Both Hibernian and Aberdeen entered their clash at Easter Road last weekend with undefeated records…
This week, once again, an eventful round of Premiership fixtures has been overshadowed by refereeing decisions. Indeed, the latest episode of BBC’s Sportscene felt more like an inquest than a football highlights show. But it would be wrong to reduce Hibernian’s thrilling 3-2 home victory over Kilmarnock to controversial calls – there was simply too much excitement and quality on show to focus on the officials.
Along with two goal of the season contenders – one wonderful free-kick opener from Stevie Mallan and a stunning curled effort from a revitalised Greg Stewart – there was some superb football on show for fans to enjoy. This, not the decisions of those refereeing the game, will be the focus of our analysis.
With Paul Hanlon out due to a hamstring injury, Neil Lennon decided to change his shape. As a result, Hibs switched from their usual 3-4-1-2 system, going to a 4-3-3. Goalkeeper Adam Bogdan started behind a back four of David Gray, Efe Ambrose, Ryan Porteous and Lewis Stevenson, while Steven Whittaker took on the holding midfield role. Mallan and Emerson Hyndman were more offensive central midfielders, while wingers Daryl Horgan and Martin Boyle played on either side of lone striker Florian Kamberi.
Steve Clarke went with his customary 4-4-2 shape with no real surprises in terms of individual selections. Jamie MacDonald was between the sticks behind a solid back four of Stephen O’Donnell, Kirk Broadfoot, Stuart Findlay and Greg Taylor. Aaron Tshibola joined Alan Power in central midfield, with Chris Burke and Jordan Jones on the wings. Stewart, meanwhile, took up a relatively free role just behind Eamonn Brophy up front.
Even after this game, Kilmarnock’s defensive record remained one of the best in the Premiership. Their xGA (Expected goals against) of 3.69 is second only to Celtic, and considering they only average 46.3% of possession (the fourth lowest in the league) that xGA record is all the more impressive. Curiously, however, Clarke’s side are bottom of the table when it comes to challenge intensity – duels, tackles and interceptions per minute of opponent possession.
What these statistics essentially tell us is that they don’t tend to dominate the ball. But, while their opponents will have the majority of possession against them, Kilmarnock engage in few defensive duels. This would suggest that their effective defensive approach is one based on zonal coverage and containment rather than aggressive pressing, and this was evident in their defeat to Hibs.
As shown in the graphic above, Killie defended in a 4-4-2 mid-block. Their two frontmen, Brophy and Stewart, didn’t initially press the first line of Hibs build-up, but rather sat off and took up central positions. From here they formed cover shadows on Whittaker, meaning the Hibs centre-backs couldn’t combine with their defensive midfielder.
Behind Brophy and Stewart, Clarke’s midfield was a compact line of four that shifted from side to side collectively, ensuring gaps between them didn’t arise for Hibs to exploit. This positional approach made it difficult for Lennon’s men to penetrate through the first two lines of Kilmarnock defence.
The home side were often forced sideways in build-up as a consequence of this, and when they did go wide to their full-backs Kilmarnock’s pressing was instigated. The nearest winger, Jones in the below example, would move out to close down his opposite man, while the nearest central midfielder would move to man mark the inside passing option (in this case Tshibola on Mallan). At the same time, the nearest striker would move across to help congest space and force Hibs’ backwards.
In these situations, Hibs looked to avoid inviting their visitors to press higher. Their under-pressure full-back would, therefore, look to play diagonal balls forward into the space created behind Kilmarnock’s nearest central midfielder for Kamberi to receive, as opposed to going back to his centre-back or Bogdan and allowing Kilmarnock to continue pressing.
With Whittaker often covered by one or both of Killie’s strikers, Hibs relied on the movements of their other midfielders to advance possession. Mallan or Hyndman would drop deep to the side of the centre-backs to receive and play around the first line of opposition defence. At times, as seen below, one would drop and the other would look to move beyond the Kilmarnock midfield line.
Here, Mallan comes deep to receive from Ambrose. Brophy moves across to close him down while blocking the pass to Whittaker, so Mallan plays a diagonal ball into the centre for Kamberi to receive. Meanwhile, Hyndman, circled, has moved up to receive the next pass from Kamberi or help to counter-press should the Swiss striker lose possession.
When attacking, both Kilmarnock central midfielders (circled below) stayed close to their centre-backs. This not only gave Broadfoot and Findlay multiple short passing outlets when building from the back, but made sure they weren’t left completely exposed when O’Donnell and Taylor pushed on down their respective flanks.
The advancement of the full-backs down the wings was key to Kilmarnock’s attacking game. As they took up higher positions near the touchlines, both Burke and Jones would move infield into the inside channels. Consequently, Clarke’s wingers occupied different channels to their full-backs, offering more passing options. They also got in between Hibs’ defence and midfield lines and enticed out the home side’s full-backs.
Hibs’ defensive approach was intensively man-oriented. Without the ball their 4-3-3 became a 4-1-4-1, and one of Mallan or Hyndman closed down the Kilmarnock midfielder in possession while Boyle and Horgan dropped to track the opposition full-backs. Below is a good example of Hibs’ man-orientations – in this instance it led to a mistake from Power, who rushed his pass under pressure and gave away a throw-in.
This defensive strategy helped to restrict the Killie ball-player’s time while simultaneously taking space away for their nearby teammates to receive in. Without time and space to play with, Clarke’s side relied on quality interplay in the wide areas to move forward.
With the wingers drawing the Hibs full-backs up in the inside channel, there was space down the wings to be exploited. And, while Hibs’ wingers tried their best to track their opposite men, they were always reacting to the movements of the Killie full-backs and thus rarely got to through balls first.
Below, Burke receives from Tshibola in the right inside channel. Stevenson moves up to remain close to Burke and pressure him, but the former Rangers man plays a first-time pass out to O’Donnell on the right wing. O’Donnell plays a return pass to Burke, who runs into the space vacated by his marker to receive. This move finishes with Stewart scoring Kilmarnock’s equaliser.
Ultimately, Kilmarnock were undone from set pieces. Hibs’ opener came from a typically unstoppable Mallan free kick, while their second came when Gray headed home a corner kick. The winning goal, scored by Kamberi from the spot, came only after a tangle of legs that, on another day, may not have resulted in a penalty.
Clarke can be happy with his players’ overall performance. Not only did they defend well from open play, but they showed flashes of intelligent attacking in the wider areas. On top of all that, Stewart seems to be finding the outstanding form he enjoyed at Dundee years ago; alongside Brophy, he could form a tantalising strike duo.