Why there's no need for Hibs to ring the changes for Friday night fixture despite Celtic rout

If you had offered Hibs fans the chance to remain third in the cinch Premiership after consecutive away defeats, chances are most supporters would have bitten your hand off.

For that is the position the Easter Road side finds themselves in after shipping seven goals in two matches and scoring just one of their own. Granted, other matches played a part, but with a relatively favourable run of fixtures to come in the final five games before the mid-season break for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Hibs could certainly be a lot worse off in terms of league position.

That’s not to say Saturday can, and should, be wiped from the memory any time soon. While Celtic can be devastating in the final third, as they showed countless times against Lee Johnson’s side, four half-time substitutions tells its own story. Indeed, the last time the Hibs boss felt forced to make that many changes at the midway point was during the 1-0 defeat by Falkirk in the Premier Sports Cup group stages.

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Johnson’s response after the Celtic game told a story. He questioned the mentality of some players, summed up his side’s performance as akin to a ‘boxer that didn’t want to throw a punch because they were worried about the counter punch’, and bemoaned his side’s lack of ‘bog-standard professional detail’.

It wasn’t all aimed at the players: “First and foremost it’s 100 per cent me. I sent the team to press in a certain way and got it wrong, it’s as simple as that and I have to take responsibility. It’s on me, but you put a team out and you want them to produce their best when it matters most. When they don’t you take them off or move them on, otherwise you go. That’s the nature of the beast.

"I want to go to sleep at night knowing our team and club is going to play in a way that has an identity that’s really matched with the fans and what they want and in the first half we were a million miles off. If I could have made seven changes I would have.”

Some may question the wisdom of carpeting his players to the extent he did but Johnson would no doubt insist that he wants individuals capable of withstanding such criticism and who can use it as a catalyst for improvement. Club captain Paul Hanlon also spoke of the weight of expectation that comes from playing for Hibs.

There is little wrong in having such high standards but it must be stressed that this was a heavy defeat inflicted by a team yet to lose a league game under Ange Postecoglou at Celtic Park and who six months ago put seven past St Johnstone, rather than an early cup exit at the hands of a lower-league outfit.

Hibs were roundly cuffed by Celtic at the weekend - but it's matches like Friday night's meeting with St Johnstone that will end up making a difference

When Postecoglou went to his bench he was able to sub on Liel Abada, Kyogo Furuhashi, Daizen Maeda, James McCarthy, and Oliver Abildgaard; three regular internationalists, two players already in double figures in terms of goals for Celtic since signing last season, and an experienced midfielder with nearly a decade of Premier League experience. On top of that, Celtic had been stung in midweek Champions League action by RB Leipzig. It appears to have been Hibs’ misfortune to have borne the brunt of their response.

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Johnson added afterwards: “It’s a free hit. I expect us to win, but 99 per cent of people don’t, so they have to show themselves in the best possible light as a player and a club. We haven’t done that and it has to change.”

Presumably that starts on Friday, when Hibs host St Johnstone in the first Scottish top-flight game to be played with VAR. There is every possibility that the Perth Saints may endure a similar reaction to Hibs in Glasgow. The Hibees are unbeaten at Easter Road under Johnson in all competitions (if you discount the penalty shoot-out defeat and subsequent administration foul-up following the 1-1 draw with Morton in the Premier Sports Cup) and haven’t lost a league game in Leith since the start of February.

Johnson has stressed repeatedly that his project at the club will take time but few could have predicted that after consecutive road defeats by Livingston and St Mirren that Hibs would end up sitting third, three points ahead of Hearts, in mid-October.

Lee Johnson is ambitious and ruthless and wants the best for Hibs, but may have learned a lesson at Celtic Park
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They have a real chance of improving on that position in the remaining matches before the mid-season pause for the World Cup and in those five games we should gain more of an insight into how Johnson’s plan, and team, is taking shape.

It will be fascinating to see the response to Saturday’s hiding. Johnson spoke before the trip to Glasgow of his admiration for Postecoglou and his style of play and there are certainly elements of similarity between the two teams on the pitch, albeit Celtic’s version is a lot more devastating, a lot more refined, and a lot faster. The Hibs manager said at his unveiling back in May that he would always look to play positively and that sometimes his side might get their fingers burnt as a result. That was certainly the case on Saturday.

In the grand scheme of things, the Celtic game is highly unlikely to have a significant bearing on Hibs’ season. Games like the 1-0 defeat by Dundee United last midweek will. Games like the visit of St Johnstone will as well. Players who froze against Celtic could be match-winners against Kilmarnock, St Mirren, or Ross County.

Hibs played well at Tannadice, but didn’t take their chances. They fell short against Celtic, and were heavily punished. They now have a chance to exorcise the ghosts of the Parkhead performance with victory over the Saints which would get their final few games before Qatar 2022 off to a positive start – and might just calm a few fears among the support.