LAST Sunday’s draw with Inverness CT highlighted the versatility of the Hibs squad, though it does leave Alan Stubbs with a selection headache regarding both player personnel and the shape of the team.
John Hughes’ visitors spooked the hosts initially by lining up in a 3-4-1-1 that enabled the midfield to go man-for-man with Hibs’ narrow diamond. While losing Dylan McGeouch is a blow for the final, Hibs actually improved when he was forced from the action at Easter Road through injury as Stubbs switched his side to a 3-5-2 and the hosts dominated the next 50 minutes of the match.
He will be tempted to stick with the system depending on whether he thinks Ross County will line up in a 4-4-2. The Premiership side rely heavily on the play of their strike-pairing, as their game-plan revolves around getting the ball forward quickly and peppering the penalty area with crosses from out wide. A three centre-back unit of Liam Fontaine, Niklas Gunnarsson and Darren McGregor would offer greater protection against such a threat.
Had this game occurred earlier in the season, when County were in good form, then Stubbs could rest assure that County would go with their tried and tested system, but events of the last two months may persuade Jim McIntyre to change things up.
McIntyre’s final decision with regards to formation will depend on how much respect he wants to give Hibs. Whether he views them in a similar light to Celtic or if he believes County are the better side due to their position in a higher league. He may also be influenced by the recent defeats by Dundee United. In both matches they lined-up in a 4-4-2 and had their pants pulled down by the worst side in the top flight – a team Hibs easily defeated 3-0 earlier in the season. Starting with two defensive midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 would give the leaky defence more protection. And while McIntyre is a great believer in a two-man strike-force, County have failed to form a cohesive partnership among Alex Schalk, Brian Graham and top scorer Liam Boyce since the injury to the latter’s partner-in-crime, Craig Curran. If Stubbs expects a formation change from County, which he should, then Hibs will begin the match in their 4-4-2 narrow diamond system.
A four-man defence will mean no place for Gunnarsson. The Norwegian has looked a solid addition thus far, but he’s still an unknown quantity in some respects and cup finals are not the kind of occasions to encourage wildcard selections on the part of the manager. This would also rule out any potential change at goalkeeper despite some questionable form on the part of No.1 Mark Oxley. For a match of this magnitude, there’s no way Stubbs would even consider throwing in Otso Virtanen for his Hibs debut.
Fraser Fyvie declared himself 50-50 to make the final, which would suggest that even if the fitness coin flip falls in his favour he’ll start the match on the bench. His absence, coupled with that of McGeouch, will all but pick Stubbs’ midfield for him. Marvin Bartley will return to the base following his suspension. Ahead of him, Kevin Thomson and John McGinn will look to dictate possession and the game’s tempo, while Liam Henderson’s brand of creativity and energy will support the strikers in the No.10 role. The only potential variable is if Stubbs returns to the experiment of playing James Keatings in Henderson’s role. However, though this worked earlier in the season against the likes of St Mirren and Livingston, Keatings has struggled to impact games against better opponents from a position he’s unfamiliar with.
Keatings could be in line to start in the attack. Barring the replay against Hearts, Jason Cummings and Anthony Stokes have yet to look cohesive as a partnership. It’s often said the best partnerships have a chalk and cheese dimension, where the strength of one makes up for the other’s weaknesses. Cummings and Stokes are both nippy, penalty box strikers who like to feed off the service of others. They also both lack a physical or aerial presence and, let’s face it, the tireless work rate of someone like Keatings.
What may discourage Stubbs from starting Keatings is the 16-game barren streak he went through without scoring prior to the Inverness tie. Stubbs will have kept a close eye on his striker throughout the week in training, trying to act the amateur psychologist and judge whether the monkey is off Keatings’ back, or if he’s still weighed down by low confidence in front of goal.
Farid El Alagui is another potential wildcard pick but, again, this may not be the match to pull such stunts. In the end, Cummings and Stokes will likely play together because they are the obvious choices. Regardless of whether they fit together or not, they are the two most talent strikers in the side.