Why Hibs have lost their way defensively
Tommy Wright was watching from the main stand as Hibs defeated Morton 5-3 after extra-time to progress to the quarter-finals of the Betfred Cup.
Even allowing for his own side’s deficiencies in attack, the St Johnstone manager would surely have left Easter Road with a spring in his step, confident that his team, who head to Leith this Saturday, can exploit a defence which looks terribly disjointed at present.
Despite the fact they hit five goals against their Championship visitors, there are a whole array of issues that manager Paul Heckingbottom must resolve within his Hibs team if they are to spark their hitherto unconvincing season into life. The attack looks short of genuine quality beyond the mercurial Florian Kamberi, while the midfield is lacking power, authority and cohesion. But perhaps of most pressing concern at the moment is a defence which has shipped nine goals in the last two games. For context, it is worth noting that Hibs had kept four consecutive clean sheets prior to their 6-1 demolition at Ibrox last weekend. This is not a defence in a perpetual state of disarray. But right now, and perhaps inevitably given the mitigating factors at play, Hibs have lost the ability to appear assured and organised, and it is causing them a whole lot of problems.
Last weekend their defensive frailty resulted in a humiliation in Glasgow and this weekend it led to the Hibs support being gripped by angst for the majority of their Betfred Cup tie with Morton before Christian Doidge’s 120th-minute goal eventually killed the visitors off. The problem for Heckingbottom is that, in the short-term at least, shoring Hibs up at the back is not a straightforward task due to the fact the majority of his defenders are currently inhibited by fitness issues. Against Morton, he was able to select the tried-and-tested Scottish Cup-winning quartet of David Gray, Darren McGregor, Paul Hanlon and Lewis Stevenson for the first time this season. On paper at least, this should have ensured that Hibs had a far more secure look about them. It didn’t transpire this way, however.
McGregor succumbed to injury after just 12 minutes - replaced by Adam Jackson - while Gray and Stevenson, understandably given their lack of game time since the end of last season, didn’t appear to be fully fit after their respective summer injury lay-offs. This was evident largely due to the fact they weren’t seeing marauding into the opposition half as regularly as they usually do, while they lacked their usual conviction in attempting to cut out the crosses from the full-back areas that led to Morton’s first two goals. Gray played 73 minutes before being replaced while Stevenson, despite his struggles, did well to soldier on for the full 120. It seems reasonable to surmise that, given the chastening afternoon both Steven Whittaker and Sean Mackie endured at Ibrox - with the latter sent off - Heckingbotttom was perhaps over-eager to restore his two most dependable full-backs to the team. On this evidence, the pair still look a couple of weeks away from being able to operate at their energetic, aggressive best.
The injury to Tom James hasn’t helped matters in this regard. Similarly, Ryan Porteous‘s absence through injury has denied Heckingbottom the services of a centre-back widely deemed to be a certain starter when fully fit. The powerful 20-year-old is now over his injury but is still working his way back to a level of fitness where he is deemed ready to play for the first team once more. Supporters will be praying that is this weekend, particularly in the event that McGregor could be set for a spell on the sidelines depending on the severity of the injury that forced him off against Morton.
Of the nine senior defenders on Hibs’ books, only Whittaker, Jackson, Hanlon and Mackie have steered clear of injury this summer, and even then Mackie is about to serve a suspension. Such a scenario is always likely to take a toll on the solidity and harmony of a defensive unit, particularly when only one of this injury-free quartet - Hanlon - would be considered a likely starter if everyone was available. The defensive fragility, which has been brutally exposed in the past two games, is exacerbated by the lack of an authoratitive holding midfielder to provide protection. Heckingbottom may not have been wild on Mark Milligan or Marvin Bartley, but it is hard to escape the feeling that Hibs, in the absence of a deep-lying playmaker with Dylan McGeouch’s ball-retaining qualities, would benefit from an anchorman with the presence and power to step in and help calm things down when opposition tails are up.
Heckingbottom’s promising start to his Hibs reign was built on the Gray-McGregor-Hanlon-Stevenson foundation, but until he has the majority of his main defenders up to speed - and can enjoy some form of continuity of selection in his back four - supporters may have to get used to more hairy afternoons of praying that talisman Scott Allan and hot-and-cold hitman Kamberi can bail the team out at the other end, unless of course they can stumble across some degree of defensive security this weekend. Alternatively, in the event that there is any doubt about whether the likes of Gray, McGregor, Porteous and James will be fit enough to contribute regularly and effectively in the weeks ahead, another dip into the transfer market may be required.