The Kevin Nisbet conundrum: How can Hibs help misfiring striker?

Normally, when a striker misses a big chance in a game, the reaction is predictable.

By Patrick McPartlin
Tuesday, 18th January 2022, 7:30 pm
Updated Wednesday, 19th January 2022, 8:44 am

Responses such as, “he can't score all of them” or “he’s only human” are common; the manager commenting that he’ll score the next one and other players have to help out in front of goal.

So why did it feel different when Kevin Nisbet contrived to hit a shot along the goal-line and off the inside of the far post at Celtic Park on Monday when it looked easier to score?

Is it a (relative) lack of goals? The forward has seven goals and three assists in 27 games so far this season but had reached seven goals by the final week of October last season.

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Something needs to change for Kevin Nisbet to rediscover his form in front of goal

Is it a hangover from his transfer request saga last January? Something else?

Whatever it is, supporters appear to be running out of patience with Nisbet. The reaction on social media, much of it not fit for printing in a family newspaper, after he hit the woodwork spoke volumes.

Football is a results-driven business. Goals win games. So what can Hibs and manager Shaun Maloney do to try and get Nisbet back on the goal trail?

Give him a rest

Shaun Maloney with Nisbet during a training session at HTC

The visit of Cove Rangers on Thursday night should allow Maloney to shake things up a bit without making wholesale changes and risking a cup exit.

James Scott got the nod over Christian Doidge at Celtic Park on Monday and with the on-loan Hull City forward looking sharper and having a clean slate under the new management, he could start against the League One leaders, which would not only give Nisbet a rest but also give Scott a chance to impress.

Much depends on Shaun Maloney’s tactical approach and how players are showing up in training.

Since his debut for Hibs on August 1 2020, Nisbet has played 5,951 minutes of football – 5,784 for Hibs and 167 minutes for Scotland. He has missed just eight games in green and white and was involved in Scotland's pre-Euro 2020 preparations and the tournament itself, before returning for pre-season a matter of weeks later.

Nisbet reacts during the 2-0 defeat by Celtic

Yes, he's a professional footballer, but it’s also nearly as much as his total minutes for previous clubs Dunfermline and Raith Rovers combined. Players always say they want to play as many games as possible but they usually get a decent break between seasons as well, which Nisbet didn’t.

It could very well be burnout. Perhaps a break from the pitch could kickstart his season.

Give him a chance to bounce back

Nisbet scored against Cove Rangers in the 2020/21 Betfred Cup group stages; a deft clipped finish from an inch-perfect Melker Hallberg cross. Stylistically similar to his goal against Motherwell last month with Josh Campbell playing the Hallberg role in the goal, it turned out to be the winner in Aberdeenshire.

Nisbet wants more of this and so do the fans

And herein lies what may be the biggest issue for Maloney. If Nisbet is firing on all cylinders he can be a matchwinner. If he isn’t, then the side has a problem. Boyle might well be contributing above and beyond expectations but if he isn’t causing the damage then who is?

Nisbet's seven strikes make him the second-highest top-scorer behind 14-goal Boyle. After that is Kyle Magennis on four and Jamie Murphy on three.

Maloney would likely say that it’s his job to devise a strategy that gets the best out of his players in order to achieve results. Football is a simple game, on some levels.

Whatever your opinion on Nisbet, he will be replaying the chance that hit the post over and over again in his head. It might make him more determined to bounce back.

Perhaps a cup game against lower-league opposition is the perfect occasion for Nisbet to not only cancel out his Parkhead miss by getting on the scoresheet, but also to hopefully kickstart a rich vein of form.

The last time Nisbet hit the post during a big game in Glasgow (the Scottish Cup semi-final against Hearts in October 2020 when he hit a penalty off the woodwork at Hampden) he notched two goals and three assists in his following five games, drawing a blank in just one of them.

This season there have been flashes of the player that impressed on his first full season in the Scottish Premiership: the quality of his lobbed finish against Motherwell in December, or the sumptuous through-ball for Boyle’s second against Rangers at Hampden. The headed finish against the same opponents at Ibrox in October or the cheeky back-header goal against Kilmarnock in the Premier Sports Cup.

Reunite him with Doidge

This would be good, wouldn’t it? Getting the band back together, reuniting a potent strike partnership. The pair linked up so well during the 2020/21 campaign.

Pedants might point to the fact that the 48 games they’ve played together have yielded just three joint-participation goals (that is, Doidge assisting Nisbet or vice-versa) but so often Nisbet had space or got a chance because of Doidge’s hard work, or Nisbet keeping the defence busy would allow the Welshman a sight of goal.

When Nisbet dropped deep, there was still a focal point up front for Hibs. In the current system, when he drops deep, midfielders have to push up, which is fine in the 3-4-1-2 / 3-4-2-1 set-up, but less ideal when the midfielders are all sitting deeper, such as against Celtic.

It has seemed painfully obvious for quite some time that the Scotland internationalist is not cut out for the lone striker role, or even spearheading a three-man attack. Even playing in a two with Martin Boyle doesn’t always work because the Australian attacker seems to operate best out wide.

Doidge is still coming back from an Achilles injury; a complex journey that has to be managed correctly, and a front two might not even be in Maloney’s tactical arsenal.

But it might just help reinvigorate Nisbet – and make Hibs more dangerous in front of goal.

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Had a half-chance in either half. Started with purpose but dropped off a bit. Another who went off injured.