Why Hibs and Lee Johnson may have to adjust 'have a go' mentality against Celtic

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There is something admirable about Lee Johnson’s insistence on ‘having a go’ against the likes of Celtic and Rangers.

Hibs had strong starts against Rangers at Ibrox and again at Easter Road, although they have struggled more against the Hoops, who swept them aside in October and were comfortable winners in the Capital in December.

Most Hibs fans would agree that they want the side to be playing attractive, attacking football but a good number of them might also be in favour of a more softly, softly approach in certain games.

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That style of play has also contributed to 19 goals conceded and just six scored in five games against the Glasgow pair, and Hibs embark on another trip west to face Celtic on Saturday. Ange Postecoglou’s side haven’t dropped points at home since May last year; the last time they lost at Celtic Park Leigh Griffiths and Odsonne Edouard started up front while Kristoffer Ajer and Shane Duffy were the two centre-backs chosen by Neil Lennon in a 2-1 defeat by St Mirren in January 2021. The last time Hibs took anything from Parkhead was earlier that month, in a match overshadowed by Celtic’s winter break trip to Dubai that resulted in Christopher Jullien testing positive for Covid-19 and a further 13 players being ruled out as close contacts. Kevin Nisbet’s late goal earned a point, cancelling out David Turnbull’s opener.

Lee Johnson on the touchline at Celtic Park during Hibs' 6-1 defeat in OctoberLee Johnson on the touchline at Celtic Park during Hibs' 6-1 defeat in October
Lee Johnson on the touchline at Celtic Park during Hibs' 6-1 defeat in October

The last trip to G40 will still be fairly fresh in the minds of Hibs fans and players. James Forrest and Giorgos Giakoumakis had Celtic 3-0 up by 3.25pm and although Élie Youan pulled one back early in the second half Forrest completed his hat-trick moments later, Giakoumakis added his second and Celtic’s fifth, and Daizen Maeda made it six at the end not long after hitting the bar as Hibs shipped six against Celtic for the first time in 20 years.

Speaking afterwards Johnson lamented the ‘horrendous errors’ for all six goals, and criticised a lack of proper defending. He added: “We have to take lessons from games like this, whether that’s myself and the way we recruit, but also for players to step into these games and not show the fear we did in the first half.”

He said similar after last midweek’s 4-1 defeat by Rangers. Granted, the Light Blues put in a polished performance and Fashion Sakala and Antonio Čolak combined to devastating effect, but it was another heavy defeat in which Hibs started strongly and then alarmingly tailed off.

Lessons learned?

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Martin Boyle and his team-mates endured a chastening 90 minutes against Celtic in OctoberMartin Boyle and his team-mates endured a chastening 90 minutes against Celtic in October
Martin Boyle and his team-mates endured a chastening 90 minutes against Celtic in October

One thing Johnson did on the last trip to Parkhead was select a starting line-up composed nearly entirely of native English speakers, with Mykola Kukharevych the sole exception, and he ended up making four changes at the break but by then the damage had been done. In all games against Celtic or Rangers this season Hibs have shown in all-too-fleeting glimpses, promising signs of the way Johnson wants them to play. It might be the case that Hibs need to work a bit more on walking before they can run.

It’s unlikely that Johnson will indulge in the parking of any lengthy passenger vehicles come Saturday afternoon but we may see a bit more pragmatism from the 41-year-old. There can still be opportunities to play the way he wants, but he may have to concede that a different approach is needed. He talks about learning lessons and he will surely have done that from the previous five matches.

A balancing act

Hibs want to be in the top six come the split and if they manage it they will face another game each against Celtic and Rangers. To finish in the top six, Hibs need points and, potentially, for other results to go their way. If they still harbour hopes of finishing third then they need to keep an eye on Hearts, currently five points ahead and occupying third spot and Aberdeen, who are two points behind in fifth but play the Jambos on Saturday. St Mirren, Livingston, St Johnstone, and Motherwell – who occupy sixth to ninth respectively – will also harbour top-six ambitions.

Johnson may need to pick carefully the games in which Hibs are allowed to play the way he wants, while others may call for a change in approach. There may be some hard decisions to make in terms of personnel and tactics but the potential return of Jake Doyle-Hayes may offer greater options in the middle of the park.

Food for thought

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Speaking after the Rangers game last week Johnson insisted that he was desperate to ‘show off what Hibs are about’ and ‘desperate to prove to ourselves and to the fans that we can infiltrate in one-off games and get closer to [Celtic and Rangers]’.

He highlighted that previous teams he had managed had ‘always competed well against higher opposition’, admitting that it was ‘niggling away’ at him that so far, Hibs had not managed to do likewise.

There was an air of contrition as he conceded that he might have dented the players’ confidence with his rather on-the-nose take after the 6-1 game, and was keen not to do likewise after the Rangers defeat with another trip to Celtic Park on the horizon.

If Johnson has recognised what works and doesn’t work in terms of motivating his players, and is able to identify a gameplan and tactics that get the best out of the team then Hibs may be able to give a good account of themselves in Glasgow.

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He might have compared the two teams to very different types of cars ahead of a previous match but again, if lessons have been learned then he is unlikely to do so again this time. ‘You are still getting to know your players all the time’, he said after last week’s Gers defeat.

Johnson may well learn even more about his players come 5pm on Saturday. But it’s what he will have already learned that counts.

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