Talking point: Why Hibs require another gear to land that top-six spot

There was a moment in the first-half of Hibs v Celtic on Saturday when the hosts strung together ten or so rapid passes before fizzing the ball wide to Lewis Stevenson.

By Mark Atkinson
Saturday, 2nd March 2019, 10:11 pm
Updated Sunday, 3rd March 2019, 7:57 am
Lewis Stevenson tries to get the better of James Forrest during Hibs' defeat by Celtic. Pic: SNS
Lewis Stevenson tries to get the better of James Forrest during Hibs' defeat by Celtic. Pic: SNS

The experienced left-back had enough time to pick out either Florian Kamberi or Marc McNulty in the penalty box, but his cross was weak and cut out by the first Celtic defender the ball reached.

A few minutes later, McNulty burrowed his way into space as Hibs counter-attacked. This time it was Vykintas Slivka with the ball, but his pass - and it wasn't a particularly difficult one to execute - was intercepted.

Then, with the score still at 0-0 at the start of the second half, McNulty had a clear sight of goal. Positioned just left of centre, 20 yards out, he hit the ball cleanly enough but straight at Celtic keeper Scott Bain. Ten minutes later, Hibs were a goal behind. Twenty or so minutes after that, the game was up, 2-0 to the visitors. Celtic were home and hosed. Hibs were out of the Scottish Cup, without really laying a glove on their opponents.

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Before Saturday, the Paul Heckingbottom era started swimmingly. Three wins out of three. Eight goals scored. High pressing. Endless workrate. A bit of feel-good factor coursing through the veins of the club after the haemorrhage of Neil Lennon's departure. Three victories, though, against three bottom-six teams in Hamilton, Dundee and St Johnstone, the first two who are fighting for their lives at the foot of the table.

You can only beat what's in front of you and Hibs deserve plaudits for the way they navigated those fixtures. But now, with the Ladbrokes Premiership top six the club's goal, they are almost certainly going to have to find another gear.

Rangers visit Easter Road on Friday night. Never easy. Then it's Motherwell, again at home. Again, not easy. The Steelmen have only lost one of their last eight league games and that was to Celtic. An international break is followed by three big tests in the space of eight days: Livingston away on their pellet-infested plastic pitch, then Kilmarnock at home, followed by a trip to Tynecastle for the Edinburgh derby.

Hibs are three points clear of seventh place in the race for the top six and only three points off Hearts in fifth. We have reached a critical juncture in their season and the first significant staging post of Heckingbottom's reign.

There appears to be enough about this group of players to suggest that the head coach won't need to do too much in terms of picking up his troops. Losing to Celtic, after all, isn't uncommon and until James Forrest's opener, the game was balanced. Even still, this defeat can't linger, especially with Rangers on the horizon.

Perhaps what is more difficult for Heckingbottom are his options personnel-wise, particularly in an attacking sense. Ryan Gauld isn't going to be fully fit for weeks. Heckingbottom is unfortunate that his most creative player is sidelined by injury. Martin Boyle, the speedster in Hibs' ranks, won't play again this season either. The central midfield is dogged and determined, but Slivka, Stevie Mallan and Mark Milligan won't carve defences open on a regular basis. Stephane Omeonga has shown flashes, but for him to be at his most effective, he needs to play centrally, not wide, but Hibs only have one fit winger right now.

Heckingbottom is likely to stick with a 4-4-2 formation. It's his go-to system and the players have become accustomed to it quickly. Now, though, it's about getting another ten per cent out of it. He has the strikers in Kamberi and McNulty to score goals, but the service is required to be better and more frequent. The back-four must remain fit and resolute because Ryan Porteous - in this observer's opinion, their best centre-half - won't been seen again until next season because of his knee injury. Experienced American trialist Jonathan Spector may sign on, which on paper seems a shrewd move as he can play all over the defence. In short, Hibs' squad appears shorn and a lot of will rest on a relatively meagre number of players.

Despite the injury-enforced restrictions and having to pick up a bit of a mess left by predecessor Lennon, after hoisting themselves from eighth to sixth in the league, it would have to be deemed a step backwards for Heckingbottom if they were to now not make the upper half of the league. The early groundwork would count for little. Confidence and coffers would take a dent. From what we have heard from the head coach, he is drip-feeding his ideas into the squad rather than flooding their minds. What he's instilled so far looks good, but I reckon Hibs might need to find a little extra for the next five league fixtures. Heckingbottom is likely to turn the tap a little faster.

It is all in Hibs' hands right now, though, and what we've seen from Heckingbottom so far is good. A fascinating quintet of matches awaits.