Squad goals: How Hibs can help misfiring strikers Christian Doidge and Kevin Nisbet
One way of looking at Hibs' 2-0 defeat by Motherwell on Saturday is that the loss was the team’s first in five matches.
A differing view may be that it was a twelfth consecutive league game without a goal for striker Christian Doidge. On top of that, it was the fifth game in a row that Kevin Nisbet was omitted from the starting line-up.
We need to talk about Kevin, and Christian, and how Hibs score goals.
Get the band back together?
In the first half of the season, Doidge and Nisbet linked well as a partnership in a 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2. Despite the duo playing together for just 20 minutes in the opening day win against Kilmarnock, there were signs that the pairing would bear fruit. In the following game against Livingston, it took them just 41 minutes to collaborate for a goal, with Nisbet's flick setting up Doidge for Hibs' third in a 4-1 win.
Even during games in which neither striker scored they hassled opposition defences, created chances for each other, and looked every inch the ideal partnership up front.
The pair haven't played together for more than half-an-hour or so since a 1-0 home defeat by Rangers on January 27. Ironically, Hibs then embarked on a four-game winning streak with Nisbet barely involved and Doidge playing well, but not scoring.
It might seem ludicrous to propose changing things after just one defeat in five matches but it is worth pointing out that, had Hamilton not been reduced to ten men so early on in their 2-0 defeat at Easter Road last month, the game could have panned out differently.
Nisbet’s versatility means he can operate as a striker or ten which allows for tactical flexibility, in much the same way that Martin Boyle can fulfil a role up top or on the wing.
Saturday’s trip to St Johnstone is a must-win game if Hibs are serious about securing third in the table. With so many attacking options at his disposal, Jack Ross could shake things up in a bid to make it two wins out of two at McDiarmid Park this season – and one option could be pairing Doidge and Nisbet up front to try and get the former back on the goal trail – or indeed the latter.
Front three alternatives
In recent fixtures, Hibs have lined up in a 3-4-1-2 formation with Jamie Murphy given a free role behind Boyle and Doidge. The Australian internationalist has also been given licence to roam with the set-up almost becoming a 3-4-2-1 at times but it was noticeable on Saturday that Murphy had a tendency to be pulled wide – possibly to support Lewis Stevenson in the absence of Josh Doig at left wingback – which hampered the Hibs attack.
One tweak Ross could make is to drop Boyle into the ten role, and restore Nisbet to the starting line-up. This would mean relegating Murphy to the bench, but may help Hibs unlock stubborn defences.
Another option is to restore Scott Allan to the starting XI. This is a riskier option than the first because we don't know if the playmaker is ready to play a large chunk of the 90 minutes. If he is, having his passing ability behind Boyle and Doidge / Doidge and Nisbet could make the difference between strikers finding the target or drawing a blank.
A third option would be starting Alex Gogic as a defensive midfielder in a 3-1-4-2 formation which would allow for the two central midfielders to focus on attacking and making passes and runs to support the strikers rather than being drawn back into protecting the defence. The main issues with this approach are whether Ross opts for wingbacks or wide midfielders, and who gets the nod up top. A dilemma, yes, but there is no harm in having a strong bench at this stage of the season.
The affable Welshman is a workhorse. He will gladly spend 90 minutes roughing up defenders, winning aerial balls, and holding the ball up in attack. He has never been the sort of striker to crack one in from 25 yards, or look like scoring every time he touches the ball but he does the dirty work that allows others to play.
But the two chances he missed in quick succession against Motherwell looked like the work of a player with an awful lot of pressure on his shoulders.
The worry is that by dropping Doidge, Hibs lose that focal point in attack. While a change may suit Hibs, losing his contribution could do more harm than good.
There was a time earlier this season when Nisbet looked like scoring every time he got the ball in front of goal. Even with his off-the-field issues he was still scoring and creating. We may never know the exact ins and outs of the transfer merry-go-round involving the 23-year-old but with the Euros on the horizon and potential interest in his talents in the summer, plus Hibs' European hopes and third-place aspirations, it would be good for both parties to have him back firing on all cylinders – and a reinvigorated Nisbet could also have a positive effect on Doidge.
Hibs travel to Perth this weekend, scene of Doidge’s first league goals in green and white when he netted an unexpected hat-trick in November 2019.
Jack Ross will have to decide whether to keep faith in the eleven who racked up four consecutive victories – including Doidge – or whether freshening things up might be the trick to securing victory at a tough venue, against formidable opposition, which could see Nisbet return to the starting line-up.
With so many different strands to this encounter – the race for third, chasing European football, a reaction to the Motherwell defeat, St Johnstone off the back of League Cup glory – what might have once looked like a routine fixture could end up helping to define Hibs' season.