Why Hibs' Dundee draw highlighted the absence, and importance, of Paul Hanlon and Joe Newell
There was a bit of déjà vu about Hibs' draw with Dundee last weekend, namely that the side looked good going forward but failed to make the most of its chances, and looked a bit iffy at the back on occasion.
Finishing the game with a natural left-back at right-back and second-choice pairing in the middle won’t have helped but we didn’t see anything we haven’t already seen from this Hibs side.
But a lot of the stuttering could be attributed to the lack of a fit Paul Hanlon and Joe Newell.
The Newell effect
Newell’s absence in the midfield was keenly felt. With Alex Gogic stepping into the Englishman’s boots, Hibs were naturally more defensive in the middle of the park.
The knock-on effect was that Jake Doyle-Hayes was less effective in the deep-lying role than he has been with Newell alongside him which in turn led to Kyle Magennis dropping deeper from the number ten role.
Had he been fit, Melker Hallberg might have been a better fit alongside the Irishman.
That said, Dundee deserve credit for the way midfield duo Shaun Byrne and Max Anderson did an effective job of hassling their Hibs counterparts, especially during the opening 25 minutes or so, forcing mistakes and wayward passes.
When Newell plays he often drops deep to pick up the ball and then uses it to start attacks. His current successful pass rate stands at over 90 per cent while Jake Doyle-Hayes isn’t far behind in the mid-eighties. Gogic is in the low seventies.
Newell also plays more key passes per game (2.5) than any other player – even Martin Boyle. The former Rotherham United man may divide opinion among the supporters and he would be the first to admit he needs to add more goals and assists to his game but on current statistics his presence in the midfield would appear crucial to Hibs playing to their full potential.
Hanlon has his detractors and has for some time – even after posting impressive stats as he helped Hibs to a third-place finish last term with only champions Rangers and runners-up Celtic enjoying a lower goals-against column.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous remark that, “attack wins you games, defence wins you titles” may not be entirely accurate but there is some truth in the statement.
The Easter Road captain has missed three games through concussion after suffering a head knock in the first leg of the Europa Conference League third-round meeting with NK Rijeka, with Hibs conceding six goals in those three matches.
Prior to the 31-year-old’s lay-off the team had conceded four in four-and-a-half matches. Granted two of those games were against Andorran minnows FC Santa Coloma but the evidence is there that the defence performs better with Hanlon part of it.
This isn’t a recent phenomenon either. In the second half of the 2013/14 season, Hanlon was ruled out for the remainder of the season with a knee injury in March. His unavailability coincided with a horrible run of form in which Hibs won just once and conceded 15 goals in ten games.
The stats-without-Hanlon numbers are not an indication that Darren McGregor is a poorer player – he has, after all, kept two clean sheets in his five appearances so far. Neither are they a reflection on Ryan Porteous, who continues to mature and is getting better at bringing the ball out from the back.
McGregor and Porteous have both performed well in terms of aerial duels won, outperforming Hanlon, but without the skipper in the team Hibs lack a ball-playing centre-back to ping those diagonal balls out to the wing.
Take away Hanlon and Newell and all of a sudden Hibs look weaker in the defensive and middle third of the pitch.
Fixing the leaks
Hibs are actively looking to bolster their backline and for good reason. It was less of an issue last term because despite the side reaching the final stages of both domestic cups and shooting for third in the table, there were very few, if any injuries to the central defenders and Jack Ross was able to tweak his rearguard through choice rather than necessity, such as benching Porteous in the wake of the transfer interest from Millwall.
This term, Hanlon’s head injury and a switch to a 4-2-3-1 set-up makes that more difficult. Tasked with operating as an out-and-out right-back, Paul McGinn is yet to reach the level of consistency that earned him a Scotland call last season when he was a comfortable 7/10 every week as a right-sided centre-back.
With Hanlon sidelined Hibs look weaker at the back without a ball-playing centre-back although there does seem to be a concerted effort to mould Porteous into such a player. This would also explain the pursuit of Jamie McCart of St Johnstone who, while generally matching Hanlon for most defensive stats, is a different type of centre-back but can also fnction effectively in a back three or a back four.
Hibs are well-stocked in midfield and have plenty of options. Will we see the same make-up in the middle of the park on Saturday? A lot depends on Newell’s fitness.
If the 28-year-old is available he will reclaim his starting berth with Gogic returning to the bench. But if he remains sidelined it poses a problem.
Does Ross persist with the same line-up against Livingston and risk dropping more points or does he shake things up? Assuming the 4-2-3-1 is here to stay Scott Allan could be an option in the playmaker role with Magennis moving to partner Doyle-Hayes, or Jamie Murphy moved inside with Daniel Mackay on the left flank.
But that in turn could disrupt Murphy’s effective partnership with Josh Doig. In short, each twist of the selection Rubik’s cube throws up other problems.
Hibs will hope Hanlon and Newell are both available for the visit of Livingston – not just for their own performances but how they impact the rest of the team.