Why Harry Clarke's return can boost Hibs at a timely point in the season - and where he might play
During an international break in which manager Shaun Maloney and the medical staff will have been crossing their fingers that no Hibs player suffered injury while representing their country, the return of Harry Clarke to training came as a cautious boost ahead of the ‘business end’ of the season.
While the 21-year-old is only participating in what Maloney described as ‘partial training’, his involvement at all is cause for positivity after the Arsenal defender suffered a hamstring injury not long after penning an 18-month loan deal with the Easter Road side.
Described as an ‘exciting signing’ by the Hibs boss, Clarke caught the eye during a loan spell with Ross County in the first half of the season, scoring twice and laying on three more for his team-mates in Dingwall.
His lengthy spell on the sidelines came as a blow both individually and at a time when Hibs were without skipper Paul Hanlon and vice-captain Paul McGinn as well as Rocky Bushiri and Ryan Porteous for spells through suspension, with various players shoehorned into the back three including Chris Cadden, Josh Doig, and Lewis Stevenson.
Saturday’s crucial game against Dundee United may come too soon for Clarke to get his first taste of action in green and white but his imminent return to action will be a boost regardless of when he is put in.
Where will he play?
Like many of Maloney’s options, Clarke’s versatility makes him an attractive prospect in a team. Able to operate as a centre-half, right-back, or right-wingback, he offers pace and strength in both defence and attack.
For County, he started out centrally before switching to full-back. Four of his five goal contributions came from right-back, against St Mirren, Livingston, and Dundee.
Hibs employ a 3-4-2-1 formation, and with potential player of the year candidate Chris Cadden tending to occupy the right-wingback slot, Clarke’s obvious role would appear to be in the back three.
With Ryan Porteous suspended for four league matches, Hibs need bodies in the defence capable of playing out from the back and Clarke would appear to fit the bill.
In his own words, Clarke sees himself as a right-back: “I would have said my preferred position was centre-back; now I’d probably say right-back and it will probably change. I think right-back for now… I feel like I can really use my pace there whereas at centre-back I feel a bit limited.”
With Hibs tending not to utilise traditional full-backs in Maloney’s preferred system, Clarke seems destined for a role in the back three.
Even though latterly he was mostly operating as an attack-minded right-back at Ross County, the player himself appears to favour a central position and it’s hard to see him dislodging Cadden from the wingback position.
Against Dundee United on Boxing Day, Porteous started as the right-sided centre-back with Hanlon in the middle and Lewis Stevenson at left centre-half. With Hanlon and Stevenson both available for selection, Maloney could replicate this back three with Clarke in for Porteous – or he might want to keep Rocky Bushiri in his back three.
It’s also possible that Clarke’s availability might prompt a change in formation to a back four, although Maloney has mostly stuck with a three-man defence. Either way, having options is a luxury Hibs haven’t really enjoyed in recent weeks.
Why should Hibs fans be excited by Clarke?
Simply put, he is a great fit for the sort of football that Maloney wants to play. Plenty of energy, strong defensively, and attacking intent. There is room for improvement of course, but he has a good staff to work with – Gary Caldwell, Dave Gray, and Valerio Zuddas will all be able to give him pointers along with Maloney, while the old stagers in defence such as Hanlon, Stevenson, and Darren McGregor will also be able to help him progress.
On top of that he knows the league having played 17 times for Ross County and having started off as a striker in his youth, he has an eye for goal as well as being very good on the ball.
But perhaps the biggest reason to be relishing Clarke’s first minutes in a Hibs jersey is pace. The current Easter Road team is not blessed with a huge amount of pace since the departure of Martin Boyle. Cadden, Doig, and Sylvester Jasper are pretty nippy and Elias Melkersen showed a fair amount of speed to get away from Juhani Ojala for his second goal against Motherwell in the Scottish Cup quarter-final.
He will only improve playing alongside experienced defenders at Easter Road and he should thrive in Maloney’s system.
Will he be fit to face Dundee United?
Mibbes aye, mibbes naw. On his own social media Clarke has referenced the ‘big game’ on Saturday but that would be accurate regardless of his involvement. It is a huge clash for Hibs as a club.
Joe Newell was something of a surprise starter when Hibs travelled to Fir Park for the cup game but the midfielder said later that he had trained all week and felt ready to play. It is not unthinkable that Clarke could do similar, although references to ‘partial training’ suggest that he may not be risked just yet.
Or it might be part of a ruse to keep the Terrors guessing. We should find out later this week, either at the pre-match press conference or when the team is named on Saturday.
With Porteous missing for four potentially vital games, the sooner Clarke is available the better – but with a crucial ending to the season in both the league and the cup, it might be best not to risk him too soon and have him for the run-in.