Midfield headache, defensive conundrum, attacking optimism: Three Hibs talking points ahead of cinch Premiership restart
There is still a fortnight before Hibs next play a competitive match; the small matter of a trip to Ibrox to face Rangers under new manager Michael Beale.
We can’t very well look back on the first ‘half’ of the season because there are still 22 games left to play – 23, for some teams – and given the nature of the latter stages of the initial portion of the campaign for those of a Hibernian persuasion, focusing on the future would seem to be the better option.
In a month’s time the January transfer window will open and manager Lee Johnson has already pledged to trim his bloated squad to try to reduce the problems that stem from an overinflated squad – such as fringe players bumping their gums about a lack of playing time. But the boss has also indicated a desire to bring in quality, while hinting at making more use of the club’s talented crop of youngsters, a couple of whom made their first-team debut in the friendly defeat by Middlesbrough.
But Johnson has several things to juggle along with the usual day-to-day tasks of a top-flight football coach – to say nothing of a team struggling for form facing a tough run of fixtures when league football resumes.
The Porteous Conundrum
Ryan Porteous is not the first player to want to test himself at a higher level than Scottish football and he certainly won’t be the last. The reaction to the news he has turned down a significant contract offer from his boyhood club with a view to leaving either in January or next summer has varied from those who feel the defender owes the club, to those who think he should be dropped from the squad, and to those who believe the situation is emblematic of a more serious problem at Hibs.
Johnson has already sought to quash any issues with playing the 23-year-old, insisting: “This is a set of circumstances that I feel has been out of my control. We can’t do anymore in terms of what we’ve done, the conversations we’ve had have been good but inevitably he has a high profile. We have to get the balance between the fee offered and the fruits of finishing third, fourth, fifth. That is a tricky number. You have the financial rewards and the potential for Europe which brings that more revenue. In terms of playing Ryan I trust him impeccably, I have no problem with him at all.”
Will Fish’s performance against Boro was one that stood out; partly because it was the most minutes he’s had since arriving on a season-long loan from Manchester United, and partly because he gave a good showing in every aspect of his game. Johnson has waxed lyrical about the England under-19 defender’s quality and should Porteous depart in January Fish would surely be competing with Rocky Bushiri and Paul Hanlon for a starting centre-back berth. The main question is: given the manager’s previous comments about wanting four strong centre-backs, does he dip into the market four a fourth or use player-coach Darren McGregor or under-19s centre-back Jacob Blaney? And should Fish get more gametime in the immediate future regardless of what happens with Porteous? These are two big questions to which Johnson will have to find an answer.
The Newell headache
The chances are, when Hibs were drawn to face Hearts in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup, very few people would have been thinking that a rather important player in green and white is suspended for the clash. He may be a polarising figure among the fans but Joe Newell has been a first-team mainstay under four different managers and his enforced absence will mean another rethink in midfield. With Jake Doyle-Hayes coming back, Kyle Magennis fit again, and Josh Campbell’s flexibility, at least there shouldn’t be any need to force square pegs into round holes – we’re not likely to see Porteous deployed in central midfield again, like he was very briefly against Boro.
But as with Porteous, Johnson must juggle the present with the future. If available, Newell would be one of the first names on the team sheet – but he will also need to devise a way of playing without the Englishman in the ranks. The FC Edinburgh friendly could be a good occasion to try out a new combination in midfield, but a lot depends on who’s fit, and the Hearts midfield is a very different beast to the Citizens’ engine room.
The attacking possibilities
Optimism may be hard to find in EH7 at the moment but we saw glimpses of what Kevin Nisbet and Harry McKirdy might do together in attack for Hibs when they linked up in the opening period against Middlesbrough. True, it was Nisbet’s first outing since February and McKirdy himself is still getting up to speed after a couple of minor injuries himself, but given Johnson started off with a 4-4-2 against the English side, we can perhaps deduce that that formation will be getting used when the cinch Premiership season starts up again.
If it is, there are numerous combinations available. Hibs struggled for goals big time in the opening part of the campaign but Johnson has plenty of potential firepower at his disposal. Throw in Élie Youan and the return of Aiden McGeady and on paper at least, Hibs should be more dangerous in the final third. If there had been a goal scored for every time Hibs have dominated a game without winning this season, then they would have more points to their name and a loftier league placing.
But Hibs’ season needs to be about more than ifs and buts. The upcoming run of games looks daunting, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that the same manager got a tune out of the same players for a four-game winning streak not so long ago. The only question is how many of them remember how it goes.