Harry Clarke: What he will bring to Hibs and why he looks like a very shrewd signing
In acquiring the services of Harry Clarke on an 18-month loan deal, Hibs have bolstered their defence and added an intriguing dimension to their attack.
Many youngsters from the English Premier League and English Championship are sent on loan to Scotland but struggle to settle or adapt to the game north of the Border for whatever reason. Some, however, take to the Scottish top flight like a duck to water.
Clarke played 17 times for Ross County after an appearance for parent club Arsenal in their 2-1 pre-season friendly defeat by Hibs at Easter Road. The 20-year-old operated as a centre-back and latterly a right-back for the Staggies, earning plaudits for his performances at both ends of the pitch.
But how will he fit into this Hibs team? What will he offer and where might he be playing?
In his own words
We know Hibs like a versatile player and Clarke is no different. Interestingly, when asked during his HibsTV interview what position he saw considered his best, this was his response:
“I started out as a striker in my younger days but found myself at centre-half so I’m defensively-minded, but recently I’ve been adding goals and assists to my game.
"Two weeks ago I would have said my preferred position was centre-back; now I’d probably say right-back and it will probably change in another two weeks.
"I think right-back for now; I feel like I can really use my pace there whereas at centre-back I feel a bit limited – but as long as I’m on the pitch I’ll do my best for the team.”
Clarke and Maloney have spoken about the way the Easter Road side will be playing football. This could mean that Maloney plans to deviate from the 3-4-1-2 / 3-4-3 system he used in his first two games and move to a back four, or it could mean he wants the option of playing a back four in certain matches, or it might mean that he wants Clarke to play at centre-back but using his right-back qualities.
Against Aberdeen, Paul McGinn was playing right centre-back but spent most of his time near the touchline – in fact the only player wider than him on that side was Chris Cadden at wingback.
Hibs have a tendency to attack down the right; most moves tend to start from defence so players comfortable on the ball are key, but Maloney might also want to avoid the team becoming too predictable to play against as well.
How does he compare?
Based on this season’s stats alone, Clarke is performing at more or less the same level as Paul Hanlon and Ryan Porteous but – and perhaps crucially – slightly better than McGinn. If he is being brought in as a replacement for the 31-year-old, his stats make for interesting reading.
In the final third Clarke averages more shots per game than McGinn, has the same number of key passes per game - that is, passes that lead to a shot without a goal being scored – and has scored more goals while notching the same number of assists.
Defensively, Clarke makes more clearances, more blocks, fewer fouls, and isn’t dribbled past as much as his new team-mate. The pair are tied for interceptions while McGinn has made more tackles.
It seems likely that Clarke will be playing as a right-back rather than a centre-back and it’s worth remembering that some of McGinn’s stats will be when he was playing as a centre-back so they should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Tell me more...
In the 21st century football managers want their full-backs to be much more than “just” full-backs. They are required to bomb forward and create chances as well as defending, starting moves, and carrying the ball.
Clarke’s stats compated to other defenders are quite something. He was in the top ten for shots on goal in the first half of the campaign – one behind Porteous – and only Stephen Kingsley, Anthony Ralston, and James Tavernier have scored more goals.
Three of Kingsley’s four goals were direct free kicks, and two of Tavernier's were penalties. All of Clarke’s goals have come from open play.
On top of that he was third in the Staggies squad for ball carries behind Harry Paton and Regan Charles-Cook (and ahead of Joseph Hungbo and Blair Spittal). His inclination to start attacks is presumably something that appealed to Hibs.
One thing he will be tasked with working on at Hibs is his passing accuracy. At 69.6 per cent it is lower than Hanlon, McGinn, and Porteous as well as Josh Doig but that could be skewed by the number of short passes in defence. Against Aberdeen and Dundee United Hibs were taking more risks with passes so expect to see more of that going forward.
It is impossible to say too much about how Clarke could play under Maloney without knowing what the new manager has planned. He could play on the right of a back three, or he could be playing as a right-back in a back four. Or he could end up doing both. He could also potentially rotate with the right centre-back if he was playing wingback and vice versa. The possibilities are endless.
What is clear is that Clarke represents the type of player that can help take this Hibs team to the next level. Fast, attack-minded, raw but able to be coached, and crucially, able to play the type of football Maloney wants to play.
His arrival might not have been met with quite the same fanfare as Ewan Henderson and Elias Melkersen and he may not be the centre-back the team needs.
But he has a very good chance of being one of the shrewdest bits of January business the club has completed in a while.