Why Hibs might hope to spark a repeat of 2014/15 sea change against Rangers
Eight years ago today, Hibs lost the first Edinburgh derby of the season, going down 2-1 to Hearts at Tynecastle.
It was one of four defeats in the Easter Road side’s opening six games in the Scottish Championship, which also saw them defeated by Falkirk, Alloa, and Queen of the South, while requiring an injury-time goal to defeat Cowdenbeath.
The team’s season turned thanks to a 3-1 victory against Rangers at Ibrox with Alan Stubbs’ team losing just once in their next 21 games and as fate would have it, the two teams meet again this weekend albeit in the Capital.
Things are very different at both clubs these days but a home win – or even just a positive result – could go a long way to helping galvanise a Hibs team that is still scrabbling around for a foothold in this season’s Scottish Premiership.
Lee Johnson’s side are in transition by the manager’s own admission – but he doesn’t have an unlimited amount of time to get things right. Supporter patience is wearing thin after last season’s omnishambles.
Another defeat at the Tony Macaroni Arena has left a bad taste in the mouth and if the manager has a recipe for success, Saturday would be as good a time as any to serve up the first course.
A quick look at Saturday’s starting team and bench laid bare the selection problems facing Johnson at this moment in time.
No Kevin Nisbet, no Kyle Magennis, no Demi Mitchell, no Lewis Stevenson, and no Aiden McGeady.
The absence of the latter has almost certainly resulted in more pressure being piled on summer signing Jair Tavares, who showed flashes of his ability in the opening-day win at St Johnstone but lasted just 45 minutes in West Lothian.
Stevenson’s absence – now approaching the 50-day mark – has robbed the side of a consistent and experienced presence in the dressing room. The 34-year-old may not be a nailed-on starter at left-back following the arrival of Marijan Čabraja, and his prolonged spell on the sidelines has resulted in more first-team exposure for young left-back Oscar MacIntyre, but there is a reason the Fifer has been an omnipresent feature for the best part of the last 20 years.
McGeady’s absence and Martin Boyle’s lack of match-fitness has also seen Elias Melkersen deployed as a wide forward and while he arrived from Bodø/Glimt with the ability to play anywhere across the forward line, he has looked far more at home in a more central role.
Injuries are all but forcing Johnson to force square pegs into round holes. Predecessor Shaun Maloney did the same but perhaps crucially, Johnson isn’t beyond changing things up in a bid to effect change.
See it, change it… sorted?
His post-match comments about changing formation should reassure some supporters that he recognises the need for alterations in the pursuit of results.
"There was a formation change; I don’t want to go too deep into that because it gives us the option to do it again but it’s a formation that’s very difficult for the opposition to cope with, and that proved its worth,” he said afterwards.
"It’s not one that you can play for a number of minutes really because it’s weak in certain areas but I thought we started playing forward, running forward, had more compactness in possession, numbers in dangerous areas. But we wanted that in the first half.
"I’m not a massive believer in it always being about formation, I think it’s attitude, the break of the game, the will to turn and drive at people, to play forward, to run forward, and to be dangerous, and I don’t think we had enough will in the first half.”
It’s early days in the league season but with a fully fit squad, Johnson should have a strong starting XI, and a strong bench which will be vital when it comes to changing things mid-game.
The manager’s main problem as things stand is that nearly a fifth of his squad is currently out injured and of those sidelined, most of them are starters.
It’s been a while since Hibs had a bench full of players capable of coming on and changing a game and while it will take a little longer for that to be the case, it should be worth the wait for the team to be firing on all cylinders – which Johnson has stressed will take time.
Boyle to make a difference?
Johnson’s warning that it would take time for his team to gel might have been viewed as defeatist by some, but he has a point. Such a large turnover of players is inevitably going to result in a few bumps along the way – as evidenced by the forgettable start to the 2014/15 campaign – but after last season, few would have argued against wholesale changes being made.
One of the changes that could have an impact in Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off is the return of Martin Boyle. The forward scored on his second debut to earn a point for Hibs against Hearts and although he couldn’t impact the loss in Livingston, it will be hoped that he can have more of a say in the outcome against Rangers.
It became painfully clear in the wake of his departure in January how much the team depended on his pace and eye for goal but he has that x-factor that was sorely missing during the Premier Sports Cup games.
It’s not unthinkable that his ability could keep Hibs ticking over while the team gels and injured players return, although despite Johnson and owner Ron Gordon speaking about the club taking risks on and off the park, that isn’t maybe what they had in mind.
Johnson needs a reaction from all of his players following the Livingston defeat – and it just might prove to be a turning point of sorts for Hibs.