Why returning Hibs players can give Jack Ross food for thought as he seeks to halt defensive frailties
Ross is looking for a change in mentality and fewer goals conceded as Hibs enter tough four-game run - but he has the chance to mix it up, writes Neil McGlade
An all too familiar narrative unfolded in Dingwall on Wednesday night as Hibs’ failure to hold on to a lead again reared its ugly head.
Football teams will always concede goals - it’s part and parcel of the game. But the Hibs supporters' main frustration is how seemingly effortless it is for opposing teams to find a route to goal.
It would be a futile exercise to revisit Paul Heckingbottom's tenure at Easter Road. However, in wake of Hibs' previous two results - last Saturday's 2-2 draw with Kilmarnock and the 2-1 defeat by Ross County - the same defensive fragilities that blighted the Yorkshireman's reign are still present and urgently need addressed.
Lack of clean sheets, lack of continuity?
The current defensive line-up of goalkeeper Chris Maxwell, full-backs Jason Naismith and Lewis Stevenson and centre-half duo Paul Hanlon and Ryan Porteous blends youth and experience, a combination said to be crucial to a well-balanced side.
However, Hibs have failed to keep a clean sheet on league duty since the opening day of the season when a late Scott Allan goal handed Hibs a 1-0 win and three points over St Mirren.
The Easter Road side have had eight different defensive combinations over the first 16 league games but have stuck with the same goalkeeper and back four in five of the last six matches, including all matches under Ross.
While Hibs enjoyed three consecutive wins against St Johnstone, Motherwell and St Mirren, the cracks were still there and exposed in the last two matches as Kilmarnock fought back to earn a last-minute draw from two goals down, and Ross County came from behind to record their first win in ten matches.
Time for back-ups to shine?
Perhaps it’s now time to shake things up at the back. Ross has the luxury of calling on the fit-again Darren McGregor while club captain David Gray is also edging closer to a return.
Versatile full-back Tom James, central defender Adam Jackson and utility man Steven Whittaker - the veteran turned in a splendid display at centre-half during September’s 1-1 draw with Celtic - have been left twiddling their thumbs in recent weeks, and will surely be champing at the bit to prove themselves under the new management team.
Furthermore, the recent return of goalkeeper Adam Bogdan merely increases the competition for the gloves with Ofir Marciano playing back-up to Maxwell at the moment.
But the on-loan Preston 'keeper's position may be under review for this weekend's clash with Aberdeen following his error for County's equaliser on Wednesday night, potentially handing Marciano or Bogdan the chance to stake a claim for the No.1 spot.
Ross told the Evening News last week that the Israeli internationalist and former Liverpool shot-stopper have been training well and are ready to step in should the opportunity arise.
Change is as good as a rest?
Ross has plenty of food for thought in terms of team selection, something Heckingbottom didn't - especially defensively, with Gray, Stevenson, McGregor and Porteous all out for periods of time during his spell in charge.
Ahead of January's transfer window, Ross has the chance to shuffle his pack at the back if he believes it would help stamp out Hibs' tendency to let leads slip in matches.
The head coach acknowledged in the wake of the defeat in Dingwall that he would have to analyse the players' mentality with just 15 points won out of a possible 33 in the last 11 league games.
At the other end the goals continue to be plentiful - 12 in the last five outings is an excellent return, and much has been made of Christian Doidge's purple patch in front of goal. It will be a challenge to maintain that form with Aberdeen, Celtic and Rangers all to come in the next fortnight, not to mention a trip to face Hearts at Tynecastle on Boxing Day, but if Ross can find a defensive blend that works, either through a change in personnel or the players’ mindset or perhaps both, then Hibs can give themselves a good chance of motoring up the table and being in contention for a European berth come the business end of the season.