Why Mark Milligan will be the key piece in Hibs' season
Signed in August, Hibs boss Neil Lennon was delighted to sign Mark Milligan. Joel Sked looks at the impact the Australian midfielder has had so far.
A key moment in Hibs' season so far came in the 72nd minute of the club's Ladbrokes Premiership fixture with Kilmarnock. It wasn't a goal or an injury, or even a controversial refereeing decision. It was the moment Mark Milligan stepped onto the pitch as a Hibs player for the first time.
A free agent, the Australian was signed in August on a two-year deal. Having not played in Europe previously, the 33-year-old was a relative unknown. However, he possesses 71 caps for his country and had played every minute of Australia's three World Cup games in Russia this summer.
It was quite the coup for Hibs boss Neil Lennon as he looked to insert greater "physicality" into the team.
He told reporters following the club's 3-2 win over Ross County in the Betfred Cup: “We need physicality. He is athletic. He is very experienced. He had a good World Cup and I like his composure on the ball and he is a big boy and can get around the pitch.”
Hibs fans, however, had to wait nearly a whole month to see their new recruit in action. Drawing 2-2 with Killie, having led 2-0 after 23 minutes, Milligan replaced Steven Whittaker at the base of the midfield.
Six minutes after entering the fray, Hibs were ahead. Although not involved in the goal, Milligan was very much involved in the team not conceding again.
And it has been that way ever since. Clean sheets have arrived in league wins over Dundee, St Mirren and most recently Hamilton Accies. He also played 105 minutes of the 0-0 draw against Aberdeen in the Betfred Cup, the Reds progressing via a penalty shootout.
It is no coincidence.
The role in front of the defence can be understated, especially for a player like Milligan who opts for quiet efficiency over rampaging destroyer.
Some fans saw the qualities he brought to the team immediately, for others it has taken a game or two. His performance in the 6-0 thumping of Hamilton brought heaps of praise.
Despite playing very deep in the midfield, he helped Hibs dominate the game and keep Hamilton hemmed in their half. His presence in front of the defence allowed Lewis Stevenson and a rejuvenated David Gray to push up, providing the team with width high up the park.
It also allowed the trio of Vykintas Slivka, Emerson Hyndman and Stevie Mallan to interchange and combine with the front pairing of Martin Boyle and Flo Kamberi. There was a fluidity about Hibs' performance as they continuously dragged Hamilton this way and that.
With the midfield movement dragging Hamilton's wide players infield, Gray and Stevenson had more space to advance into.
Defensively, his impact can be viewed through the lens of Efe Ambrose. The Nigerian seems more comfortable in a four rather than three-man backline. Yet his sojourns up field were not tempered, instead Milligan would drop alongside Ryan Porteous as if the movement was automatic.
As well as football intelligence, Milligan is bringing a winning mentality to the team. Leading Hamilton 3-0 with around 30 minutes remaining, Boyle's shot was blocked at the edge of the box with seven Hibs players ahead of the ball when Accies broke forward. The ball was switched to the left, dragging Ambrose out of position, but Milligan burst a gut, covering around 50 yards to get back into a centre-back position to provide protection.
Despite the attacking players on show and a 6-0 win, it certainly could be argued that the best player on the pitch was the defensive midfielder.
His early impact will have been highly encouraging for Lennon. The Northern Irishman has a raft of midfielders who can cut open defences and create chances. Milligan offsets that, providing balance.
He is the safety valve, putting himself in positions to take the ball and recycle it. His play is far from flashy but he makes sure to retain position, even if that means playing backwards. Only Ambrose has a higher passing success rate of Hibs' outfield players.
Tactically, he offers Lennon flexibility and versatility, providing him with options.
So far Milligan has played at the base of a diamond midfield, the holding midfielder in a 4-1-4-1 and in a midfield two in a 3-5-2. And there is no doubt, with his mobility, that in certain games at Easter Road he could play in the middle of a 4-4-2 with two wingers.
On a Hibs chess board, Milligan would be the key piece. With him in tow, Lennon can move the others around, sacrifice an individual here and another there, all depending on the opposition.
When Jamie Maclaren returns from injury, there will be an urge to get him and Kamberi on the pitch together to rekindle the relationship from the second half of last season. At the same time Boyle has shown the danger he possesses as a striker as his game continues to evolve.
Milligan gives that assurance in midfield which will allow for the likes of Hyndman, Mallan, Horgan, Slivka and the strikers to play together and dominate games with the ball.
In addition, an important facet of Hibs' play is their ability on the counter-attack, especially away from home when only one striker is required along with two of the club's speedy wingers. With the Australian midfielder sitting behind, the team can be even more adventurous.