Florian Kamberi joined a Hibs team in desperate need of a new striker in January…
The transfer merry-go-round is well and truly underway at Easter Road. Dylan McGeouch has followed Jack Ross to Sunderland while Celtic are believed to have opened negotiations to secure John McGinn’s signature, with Scott Allan reportedly moving in the opposite direction. Neil Lennon has wasted no time in reshaping his midfield and Hibs unveiled ex-St Mirren midfielder Stephen Mallan as their second summer signing a few days ago.
After making nearly 100 appearances for the Buddies, Mallan joined Barnsley in England’s second tier but failed to make much of an impression. The 22-year-old only made nine appearances during a disastrous campaign for Barnsley that ultimately ended in the club’s relegation to League One. With McGeouch moving to Sunderland, Lennon has brought Mallan in to fill the gap in his squad: but what exactly can Hibs fans expect of their new signing?
Mallan might have been signed ostensibly as a replacement for McGeouch but, as the chart below highlights, the St Mirren academy graduate doesn’t have too much in common with the new Sunderland signing. Mallan’s stats are taken from his 2016/17 campaign with the Buddies, as this was the last full season he played, and we can see that the central midfielder performs as something of a hybrid of Allan, McGinn and McGeouch. He hits a similar number of passes as McGinn with about the same degree of success, yet dribbles far less than the Scotland international. He creates far better opportunities for his teammates than McGeouch or McGinn – averaging 0.26 assists per game – but still falls some way short of Allan’s rate of 0.51. He’s a better passer than Allan and plays more passes, with a greater success rate. Mallan isn’t a direct replacement for any of them.
So where does Mallan fit into this Hibs side then? For now, he’ll fill the McGeouch-shaped hole in Lennon’s starting eleven but will be tasked with a different role in the team. Expect Mallan to be more direct and adventurous than McGeouch, who took on a metronome-like position at the base of midfield. Partnered next to McGinn in the middle of the park – and the ridiculous amount of ground that McGinn averages per game – Mallan can be given license to push further up the pitch and find gaps in the opposition to exploit. If, as is widely expected, McGinn completes a move to Celtic in the coming weeks then Lennon will have to make signing defensive cover his top priority at Easter Road. For all their talents on the ball, neither Allan nor Mallan are particularly adept at winning it back and require a holding midfielder to protect the defence, allowing Mallan and Allan to affect the game at the other end of the pitch.
Where Mallan excels compared to his new teammates, however, is in the number of goals he directly provides. The midfielder was averaging a goal every five games in Paisley and has scored 29 goals in 121 appearances in all competitions in his career to date. And Mallan isn’t averse to the spectacular, a fact that Hibs fans are probably all too aware of after his wonderful free-kick at Easter Road in 2016 helped St Mirren to progress to the quarterfinals of the Challenge Cup. Not to mention his Maradona-esque goal of the season contender in 2014 against Dundee – his first goal in senior football.
This ability to turn matches on their head and create opportunities from little is one of Mallan’s greatest strengths and the thought of him playing alongside Allan, if utilised correctly, should give opposition teams plenty to worry about. After Florian Kamberi signed a permanent deal, Hibs now have a player to target at set pieces; in Mallan, they now have the ideal player taking them.
At St Mirren, Mallan regularly picked up goals and assists from set pieces and is blessed with fantastic delivery in dead-ball situations. For as much as Hibs impressed last season, they have a problem when it comes to converting free-kicks and corners into goals. Hibernian were the most-fouled team in the Premiership last season, having someone like Mallan who can make the most of such opportunities is just another string to Hibs’ bow and gives Lennon another excellent attacking option.
The return to Scottish football presents Mallan with an opportunity to forget about his disastrous spell down in England and focus on producing consistent displays for Hibernian. Mallan’s career is at a bit of a crossroads just now – his lack of gametime at Barnsley ended up costing him his place in Scot Gemmill’s under-21 squad – and Mallan cannot afford another unproductive series of performances. Ever since he announced himself to Scottish football with that mazy run at Dens Park, he has been under pressure to regularly produce game-changing moments. At Hibernian, Mallan might just have the ideal manager to guide him in Neil Lennon.
Lennon has a clear talent at getting the most out of his players. His Celtic side’s run to the last 16 of the Champions League only gets more impressive as Rodgers continues to come up short in Europe and the Northern Irishman has continued to squeeze every last drop of ability out of his players at Easter Road. McGinn and McGeouch have became Scotland internationals under Lennon’s tutelage, Kamberi and Jamie Maclaren’s careers have been revitalised while the likes of Allan and Martin Boyle are fulfilling their potential. Lennon’s development record should be lauded and his track record with players at similar points in their careers should inspire Mallan.
All in all then, it seems like a good deal for all parties concerned. Barnsley get to move a dud signing on, Lennon gains a precocious talent to guide while Mallan gets to play for one of Scotland’s most exciting teams and a platform to perform regularly on. The raw talent is clearly there with Mallan; if Lennon can keep up the good work, then the midfielder could turn out to be just the player Hibs need to keep pace with Aberdeen and Rangers this season. With McGinn likely to leave and McGeouch already gone, the midfield that was the basis of Hibs’ success last season will soon be no more. But with Mallan confirmed – and Allan on the way, and Ali Crawford linked with a move to Edinburgh – Lennon appears to have the situation under control. Another defensive midfielder might be required but there’s every possibility that Lennon’s new-look midfield might end up more effective than the 2017/18 edition.