Hibs had travelled north with a makeshift squad owing to international call-ups. The entire defence had to be reshuffled. There was a player-coach in central midfield, and a coach forced out of retirement on the bench; a midfielder at right-back, and the third-choice left-back handed his first start in a Hibs shirt in 13 months.
Granted, the coronavirus pandemic had forced the rescheduling of the Betfred Cup and, with it, some logistical difficulties given the concurrent international break.
Which is why, nearly 12 months on from David Gray’s late header to seal a narrow win, it will be pleasing for Hibs fans to look at the Easter Road first-team squad and see at least two teams-worth of players pushing for a starting berth.
Battle for places
Ideally, Hibs would want plenty of competition for places in the starting line-up but not so many that there are players who get restless at a lack of game-time. With no reserve league and coronavirus complicating the arranging of bounce matches, there are fewer opportunities for fringe players to thrust themselves into the reckoning.
But there were times during the 2020/21 campaign – not just at Forfar – when Hibs looked a little short of options from the bench. Perhaps there was a certain degree of good fortune that none of Martin Boyle, Christian Doidge, or Kevin Nisbet suffered serious injury last term.
This year a mixture of shrewd signings and fit players has helped to improve this. Take the bench against Livingston, for example: three players with international experience in Alex Gogic, Daniel Mackay, and Lewis Stevenson and mercurial playmaker Scott Allan plus the versatile Josh Campbell and Drey Wright formed the outfield players able to come on and change the game – and this was without Doidge, Chris Cadden, Paul Hanlon, Melker Hallberg, and Joe Newell.
Strongest XI vs second XI
With Jack Ross preferring a 4-2-3-1 formation so far this season, and assuming all players are fit and available as things stand – i.e., not counting January arrivals Chris Mueller and Dylan Tait – his strongest XI would appear to be Matt Macey in goal with a back four of Paul McGinn, Ryan Porteous, Paul Hanlon, and Josh Doig.
The defence have all been called into senior international squads in the case of McGinn, Porteous, and Hanlon, while Doig has been involved with Scotland Under-21s.
Jake Doyle-Hayes and Joe Newell anchor the midfield with Martin Boyle, Kyle Magennis, and Jamie Murphy providing a threat as the attacking trio supporting lone striker Kevin Nisbet.
Boyle and Murphy can push up as additional forwards with Magennis dropping deeper for a 4-3-3 as well.
But the second string could give them a decent game: Kevin Dabrowski in goals; a back four of Chris Cadden, Darren McGregor, Nathan Wood, and Lewis Stevenson; Gogic and Hallberg sitting with Daniel Mackay, Allan, and James Scott as the attacking midfield trio and Doidge up front.
And that’s with David Mitchell, Campbell, Gullan, Wright, and Sean Mackie not involved.
If Hibs are to build on their performance last season it is vital that they have at least two players for every position to allow for injuries, suspensions, and loss of form. With Murphy suffering a recurrence of a hamstring injury against Livingston, Mackay or Scott can slot into his role without the need to drastically alter the formation or tactics.
The presence of versatile players in every third of the pitch offers greater scope for tinkering both mid-match and between games, and with the number of substitutes reduced from nine to seven for this season, competition for matchday places will be even greater.
The Tait / Mueller conundrum
Obviously with Mueller and Tait due to arrive in January and challenge for first-team places, the make-up of the strongest XI and the second-string side could well change.
Mueller has been playing wide and as a ten for Orlando City while the bulk of Tait’s appearances have come in a central or attacking midfield role. According to Raith Rovers chairman John Sim, Hibs were eyeing Tait as a first-teamer while Mueller will also be pushing for regular starts.
It remains to be seen how they fare when they arrive but regardless, it is greater strength and depth in the middle and final thirds of the pitch.
About the defence...
Defensively, Hibs are in better nick than they were at the start of August. The arrival of Wood has bolstered the central defensive options with four natural centre-backs and McGinn, who has looked very comfortable there in a back three. It should also spare Gogic from any last-resort stints in defence.
The return of Cadden from injury provides another option in both midfield and defence while Doig and Stevenson have both played as left-backs and left wing-backs.
Hibs would appear well stocked whether Ross favours a back three or a back four – or even a back five.
More players, more strategies
Once Ross has all his current players available, he will have the option to mix things up. There is a feeling that, while 4-2-3-1 is working, it may almost be as much out of necessity as it is a tactical choice.
There are very few teams that go through entire seasons playing the same formation in every single game. Certain matches may call for a more attacking approach, or a greater focus on caution by flooding the midfield or shuffling the defence.
Having such a strong squad, and with those who aren’t picked for the starting line-up desperate to impress in training and off the bench can only be beneficial for Hibs.
Supporters may have been irked at a quieter deadline day than they would have liked. But with several key players still to return, those currently available showing up well, and confirmed reinforcements arriving in January, the Easter Road squad looks to be filled with quality and cover across the board.