Why Melker Hallberg may have given Jack Ross pause for thought about his Hibs cup final team
“Do you know the reason Sweden's flag is shaped like a well-wrapped present? Because Melker Hallberg is such a gift.”
The social media post doing the rounds on Sunday following Hibs’ 2-0 victory over Dundee United in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden the previous day was light-hearted in tone but carried an undeniable truth following a strong showing at the national stadium which had fans purring and rushing to praise his performance.
The Kalmar native has perhaps been unlucky not to feature more this season but competition for midfield places has been tough given the form and consistency of Alex Gogic, Joe Newell and, more recently, Jackson Irvine.
Hallberg may only have been in the starting line-up as a result of Gogic’s suspension but he put in one of his best performances in a Hibs shirt and helped his side win the midfield battle.
Branded “the nicest guy in the world” by Easter Road colleague Tom James, he has a competitive edge that serves him well in high-octane matches, which we saw at the weekend.
His snarling encounter with Motherwell’s Nathan McGinley in the quarter-final match at Easter Road was followed by a stern finger-wagging for Mark Reynolds after the Dundee United captain had grappled with him at Hampden and that sort of bite could be crucial as Hibs seek to lift the Scottish Cup for only the fourth time in the club’s history.
Hallberg’s semi-final showing might also give head coach Jack Ross a selection dilemma ahead of the final on May 22. While the Hibs head coach will be only too aware of what the 25-year-old brings to the party, the midfield trio of Gogic-Newell-Irvine may be under threat, especially with the Easter Road side seeking some form of Perth kryptonite to help them overcome St Johnstone.
A lot has been made of the McDiarmid Park side supposedly “having Hibs’ number” but looking at previous meetings, the last two league games have been decided after mistakes from Hibs defenders while the woodwork twice denied Hibs in the first half of the Betfred Cup semi-final in January.
Had one or both of those found the net the game could have panned out very differently.
Assuming Gogic, Hallberg, Irvine, and Newell are all fit and Ross sticks with a 3-5-2, one of the midfielders is going to have to be content with a seat on the bench.
With two league games ahead of the final Hallberg may get a chance to play his way into the manager’s thoughts; especially if Newell’s injury is bad enough to keep him sidelined for any length of time.
As an aside, Hibs have only lost four of the 15 games this season in which Hallberg has started. Two of them were single-goal defeats by Rangers, and one was a single-goal loss to Aberdeen decided by a penalty.
It’s unlikely to be a coincidence. He may not always catch the eye but the midfield does seem to enjoy more balance when he plays.
Gogic v Hallberg
Even in his fleeting starting appearances this season Hallberg has had a positive impact. Think back to the back-to-back wins against Motherwell and Hamilton in December and you may recall his driving forward runs helping create goals in both games.
His midfield colleague Gogic has impressed, and improved, over the course of the season but one aspect in Hallberg’s favour is his strength defensively as well as offensively. If it comes down to a straight either / or between the two players the smart money would be on the Swede – and having Gogic as an option off the bench if Hibs need to protect a lead or gain a bit more control in midfield wouldn’t be the worst scenario for the coaching staff.
It isn’t just his work with the ball; Hallberg’s runs off the ball often create space for his team-mates. This was particularly evident when Martin Boyle embarked on a mazy run through the middle against United. The Swede’s run into the space on the right flank left defenders in two minds with the outcome a free kick in a dangerous position for Hibs.
Starter v Sub
Another argument for starting Hallberg in the cup final is that he is not a typical impact sub. If Hibs need an injection of energy or pace from the bench then there are other options to call on – Kyle Magennis, for instance, or Drey Wright.
Jamie Murphy will be fit for the final too after making his long-awaited comeback as a second-half replacement against United and just having the winger available again could allow the coaching staff to shake things up a bit.
At this stage, a lot hinges on Newell’s injury and how he recovers but even if he doesn’t make the final, it’s worth remembering that this Hibs team minus the former Rotherham United man were all over St Johnstone for much of the first half of the Betfred Cup semi and if Hallberg is required to deputise for the final, Hibs fans should have no reservations about his abilities.
The former Kalmar and Velje midfielder sometimes has a tendency to slip beneath the radar, albeit not necessarily in a negative fashion, but his performance at the weekend might just have changed that.
Managers often claim to have picked their cup final starting teams days in advance but if the mercurial Melker is handed a chance to impress against Aberdeen and Celtic, don’t bet against him giving Jack Ross a major selection headache right up until the last possible moment before May 22.