Why new Hibs boss should keep at least one element of Monty masterplan

Gray (left) and Montgomery in happier times as they worked together last season.Gray (left) and Montgomery in happier times as they worked together last season.
Gray (left) and Montgomery in happier times as they worked together last season. | SNS Group
Gray faces decisions as he puts own stamp on team

The change of leadership under way at East Mains is clearly closer to revolution than evolution. And new manager David Gray has been extremely honest about his priorities when it comes to improving on last season’s calamitous collapse, itself an inevitable byproduct of repeated upheaval.

As Gray assembles his backroom staff and draws up pre-season plans intended to transform a bloated squad of odds and ends, few at Hibernian Training Centre will argue with the rookie gaffer’s over-riding ambition to make the first team harder to beat. When did you ever hear of a new boss declaring their intent to unstiffen sinews and ease up on demands for defensive discipline?

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But there are undoubtedly elements of Nick Montgomery’s masterplan worth salvaging from the wreckage. Whatever went wrong during his brief stint as manager, the straight-talking Yorkshireman definitely effected a major transformation in playing style after taking over from Lee Johnson back in September.

Hampered by the same constraints that will now chafe at Gray as the inexperienced coach takes his first strides in management, Monty never got the chance to bring in the reinforcements needed – and already identified as targets during the summer window – to take the next step in his rebuild. His successor, mercifully working with a smaller squad but still unlikely to find a strong starting XI from the players already at his disposal, has to decide whether he adds to the foundations in place. Or takes a wrecking ball to everything left behind when Montgomery departed.

Bearing in mind financial restrictions, not to mention the continued presence of players signed by his predecessor’s predecessors’ predecessor, what can Gray hope to achieve in a short close-season and a single transfer? And what SHOULD he do next?

Keep building from the back

Yes, OK. It gives you the fear. Does unspeakable things to your blood pressure. But it works. Honest.

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While some fans threw themselves into a blind panic every time Hibs took a short goal kick or recycled possession through David Marshall last season, it is a truth universally acknowledged – at least within football – that Montgomery was onto something. And anyone questioning his wisdom was likely to be presented with a handful of receipts in support of the tactic.

Did you know that NO-ONE in the Scottish Premiership – not Celtic, Rangers or any other team with a reputation for playing good football – used the short build-up more frequently than Hibs last season? Brendan Rodgers’ swashbuckling champions didn’t even come close. Which is quite remarkable, when you consider that those figures include the first three games with Johnson at the helm.

Hibs enjoyed success when building from the back. Hibs enjoyed success when building from the back.
Hibs enjoyed success when building from the back. | Wyscout/author's own notation.

So what? Well, a deeper dive into the numbers reveals just how effective this ploy was. Only Celtic were better than Hibs when it came to turning those build-ups into attacks on the opposition goal.

Going short from the goalie worked. Why fix something that isn’t broken, right?

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Sort out the goals against column

As much as Montgomery used to bemoan his team’s inability to put opponents away when on top, they actually converted a lot of chances; they finished neck-and-neck with Celtic when measuring their shots-to-goal ratio. If every Hibs fan could point to a series of glaring misses in games that got away, and no-one would deny that the team need another striker, that wasn’t the biggest problem.

Goals conceded? That’s a different story. Which is why Gray has made it his number one priority. Losing almost a goal-and-a-half a game is a trend that can’t continue, obviously. Which brings us to …

Sort out the set pieces

If Scotland pull off a European Championships shock for the ages against Germany in Munich tomorrow night, they’ll probably have excelled in one very specific are of the game. If you can’t master set pieces, at both ends of the park, football is a much more difficult business.

Hibs really need their own Austin MacPhee. A set-piece analyst and coach whose work with Scotland and Aston Villa has elevated both his own profile and that of his speciality.

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But tightening up such an obvious are of concern, especially in the concession of goals to second and third phases from a corner or free-kick, isn’t all down to the quality of the intelligence on opponents or attention to detail in training. At some point, someone just needs to take charge and clear the damned ball. Gray needs to find that someone. Several of them.

Keep faith in youth

The best thing Montgomery did during his brief stint as manager was making Rory Whittaker the youngest debutant in club history. And giving a handful of other under-18s regular exposure to first team life.

Whittaker doesn’t turn 17 until August but is already being tipped as a future star. The new manager has a duty to nurture that talent, and others, by bringing the best kids into training and – the really brave part – games.