Let's just be frank; Hibs have been excellent this season. Similarly, Hibs' midfield has been…
So much has made of Celtic’s ability to wrap up the Scottish Premiership title on Saturday – and the brief moment in which this coming clash could have been against Rangers – that few have even considered the thought of Hibernian crashing the party.
Neil Lennon’s team have enjoyed a superb season in their own right and are still in the race for their own hopes of finishing in second place. Add to that a particular habit that has seen the team from Easter Road rip up the status quo and challenge Scotland’s biggest clubs this season and we have a game that is far from a full-gone conclusion.
But could Hibs really spoil Brendan Rodgers’ plans and take points off the Scottish champions? Could they really delay the inevitable title celebrations for at least one more week? Let’s find out.
Although Celtic haven’t been at their very best this season – at least compared to the perfect display we say in the previous campaign – they have comfortably and quite comprehensively disposed of their two, main rivals: Aberdeen and Rangers.
Yet the teams just below these two sides have had some joy against Rodgers’ team. Steve Clarke’s Kilmarnock have claimed a win and a draw in four games, while Hearts were famously the team to end Celtic’s unbeaten run with an emphatic 4-0 win. And Hibs have enjoyed some success too.
Although Lennon’s side haven’t managed to beat Celtic this season – yet – they have claimed two draws in the 2-2 draw at Celtic Park in September and the repeat result at Easter Road just three months later. And if anything Lennon’s team look just as dangerous as they did then.
Impressively, Hibs have not only matched Celtic’s league form over the past five games – with both sides winning 11 points – but have also done so over the past 10 games as well with 21 points each. So when it comes to how well both of these teams are playing domestic they’re undoubtedly neck and neck.
Of course, we can’t honestly suggest that Hibs and Celtic are on an equal footing at the moment and form alone would suggest Lennon’s team have nothing to worry about. The very real facts remain and in Celtic’s starting XI and on their bench are a number of players that simply have no equal at Hibs. The Scottish champions are a much better team and as such Saturday’s hosts will have to be clever about their tactics and strategy to take something from the game.
The clearest and most obvious way to bamboozle Celtic is to blitz them from the first minute and make them bleed first. Although ‘score first’ doesn’t sound like a comprehensive tactic, it does genuinely work when you’re playing Rodgers’ side.
When we look at the way Celtic react to going behind or at the very least remaining level at half time we see that it almost always has a pretty detrimental impact on the points they end up finishing the game with. As seen in the graph below.
Naturally, when Celtic take the lead they tend to keep it. In 18 Premiership matches that have seen the Hoops winning at half time they’ve gone on to win 16, draw two and not lose a single one. Yet that metric takes a nose dive when things don’t go according to plan in the opening 45 minutes.
In the 11 league games in which Celtic have been drawing at half time they’ve only managed to regain control of the match on five occasions. Which means a drop in the win ratio from 88% to 45%. Essentially, if you go in to the break level on goals with Celtic you’re almost twice as likely to take something from the game.
Lennon will undoubtedly be well aware of this and should hope to take full advantage of it through his own team’s ability to rarely lose control of games in the opening 45 minutes. In 33 league matches so far this season Hibs have only been behind at half time in six. If they can keep up that impressive return on Saturday then they’ll undoubtedly increase their chances of halting Celtic’s title celebrations
So Hibs can rely on a decent head-to-head record against Celtic this season and know that if they can keep their visitors pinned down for the opening 45 minutes then they have a great shot of taking at least a point from the game. But what else could Lennon do to beat his former club?
Intriguingly, there are holes in this Celtic defence that can be exploited when approached in the right manner. Although Rodgers’ defence has only conceded 21 goals in 33 games – by far the best defensive record in the league – they are susceptible to a specific type of play: counter attacks.
Although the last goal Celtic conceded in the league was a more direct effort from Hamilton, Rangers’ opening goal in the 3-2 win at Ibrox was a clear counter attack. As was the goal Youssouf Mulumbu tapped in during Kilmarnock’s 1-0 win over Celtic. And even the solitary goal the champions conceded against Hearts in Celtic’s 3-1 win at Parkhead came about from the visitors intercepting the ball and quickly slicing through the Celtic defence.
Indeed, when we dig through each of the 21 goals Celtic have conceded in the Premiership this season and break them in to four categories – set pieces, penalties, normal attacks and counter attacks – we get a graph like the one shown above. Which emphasizes just how vulnerable Rodgers’ team can be to teams hitting them on the break.
As we can see, just under half of the goals Celtic have conceded in the league have come about from a counter attack in some shape or form. Of course, our classifications of each category are highly subjective but whichever way you paint it the facts remain abundantly clear: due to Celtic’s affinity to attack with a high defensive line the very best way to score against them is to intercept the ball while defending and get it towards their goal as quickly as possible.
Coincidentally, this is another factor that fits in quite nicely with how Hibs tend to play their game. With high intensity, coupled with superb technical ability, Lennon’s young side often harass teams within their very own half until they get the ball back. And you can be sure that the Easter Road side will do their best to apply that same system to the Scottish champions.
Ultimately, Celtic are still strong favourites for this tie and odds are that they’ll wrap up another superb league campaign on Saturday. But if Hibs can play their game in a specific way and enjoy a little bit of luck then they might just do enough to delay the green and white celebrations in Glasgow.