Why this Hibs team is now built to take the fight for Europe down to the wire
Hibs are on a roll. Five victories from an unbeaten seven-game sequence has them as one of the form teams in the division and, almost inexplicably, hot on the heels of rivals Hearts for the much-coveted third-place.
Last Saturday’s win over Livingston was the most impressive of the lot and showed there could be real staying power with this upsurge in results and performances. Sure, there was the 6-0 victory over Aberdeen and the 1-0 win at St Mirren, which meant Hibs were the first team to beat the Buddies in Paisley since the opening day. But Aberdeen had clearly downed tools under former boss Jim Goodwin and the St Mirren game was one of those bleak encounters that could get football stopped. The game in Almondvale was a real acid test and they passed it with flying colours after conceding an early goal.
Elie Youan has made the headlines. He’s netted five times in as many games and is finally becoming the attacker he’s threatened to be all season: one who is capable not only of threatening teams but also able to follow through on those intentions. At the back, Will Fish has been a surprising stand-out in the centre of defence, meaning Hibs have not missed the services of Ryan Porteous after his late January move to Watford. (There’s a sentence I didn’t think I’d be writing two months ago.)
But what stood out to this writer watching back the full 90 minutes on Wyscout was this: Hibs finally have a robust and balanced midfield.
Give your flair players a platform and they can go play. Hibs have been too guilty at times this season, last season – most seasons, really – of having those creative and goalscoring types within their side but failing to build that platform. Now they look like they may just have it.
It starts with Jimmy Jeggo in the No.6 position. He doesn’t take ownership of the ball too much and that’s fine. You don’t really want him to. His job is to use his willingness and tenacity to disrupt the opposition: to be there to intercept whenever a ball is played up the park before it gets to the defence and to harry opposing midfielders in possession.
It’s early days, but CJ Egan-Riley looks to be the Swiss Army knife of the unit. The January loanee is someone who is capable not only of fetching the ball, like Jeggo, but carrying it as well. He’s got poise in possession and he doesn’t just pass it sideways. He advances play.
Josh Campbell is the energetic goal threat who is growing in confidence technically with each passing week and rarely now seems to have a bad game. This comes a year on from most Hibs fans being happy to drive him to his next destination. He not only contributes to the final third but regularly races back to get involved in the engine room as well.
Even having Ewan Henderson on the right side of midfield has added a nice balance as he’s got a tendency to drift inside and put a foot in, seeing as he’s a natural central midfielder. This played a huge role in the gilt-edged chance for Matthew Hoppe shortly into the second half on Saturday as he joined Jeggo to double up on the opponent, win back possession and then win another 50-50 before releasing the American attacker through on goal.
Hibs have been accused of being a soft touch many times in the past and it was certainly true of the midfield this season. Now there’s a bit of bite in there. Other teams have had to battle their way through and not just drift idly by as witnessed as recently as the 2-2 draw with Dundee United in January. It means that when Youan’s form regresses or perhaps one of the injured players coming back into the line-up unsettles things, then they at least have the solid backbone capable of digging out results in ways you’d never have trusted this side to do so before.
It likely won’t be enough to stop Rangers tonight or Celtic in 10 days time, but if they can make it through those two incredibly difficult encounters and not let it knock their confidence or alter their new identity – or soil the sheets against Hearts again – then this is a team built to make the fight for eight games in European football next term a very tense one, indeed.