Let's just be frank; Hibs have been excellent this season. Similarly, Hibs' midfield has been…
John McGinn hasn’t left Hibs. Yet. When he finally makes his move to Celtic, Aston Villa, Brighton or wherever else he’s expected to end up before the end of the week we’ll do our best to update this article. But, for now, he remains a Hibs player.
However, we all expect him to go. And once he does there will be an almighty hole in Neil Lennon’s midfield that will need filled one way or another. There’s little use speculating as to which new player Hibs will turn to in the transfer window once McGinn goes, but we can note, with reasonable clarity, the kind of attributes needed for any midfielder hoping to step in to the role.
McGinn is primarily a box-to-box midfielder that has spent most of his playing time at Easter Road on the left-hand side of Hibs’ central midfield. Despite what some may suggest, he’s not a holding midfielder in the mould of Scott Brown and, as we’ll go on to explain, his career in Edinburgh has been defined by his ability to get forward and score goals for his club.
Last season, McGinn wasn’t Hibs’ most potent passer of the ball. He wasn’t their most accurate passer of the ball either. But what the 23-year old did do so well was provide an exceptionally direct, technical route to the opposing box.
When we take a look at each Hibs midfielder’s total passes per 90 and compare them to their passes in to the final third per 90, we get a percentage of each player’s passes per 90 (or per game-ish) that were played deep in to the opposing half. And here we can see just how direct McGinn truly is.
At 28%, just under one-third of all of McGinn’s passes last season were to his teammates deep inside the opposing half. In comparison, Scott Allan only amassed 16%, while fellow departing midfielder Dylan McGeouch could muster only 19%. Even Brandon Barker, who was a very direct player, didn’t tend to find his passes so close to the opposing box as often as McGinn did.
It’s worth noting that while Allan averaged over twice as many key passes per 90 as McGinn (0.74 to 0.29), McGinn averaged twice as many passes in to the final third as the on-loan Celtic talent per match. So, essentially, while Allan may be a player with more finesse and a greater ability to thread an assist, McGinn was undoubtedly the powerhouse in the centre of the park that drove Hibs up the park.
The young midfielder may not have been the player that often laid off the final ball to his team mates at the end of a counter attack, but he was almost always the player that dribbled 40 yards and past two or three defenders to set up the play in the first place.
Another aspect of McGinn’s attributes that has undoubtedly seen his stock skyrocket over the past season or two is the manner in which he simply thrives in the bigger games. Like any great player destined for stronger leagues, the young Scot has always seemed to bask in tougher challenges.
Last season we saw Hibs take a number of big scalps in the Scottish Premiership and McGinn undoubtedly characterised that perfectly with his performances against Rangers and Celtic in tough league encounters.
In late September, McGinn essentially put himself directly in the shop window with a performance at Celtic Park that saw him score two exceptional goals alongside the pace, strength and technique to go toe-to-toe with Olivier Ntcham, Tom Rogic and Callum McGregor.
Although the midfielder only scored six goals last season, three came against Celtic and Rangers and another proved to be the decisive winner in a 1-0 victory over Dundee in January. Similarly, four of his eight assists last season directly results in Hibs either going on to get a point or win the game in question.
It’s this somewhat untrainable aspect of McGinn’s game that will prove so hard to replace for Hibs. Sure, they can find other midfielders to score goals – they may already have one in Stevie Mallan – and they could quite possibly bring a playmaker like Allan back to the club, but it’s so hard to find a player that thrives in the crucial, big games.
Ultimately, that’s what makes McGinn such a superb player. He’s not a flash-in-the-pan talent that has gone through a purple patch of form or goalscoring; he’s a match winner that has proved at Hibs – and somewhat for Scotland too – that he can rise to the task of leading his team against any foe. When he does move Hibs will need to think long and hard about which member of their team is ready to step in and help them continue upsetting the odds.