football at Hibs
Nobody look now, but Scotland’s U21 team are once again pulling up tree trunks and…
On Saturday Hibs face their biggest test of the domestic season so far when Derek McInnes’ Aberdeen make the trip to Easter Road. It’s been a decent start to the season from the Hibees, who put in some excellent performances in Europe before pulling up short against Molde. Now, the challenge facing Neil Lennon is to get one over a side who were one of the few teams Hibs struggled against last season.
The match seems a good yardstick to measure each side’s progress over the close season. Both teams lost a number of key players over the summer – Ryan Christie, Kenny McLean and Adam Rooney all left Pittodrie while in Edinburgh, Lennon has had to completely rebuild his midfield after the successful midfield trio of Scott Allan, John McGinn and Dylan McGeouch all decided to move on from Easter Road. Both Lennon and McInnes have had rebuilding jobs on their hands, yet both have thus far shown themselves to be up to the job.
Last season, Lennon’s team were dangerous opposition and frequently troubled both halves of the Old Firm, even away from home. The frenetic, end-to-end style that Hibs employ worked well against teams that are probably a level or two above them, but sometimes left Lennon’s team a little vulnerable when facing sides of a similar calibre. Hearts were frequently a thorn in Hibs’ side, as were McInnes’ Dons.
The reasons for this are largely tactical in nature – in an open, free-flowing match Hibernian proved themselves to be a match for just about anyone. But in tight, cagey encounters – such as against Aberdeen – Hibs often struggled to break down their opponents’ rigid system. Below, we’ve compared the two clubs’ head-to-head record from last season.
As we can see, Hibs dropped eight points against Aberdeen in four fixtures last season and on two occasions failed to even find the back of the net. However, Lennon can take some comfort from the knowledge that the last time his side hosted Aberdeen, they ran out eventual 2-0 winners. The Hibs boss will be hoping for a similar result tomorrow, but it’s clear that the Dons have the ability to cause the Easter Road side significant problems.
So how can Hibs come out on top this time around? In Aberdeen’s five matches so far this season, the Dons have only scored more than once on one occasion – indicating that if you can shut them out, then you’ve got an excellent chance of getting something from the game. And, right now, the best way to blunt Aberdeen’s attack is by taking Gary Mackay-Steven out of the game.
As my colleague Stefan Bienkowski recently pointed out, Mackay-Steven has been a standout performer so far for Aberdeen and looks to be their most potent attacking threat at present, discovering a level of consistency that has previously been lacking from his game. GMS will probably start on the left, but the winger can be deployed on either flank with success – if Hibs are to win, Lennon’s full backs will need to be up to the challenge.
This might prove difficult in practice, however. Mackay-Steven is a direct dribbler who likes to isolate his opponents before skipping past them and works best when he has plenty of space to run into. Lennon usually encourages his full backs to push up and support the midfield but to do this against Aberdeen could be catastrophic. By keeping his wide defenders sitting deep, Lennon could make GMS’ afternoon far more difficult and could nullify the attacker’s threat. Hibs would lose a little width when in possession, but they’d have a much more secure back line.
Scott McKenna’s injury is a significant blow for Aberdeen but rather unusually, it doesn’t seem as if the defence will be too badly affected by his absence. McKenna is almost certainly Aberdeen’s best defender, yet the defence without him in it still looks pretty strong. Andy Considine has moved further infield to partner Michael Devlin in central defence, with Graeme Shinnie reverting to left back – a position he played in for most of his career and often excels in – but this creates problems further up the pitch.
As capable as Shinnie is at left back, the 27-year-old cannot affect the game as much from such a peripheral position on the pitch. Shinnie is normally the beating heart of this Aberdeen team, winning the ball back and recycling possession, and without him in the middle Lennon now has an area of the pitch that he can exploit.
As well as new signings Lewis Ferguson and Stephen Gleeson have settled in, neither provides Aberdeen with what they’re missing with Shinnie moving to left back. Both are creative midfielders and neither wins the ball back anywhere near as much as Shinnie does. This lightweight centre is Aberdeen’s most obvious weakness and Lennon will no doubt be setting his team up to control the middle of the park, forcing Aberdeen into long, hopeful balls forward that the Hibs defence can gobble up.
It’s true that Hibs’ midfield has also looked a little unbalanced in recent weeks but the recent acquisition of Emerson Hyndman seems to have plugged this gap. If Hibs can control the midfield and dominate possession, then they have every chance of walking away with all three points. With strikers like Florian Kamberi and Jamie Maclaren up top, one chance could be all it takes to secure the win for the Hibees.
Saturday’s match should be a fascinating one and provides both teams with an opportunity to make a real statement of intent for the upcoming season. Both managers will be desperate for a win and if the race for European qualification is as close this season as it was last year, then fixtures like these are the ultimately decisive ones. It should be a tight match with no clear favourite but if Lennon sets his team up correctly, then he has every chance of improving on last year’s record against McInnes and picking up a huge three points in the process.