNS

Since his appointment on February 13, Hibs are unbeaten in the Ladbrokes Premiership.

They have moved from eighth place in the league to fifth, amassing 20 points out of the 24 available in his eight games so far.

They have overtaken Hearts, and in the process obliterated a 13-point deficit between them and their dearest rivals.

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They have won an Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle for the first time in six years - and it was Heckingbottom's debut in the fixture. For context, neither predecessors Alan Stubbs nor Neil Lennon defeated Hearts on their own patch.

They are six points off third place and have a genuine chance of qualifying for the Europa League at the end of the season.

I feel that every time I report on Hibs, I end up gushing about Heckingbottom's tenure. However, it's impossible to ignore the manager this time around and that's because of something he did towards the end of the first-half of Saturday's 2-1 victory over Hearts.

Despite cancelling out Peter Haring's opener thanks to a fine goal by Daryl Horgan, Hibs were second best as the first 45 minutes wore on. Hearts had control of the game. They owned the midfield and were forcing Hibs to go long. When that happened, the ball wouldn't stick. Marc McNulty was isolated in attack. The hosts poured forward at will and were scarcely troubled in defence.

Heckingbottom then changed it. Florian Kamberi moved from the left-wing position, where he was ineffective, and swapped with McNulty in attack. The Swiss held the ball up better and allowed support to arrive from midfield and the flanks. In addition, Heckingbottom pushed Stephane Omeonga into a more advanced role, so that the Hibs defenders had more options further up the pitch. This also forced Hearts' defensive midfield duo of Arnaud Djoum and Haring back and resulted in Hibs easing the pressure on their defence.

Hibs, as a result, were more attack-minded in the second half. Their winning goal was an excellent move. Stevie Mallan may have played the killer pass to Horgan, but Kamberi's role in the goal was important, finding Mallan and pulling Hearts defender John Souttar out of position with his movement to create space for the Irishman's finish.

Yes, once Hibs moved ahead, they had to dig deep in defence and relied a little on Hearts' profligacy in front of goal, but you need those facets when you win a derby away from home. Simply, they would not have prevailed had Heckingbottom not had the nous to change things around.

The head coach is proving a dab hand at making changes mid-match and watching them work. He did so against Rangers in a 1-1 draw last month, moving from a 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1 to quell the flow and rescue a draw. Against Livingston a couple of Fridays ago, he wasn't afraid to replace the underperforming Stephane Omeonga - the darling of the Hibs support recently - and reap the rewards of Vykintas Slivka's introduction as Hibs went on to score two goals.

It is, of course, the job of a head coach to watch the match and analyse from the sidelines, but many either (a) don't make changes, (b) make them too late or (c) make the wrong ones. It seems Heckingbottom has the midas touch with his alterations.

Hibs are going to lose in the league soon and Heckingbottom accepts that. He admitted as much in his post-match press conference. His next opponent in two weeks time is Lennon - the only manager to get the better of the Yorkshireman when Celtic knocked Hibs out of the Scottish Cup quarter-finals. What he does to right the wrongs of that encounter, when Hibs were soundly defeated and bettered all over the pitch, will be fascinating to see.

Hibs appear to have a head coach who isn't willing to settle for second best, who will always look to repair a problem. It paid dividend against Hearts and it will do so again before the season is out.