Aberdeen entered their ‘Battle of Britain’ Europa League qualifier with Burnley as heavy underdogs, but…
Both Hibernian and Aberdeen entered their clash at Easter Road last weekend with undefeated records from their opening two Premiership games. Hibs had fended off the distraction of Europa League action by beating Motherwell 3-0 and drawing away to St Johnstone, while Aberdeen had recovered from continental elimination at the hands of Burnley by drawing with Rangers and winning 1-0 away at Dundee.
As a consequence of some positive results, the two sides had plenty of reason for optimism going into their meeting. What followed was an intriguing tactical battle. Here, we at TheTwoPointOne dissect an exciting match between teams with genuine top-three ambitions.
Hibs opted for a 3-4-1-2 system, with new signing Daryl Horgan playing just behind a fluid front two of Oli Shaw and Martin Boyle. Steven Whittaker joined Stevie Mallan in central midfield, David Gray and Lewis Stevenson acted as the right and left wing-backs, while Ryan Porteous was flanked by Efe Ambrose and Paul Hanlon in a back three shielding Adam Bogdan.
Derek McInnes set his Aberdeen side up in a basic 4-5-1, though their shape changed considerably depending on the phase of play they were in. Joe Lewis kept goal behind a back four of Tommie Hoban, Michael Devlin, Andrew Considine and Graeme Shinnie, while a midfield three of Dominic Ball, Stephen Gleeson and Lewis Ferguson offered further defensive protection. Frank Ross and Gary Mackay-Steven started on the left and right wing respectively, while Stevie May led the frontline.
Aberdeen’s defensive style was, as it has been for some time, intensively man-oriented. They employed fairly rigid man marking in the back line and in midfield, where Gleeson, Ferguson and Ball marked Horgan, Whittaker and Mallan. This approach is simple in execution, as every player knows roughly who to focus on individually to prevent the opposition from passing through the thirds. However, it can be manipulated by movements off the ball and actions on it.
Teams such as Celtic and Rangers often use the ‘third man’ to break through Aberdeen’s defence. This involves a pass from Player A to Player B while Player C makes a run to receive from Player B in space. Hibs, however, went for a slightly different method.
Neil Lennon’s defence of Ambrose, Porteous and Hanlon featured three players who are technically sound. All are comfortable in possession of the ball, and all are able to dribble and/or pass forwards astutely. Up against a lone Aberdeen striker in May, Hibs used their 3v1 in the first line of build-up to create a ‘free man’, who would then drive towards the middle third. Ambrose or Hanlon would drive forward; in the process, they aimed to dis-mark more advanced teammates by attracting Aberdeen midfielders away from their man-marking duties.
These dribbles from Ambrose and Hanlon presented a problem for Aberdeen’s midfield three. If Ball, Gleeson and Ferguson stuck to their opposite men and didn’t move towards the ball, the Hibs centre-back in possession could advance into the final third unchecked. Obviously this isn’t an ideal scenario, so one of the three would leave their marking assignment to close down Ambrose or Hanlon, in turn freeing up one of Mallan, Whittaker or Horgan.
Hibs were able to create a free man in midfield several times, but they didn’t always seem to recognise the potential of these situations. At times, Mallan would be free in the centre, only to not receive the ball. Had he got the ball, he could have used his freedom to push further forward and commit the next line of Aberdeen defence, potentially freeing up one of Boyle, Shaw or Horgan.
Another method of building possession from the back that Hibs used was playing directly into the feet of an attacker. By doing this, they not only bypassed Aberdeen’s intense man marking in midfield but caused a potential issue for the away side’s midfielders. Once bypassed, most or all of the trio (Gleeson, Ball and Ferguson) would, quite naturally, turn to face their own goal. As a result, they temporarily lost sight of their opposite men, who were free to receive deep or make a run unmarked.
Aberdeen defended in a low block, which wisely reduced the space between their goal and their defensive line. Their man marking style comes with risks, as players can be dragged out of position by the opposition’s movement, potentially leading to space opening up in their defensive third. Had the Dons’ backline been positioned higher, they could have struggled against the pace and dribbling skill of Horgan and Boyle, who would probably win out in 1v1 situations and exploit the space in behind.
The man marking in central midfield and the low defensive block made it difficult for Hibernian to build possession gradually through the thirds and fully utilise the speed of Boyle and Horgan, but the tracking back of both Aberdeen wingers caused problems in other phases.
Both Mackay-Steven and Ross acted almost as wing-backs and were tasked with covering the Hibs wing-backs. Simultaneously, the full-backs – Hoban and Shinnie – tucked in to form a compact back four within what at times appeared a 6-3-1 defensive shape. These movements ensured good coverage centrally, which helped McInnes’ men deal with Hibs’ fluid and tricky front three. However, it often left May isolated up front when attacking or on the counter.
Aberdeen’s possession style was direct, with a focus on playing long into the inside channels. Again, this is nothing new, but with both wingers taking up deep positions defensively, neither was immediately present to support May. As a result, the striker had no support around him to help secure the second ball and nobody to lay off or flick on to should he win the aerial duel.
Due to their own defensive setup, Aberdeen’s attacks were generally unsustainable. Indeed, they were arguably at their most threatening from set pieces, not open play. On several occasions, they caused problems from corner kicks, one of which led to their goal. They tended to group three or four players together near the centre of the penalty box before aiming for an isolated aerial threat at the far post – usually Devlin or May – who could win the duel and head back across goal for a teammate.
Hibernian’s wing-backs, Gray and Stevenson, held wide positions offensively but were not responsible for attacking their flanks. This was done to stretch the Aberdeen block horizontally and create space in more central areas for Horgan, Boyle and Shaw to utilise. Additionally, both wing-backs preferred to feed diagonal balls into the front three rather than dribble at their opposite man.
This was in line with the team’s approach in the build-up, as discussed above, where much of their attacking threat emanated from the centre-backs driving forward with the ball at feet or passing directly into the front three. All of this was done to avoid playing into Aberdeen’s intense midfield man marking – if they didn’t simply bypass midfield with direct passes from back to front, they would go wide and around through their wing-backs.
One snag in Hibs’ attacking game was that no member of the front three is particularly adept with their back to goal. Shaw is at his best as a poacher looking to get on the end of moves, while Horgan and Boyle both prefer to turn, face goal and take on their opposite man whenever they receive the ball.
With a lack of target men or linkmen, Hibs’ attacks were often predicated on one of Horgan or Boyle coming deep, receiving from a centre-back, turning and dribbling towards goal. Their attacking play in and around the final third was quite individualistic, with little by way of interplay between the trident. Up against a deep Aberdeen back four that had numerical superiority over Hibs’ front three this strategy wasn’t ideal, but in attacking transitions – where there was space to attack into – finding Boyle and Horgan quickly proved a threatening counter-attacking option.
At half-time, McInnes rotated his personnel slightly. Shinnie was moved into midfield, where his mobility and dribbling was badly needed to offer more support to May. In order to facilitate this move, Ball went to right-back, Hoban to centre-back, and Considine to left-back. Aside from this, Aberdeen’s overall approach remained the same in the second half.
Hibs, however, changed shape as the game wore on. Lennon took off both wing-backs, introduced Jamie Maclaren and Emerson Hyndman, and went from 3-4-1-2 to 4-4-2. Whittaker moved to right-back, Hanlon to left-back, and a potent front four of Boyle, Maclaren, Shaw and Horgan sought to find an equaliser. The extra attacking numbers, along with the continued forward dribbling of the defenders, was enough to overwhelm an Aberdeen side that looked content to sit back and grind out a 1-0 win. With minutes to spare, Maclaren made it 1-1.
Hibernian were undoubtedly the more proactive of the two teams, had the better possession and created more scoring opportunities. For that, they will be disappointed to have dropped two points at home to a rival.