Why it will take Lee Johnson time to turn Hibs around - and why board is likely to back him
The four consecutive victories feel like a long time ago now, even though the most recent – a hard-fought 1-0 win against Motherwell – was barely four weeks ago.
Since then Hibs have shipped 15 goals, scored six, lost five, won one, and been booed off at half-time and full-time in their most recent fixture. Manager Lee Johnson apologised for a ‘disappointing’ showing against Ross County and said he and his side deserved the criticism that would come their way. He also accepted the fans were right to jeer the team off the park.
Inevitably fingers are pointed at the players, the coaching staff, the board, and the recruitment department when things are going badly. Five defeats in six is concerning form for any manager at any club, but especially so when you have watched the same players, give or take one or two changes, win four in a row.
This is very much a transitional season for Hibs. After the managerial merry-go-round last season, giving a manager time to shape things is vital; mainly for stability purposes. Johnson has repeatedly referenced this, most notably towards the beginning of his tenure when he admitted the abruptness of Jack Ross and Shaun Maloney’s departures had initially been red flags when he was approached about the Easter Road vacancy.
"Both managers and clubs need stability,” he said during the summer as he reflected on taking the job. “I was the longest-serving manager at Bristol City and when that happens you can really start to build.
"Consistency in development, playing style, structure, and the emotional development of the players allows you to make good decisions. I think when you inherit a squad where two or three managers have had their input, it can be difficult. You need three or four windows at least to iron it out.”
It is perhaps telling that Johnson saw fit to bring in 14 players during the summer transfer window, suggesting he felt the squad was in need of considerable surgery. Granted, some players like Kevin Nisbet and Kyle Magennis were still sidelined, but it was clear from the last few months of the previous season that Hibs were short in attack and badly needed reinforcements in some positions.
The main problem for the Hibs board is balancing results and performances with granting Johnson the time and resources to mould a team capable of consistent success – top-four finishes, regular European football, and cup runs. But it is all linked: poor performances will mean smaller gates, smaller gates mean less money to spend on the squad, a poorer quality squad will mean poor performances, and so on and so forth.
It would be fair to say that not all of the summer signings have impressed; some have had more of an impact than others, but it is rare that any club gets every piece of the jigsaw puzzle to fit when it comes to transfers. David Marshall has been a fine addition between the sticks and Mykola Kukharevych looks to have all the attributes to be a top striker, while Rocky Bushiri has shaken off the difficulties of last season and the return of Martin Boyle has given Hibs a ‘difference-maker’.
Speaking earlier this month Bushiri explained that part of the reason for his upturn in performances was a desire to prove Johnson wrong, with the manager happy to let him leave in the summer. Since then, the Belgian stopper has knuckled down and become one of the side’s better performers during this dismal run of form.
After the defeat by Aberdeen Johnson questioned the mentality of his players, suggesting his side had a ‘soft underbelly’ and true enough, the squad collectively doesn’t seem to cope well with adversity in the form of going a goal down, having only fought back from going behind twice, in the draws with Hearts and Rangers at Easter Road.
Was it mentality again that scuppered Hibs against Ross County? Even in some of the recent defeats performances, or at least parts of them, haven’t been too bad. The most noteworthy horror shows have been the second half against Aberdeen, most of the 90 minutes at Celtic Park, and pretty much all of the Staggies game.
As mentioned, the same players capable of roaring back to earn three points at St Johnstone, or draws with Hearts and Rangers, are the same ones struggling to string passes together against sides closer to the bottom of the cinch Premiership table than the top.
The World Cup break could well be coming at an opportune time for Hibs. The first hurdle will be getting a result at Rugby Park on Saturday but regardless, the chance to reset and spend time working on the psychological aspects of some players’ game may be hugely beneficial during the mid-season pause. Johnson has been open about his guest speaker approach, whereby he brings in people from different walks of life to speak to the players and impart their knowledge and experience.
One thing Johnson might look to do in a tactical sense in Ayrshire is abandon his three-at-the-back approach. He started with 3-5-2 against Rangers before quickly swapping to a back four, and he employed it for the second half of the 6-1 defeat by Celtic and the latter stages of the first. He then used it from the start against St Johnstone (2-1 defeat), St Mirren (3-0 win), Aberdeen (4-1 defeat) and Ross County (2-0 defeat) but reverted to a back four in the latter.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if he started with a back four against Kilmarnock, although it remains to be seen if he uses Ryan Porteous at right-back as he did for the second half against the Staggies.
Johnson isn’t afraid to make changes and with ten of the 11 players who started the first three games in the run of four wins available, might it be time to resort to a tried-and-tested approach?