Even in the modern game, where tribalism dictates all, it’s rare that an entire fanbase…
Few teams in the Scottish Premiership had as dramatic and as risky a January transfer window as Neil Lennon’s Hibernian. Not only did the club sell/release both of their top goal-scoring strikers, but they brought in two forwards that had zero experience in the division. Football may be a crazy, unpredictable world but such a tactic is almost unheard of at any level of the game.
Yet there is a method in the madness at Easter Road, and although Simon Murray may already have found his feet at Dundee and Anthony Stokes has moved on to Greece, Hibs have continued marching on. The reason behind that consistent success is the simple fact that their strikers never really mattered in the first place.
At first glance seven goals in the first half of the Premiership season isn’t a bad return at all for Stokes, yet when we dig into how and when those goals were scored we begin to note their diminishing importance to Hibs’ results over the course of the season.
Of the seven league goals Stokes scored, three were scored in games Hibs went on to lose. While just one of Hibs’ 13 victories and two of their eight draws were directly affected by Stokes’ goals. And that’s before we mention that the Irish forward failed to score at all in 12 of his 18 league appearances for Lennon’s side. Although the former Celtic striker may have looked vital to his side on paper, most Hibs fans would have probably spent much of this season wondering what it was that he actually did in the team.
Similarly, Murray wasn’t exactly pivotal to Lennon’s squad either. Although the industrious forward scored some important goals in this season’s Premiership for Hibs – vital goals against Hearts and Rangers come to mind – his return of six in just 24 league games was hardly impressive. And contrasted quite notably with the eight goals he racked up in just five games against lesser opposition in the League Cup.
Indeed, if we’re looking for the real genius behind this out-performing side we simply have to turn to the midfield Lennon has cultivated at the heart of this Leith team. Where the likes of John McGinn, Marvin Bartley, Dylan McGeouch and now Scott Allan roam – as well as a number of key wide players too.
Since the turn of the year, Hibs have gone on to win four of their first five Premiership games, scoring six non-penalty goals in the process. And of those six goals, four were scored by Lennon’s dynamic midfield.
Indeed, the key to Hibs’ success is their ability to break on the ball and not only pass through teams but also directly dribble beyond their defending marker and create chances on the edge of the opposing box or indeed in the six-yard box.
It’s quite telling that of the top players in the division that attempt one-on-one dribbles (i.e the ability to take on the defender) Hibs players make up three of the top five. Although Kilmarnock’s Jordan Jones may be top of the list, Martin Boyle, McGinn and Barker all lead by astonishing example when it comes to a very direct route to goal.
If Hibs don’t rely all that much on strikers it’s almost entirely down to the fact that they tend to find their midfielders skipping past a full-back or defensive midfielder and dribbling straight into the box.
Of course, the passing is exquisite too. Much has been made of McGinn’s potential and McGeouch’s transformation in Leith, yet the manner in which both players can not only dominate a game but directly create chances undoubtedly rivals some of the best playmakers in the division.
Again, when we look at the league totals for each team we find that McGinn sits top with 334 passes into the final third season, while McGeouch finds himself in eighth. To put that into context, no player in the Premiership makes more passes deep into the opposing half than Hibs’ central midfielder, while McGeouch finds himself within arm’s length of players like Scott Brown and Kieran Tierney.
Such piercing, accurate passing naturally leads to goals and it’ll come as no surprise to find that McGinn and Boyle’s goal tallies in the league stand just one behind Murray’s total before he left the club. While McGinn currently sits seventh in the league when it comes to total shots, with 59 in just 26 league games.
Although Lennon nor McGinn would ever stress the importance of their cherished midfielder as a goalscorer, there’s no doubt that Hibs’ ability to swap, change and ultimately rely less and less on conventional strikers is down to the fact that their midfield as a whole is more than capable of not only scoring goals but winning games entirely on their own.
Indeed, it’s here that we should note how important the signing of Scott Allan may prove to Lennon’s side for the remainder of the season. Although he may not be a fan favourite, the central midfielder has proved at Dundee this season that he is more than capable of thriving at this level and as such has slotted straight into Hibs’ team with notable success.
Against Rangers, Allan was a constant pest and ultimately proved smart enough to earn his side a penalty. And although he hasn’t yet notched up an assist for Hibs, the 10 he picked up for Dundee before the turn of the year played a huge part in their ability to score goals. Indeed, when we look at the league table for key passes (a pass that leads to a shot) Allan sits tenth – an astounding return for a player in a side as limited as that of Dundee.
Although the on-loan Celtic player may not be able to score with the proficiency of McGinn or Boyle, Allan is yet another playmaker to throw into Hibs’ dynamic midfield and another talent that can turn a game on its head. And if he can create goals at even half the rate he was doing so at Dens Park then he should prove to be a vital addition to Lennon’s side.
Who needs strikers when you have so many outstanding midfielders?