The soft centre Hibs boss Paul Heckingbottom needs to fix if he is to save his job

Hibs boss Paul Heckingbottom needs to eradicate his side's soft centre if he is to turn around the negativity at Easter Road

Monday, 4th November 2019, 12:30 pm

Midway through the first half of Celtic's 5-2 triumph in the Betfred Cup semi-finals, a Hibs supporter bellowed "****ING TACKLE" as yet another man in yellow had waltzed through the midfield with as much ease as flicking on a switch. There was plenty of anger contained within the shout, but also desperation.

He wasn't alone. Any time something went wrong on Saturday, a player had missed a tackle, or failed to make it to the ball. Misplaced a pass or didn't track a runner, there would be fans out their seat, standing facing the Hibs dugout, arms outstretched, questioning or berating head coach Paul Heckingbottom.

"Are you kidding me? Are you watching this? Get *insert player's name' off!"

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Josh Vela (top left), Paul Heckingbottom and Stevie Mallan look dejected at Hampden
Josh Vela (top left), Paul Heckingbottom and Stevie Mallan look dejected at Hampden

It was something Heckingbottom referenced in his post-match press conference.

"I understand the anger, we saw it," he said. But followed it with: "They are also seeing a team which is fully committed."The second part is a tricky one. It is at odds with what those watching on from the stands are seeing on a weekly basis. The hardy bunch, not much more than 7,500-strong, who made the trip to Glasgow and those watching from home, perhaps behind the sofa, have been infuriated with the fragility of the players as individuals and the team as a collective.

No team has thrown away more points from winning positions than Hibs this campaign, and they have now given up 31 goals in 18 games in all competitions.

It is perhaps erroneous to label teams who do the above as "committed".

A more accurate description would be soft. This is a side which gives away soft goals - "cheap" as Heckingbottom described them after the game - and one which has a soft, even hollow centre. Not unlike a chocolate Easter egg. Not overly robust on the outside, a vacuum in the centre.

There have been a lot of soft moments which have stood out this season as Hibs dwell in the lower echelons of the Ladbrokes Premiership, namely Joe Chalmers' late equaliser for Ross County last month which resulted in Hibs dropping two points from a commanding 2-0 lead. He was given a path by Stevie Mallan and Josh Vela to find the bottom corner.

And again, the duo were two of the worst culprits at Hampden Park. Barely minutes into the match Mallan had let Boli Bolingoli run off him a couple of times. The second incident ended up in Adam Jackson barking at the midfielder playing on the right.

Vela never got close to a Celtic jersey in the 45 minutes he was on the park before being hooked. One moment saw Callum McGregor spin away from him as if the Celtic midfielder was on the training ground pirouetting between cones. The Englishman came in from most criticism from fans in the stands.

But they were not alone. Scott Allan was ineffective in and out of possession, while Melker Hallberg did not insert his usual defensive influence into the game. With 20 minutes to go his legs had gone and at one point he 'competed' for a 50-50 challenge with Scott Brown. There was only one winner, the Celtic captain barrelling through with ease.

In defence, Tom James is a fine footballer but there are strong warning signs defensively. He looked like someone had began to engulf his legs in cement when faced with one v ones, namely Odsonne Edouard skipping past him for the second goal and Jonny Hayes taking him on early in the second half.

And this was the issue. The resistance largely wasn't there in a strange game where Hibs did have their moments in attack. But to be so uncompetitive in the midfield against the league leaders, you give yourself little chance of success.

Yes, Celtic were aided by a lack of offside call for the second goal - although they should have been awarded a penalty for a Paul Hanlon handball - and Hibs rallied for a bit in the second half with a hungry Florian Kamberi and a system change. But that is not enough.

There is an old stereotype of Hibs is a team which can play some nice football but don't like it when the going gets tough, the game becomes a battle. At the moment this team are living up to just that, opposition teams realising that being a bit forceful in midfield, putting pressure on them makes them wilt.

Heckingbottom needs to find a solution pronto if he is to keep his job much longer, with the pressure now at almost unbearable levels as each passing week goes on.

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