Living up to expectations in terms of league position so, Neil Lennon’s Hibernian team have beaten the likes of closest title rivals Dundee United and Falkirk to surge to the top of the Scottish Championship table.
Beginning the early weeks of the season using a solidity-focused 3-5-2 formation, Hibs have shown their relative flexibility tactically throughout the campaign, varying between a number of formations, most commonly the original 3-5-2 and a 4-diamond-2. Largely depending on the opposition and what will be necessary to defeat them, yet also considering the high number of injuries Hibs have suffered this season, are the two main factors influencing Neil Lennon’s matchday selections.
Fully making use of the strong foundations previous boss Alan Stubbs set, Lennon has commonly used a 4-4-2 formation, with the midfield quarter being a diamond.
Probably Hibs most used formation this term, the 3-5-2 has provided a solid base for a combative Neil Lennon side.
Seen frequently since the arrival of Chris Humphrey in January, the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 has begun to be used by Neil Lennon. Having wingers who have quality genuinely worthy a starting place makes this formation a viable option for Hibs. Could go on to be Lennon’s standard choice of formation at the club.
The goalkeeper role at Hibs has been split between Israeli Ofir Marciano and Ross Laidlaw. Both recent signings in the summer, the pair are equally as capable with their feet as they are as traditional shot-stoppers.
Darren McGregor and Paul Hanlon are undoubtedly Neil Lennon’s first choice selection at centre-half. The two lifelong Hibs fans have formed a formidable partnership at the heart of defence and are more than deserving of their spots in the XI each week. For Scottish centre-halves, these guys are very capable on the ball, whilst maintaining their ability to mix it up and combat. Back-ups Liam Fontaine and Jordon Forster have both slotted in during key games this term, performing excellently when called upon. Known by Hibs fans as ‘Sir David Gray’, the 2016 Scottish Cup hero is a nailed on starter on the right of defence. Long-term left-back Lewis Stevenson is in a similar position to Gray on the left.
The midfield is where Lennon likes to mix things up a bit more. The pivot/6 has altered between Bartley and youngster Scott Martin, whilst we have also seen McGeouch and Fyvie feature as the deepest midfielder. McGeouch has a range of qualities which could be suited to literally any midfield position. Fyvie is similar. Key man John McGinn suffered a bad knee injury early on in the campaign, but has easily regained his place following some excellent displays on return. Well-rounded MF’er. Andrew Shinnie was signed on loan from Birmingham in the summer, he has featured consistently as either an 8 or 10.
Originally, Lennon utilised Keatings or Shinnie as the team’s 10, however, Kris Commons was signed on an emergency loan from Celtic in December and went straight into the starting 11. That loan has ended now, and Keatings looks to be the man for this role at the moment. New signing Chris Humphrey has a ton of pace to burn, and will likely be given the opportunity to do so as starting right-winger.
Former-English Premier League striker Grant Holt and Scottish young talent Jason Cummings are Neil Lennon’s main strikers, though we have seen a number of players such as Boyle and Graham start here.
Verticality and Bypassing Phases
Having developed a somewhat negative reputation from some for their at-times route one approach to progressing into advanced areas, it can undoubtedly be said that Neil Lennon’s Hibernian team are a far more direct one in all phases of possession than that of previous boss Alan Stubbs.
One feature which has had a key impact on the more direct approach to Hibs’ progression is the positioning and movements of the central midfielders. Often vacating the standard centre midfield spaces, we quite often see unorthodox central midfielder movements from the likes of McGeouch, McGinn and Shinnie when playing this position. One example of these types of movements is the situational formation of a box midfield.
In the scenario above, we can see that Bartley has pushed over left from 6, Fyvie dropped from right 8 to deep in right halfspace, McGinn has pushed up slightly from his left 8 role and Shinnie has moved right from 10. This is a common rotation we will see from Hibs midfielders when a 4diamond2 is deployed. The box midfield occupies the halfspace in midfield extremely well, and can potentially stretch opposition midfield’s a lot wider than they would imagine to defend against a narrow diamond midfield. Against the commonly faced 4-4-2, this formation has great potential for successful space creation and exploitation of a free man in build-up.
One problem which expectedly arises from this pattern though, is the lack of central occupation making central progression difficult. Particularly in zone 14, there lacks occupation in an area which is such a viable option for progression is possible.
Another midfield rotational pattern which allows for fluidity and generation of a free man is the situational switching of roles between the 6 and an outer 8, again carried out in the diamond midfield. Hibs 6, Marvin Bartley, who lacks brilliant technical qualities required for intricate progression will sometimes make long movements away from the 6 position, out of the build-up altogether. This opens up the 6 space, where an outer 8, who possesses ability valuable in these situations, will drop in. This can be very effective in confusing and exploiting man-orientations. The dropping 8 will look to take the ball here, unmarked, and dribble into the next phase of possession. If for whatever reason the dropping 8 cannot take the ball, there is a weakness. Due to the other 8’s pushing higher up to create more space in deep midfield, deeper player in build-up now lack a viable passing option through the centre and will become isolated. In these situations, Hibs will resort to a hopeful, relatively aimless long ball.
With a clear focus on early central progression due to the early stage of build-up where Hibs midfield is already focused on receiving in advanced positions, sometimes even disregarding the security of the structure simply due to the height of priority of early progression, the two strikers, though not the most important players in progression, do also have a role to play. Again deriving from the movements of the outer 8’s, the striker will make dropping movements, usually towards the halfspaces, to find an open vertical lane from deep. They hope to receive a long, flat pass here, allowing Hibs to bypass a couple of phases, going straight to the attacking phase in advanced areas. When the centre-backs are on the ball, we will very often see an outer 8 begin right in the centre of the field, leaving the halfspace open situationally, should his man follow him (often will due to tendency of Scottish teams to man-mark).
A striker here will slightly drop into this halfspace, and attempt to quickly receive the vertical pass from deep whilst the halfspace remains an open lane.
When Hibs fail to identify a clear and efficient progression route through the centre, using the midfielders as middle men, the alternative is usually a hopeful long ball. With the powerful aerial threat of Grant Holt however, we sometimes see more strategic use of long balls. Holt will move over onto the opposition full-back when the diagonally opposite Hibs CB has the ball. Long, high diagonals will be aimed towards this area for Holt to win and flick on. This can be a very effective method when there is a runner in behind. Often, the closest full-backs will position themselves close to him in anticipation of running in behind to chase the flick on. Even if Hibs cannot win the second ball, the opposition will often be in possession in an awkward position near a corner in their own half, where two or three Hibs player local to the ball can counterpress.
The methods Hibs use to make for cleaner, more spacious progression, and the alternatives to those highlight the team’s objective of moving the ball forward in a very direct fashion.
In the very first phase of possession we infrequently see some standard La Salida Volpe from Hibs, as well as some other slightly similar patterns and movements. A lot of Hibees work in this stage is focused around exploiting the opposition defensive structure’s weaknesses and disorientating their press and block to create space in deep areas.
One of Hibs more effective build-up methods is the original version of La Salida Volpe. Here we see the two central defenders split into wider positions, the full-backs push on into more advanced positions on the wing, with the pivot dropping into the vacated space in the centre, forming a three man backline.
When in this side split backline, opposition frontmen naturally have more space to cover and more distance to run when pressing, which obviously makes it more difficult. This can be very effective against horizontally compact opponent’s whose main objective is simply to ‘pack the centre’ and ‘don’t let them play through us’, as it can stretch the block and force them to defend a wider space, naturally forming larger gaps between each defensive player.
This is not always the case however, as despite Hibs looking to progress cleanly through the centre, the centre-backs either do not, or cannot split into either halfspace as they build. Often, the pivot focuses on find receiving angles in midfield spaces, so that he can take the ball and carry/pass from a slightly more advanced position. Too often for a team wanting to progress through the centre, we see the CB’s just a few metres apart, despite the team’s objective of finding and using space in the central spaces. Their positioning here not only makes them easier to press, but also lessens the potential variation of where the first pass in progression will be made from, meaning the defensive block is easier to set as they already know which area they will be defending from.
In a slight variation of La Volpe Salida, Hibs outer 8, most commonly Dylan McGeouch, will be the man dropping into the backline. Here, he will drop into the backline in the right halfspace, with the RCB moving infield to centre of the backline and LCB wide into the left halfspace.
Again, this creates a three man backline due to a dropping midfielder. This horizontal line should cover almost the full width of the field, a great distance for the opposition block to cover and consider defending and shifting to and from. As well as this, the movement is a great exploitation of the commonly used man-orientations we often see in Scottish football. The long dropping movement from the right of midfield can draw an opposition central midfielder out to follow into an alien space, McGeouch can then pass back into the centre where there should now be less defensive players. This is such an effective tool for drawing opposition defenders well out of position, giving Hibs more space to receive and progress in those key central spaces. As well as this, the movement can be confusing for opposition man-markers in the centre. They are quite often left with the important question of whether they should stray so far from their base position just to mark someone dropping into what some would consider an unthreatening space.
Movements and Patterns in Attack
Largely using a narrow 1-2 attacking trio set-up for the most part of the season, we have seen a number of strategies from Lennon’s players to create strong attacking situations for these players in and around the box.
With the front three varying in terms of one or two changes most weeks, there has arguably been a lack of continuity and telepathical connection between the three guys in the final third, who simply don’t play together enough to understand one another’s games. There are of course, tactical issues which have impacted on the at times severe lack of creativity and effective chance creation from Hibs in the last zones of the field.
A very valid point regards the lack of natural wide men we’ve seen in Hibs starting XI’s. With Commons/Keatings usually starting behind a pairing of Jason Cummings and Grant Holt, and Gray and Stevenson, two defensive minded players, as the full-backs it is difficult to imagine where the width comes from. Gray and Stevenson are placed with responsibility of providing width, but both guy’s lack of physical qualities makes consistent bombing up and down the wing difficult. With the 10 in the team being extremely centrally-orientated, rarely drifting from zone 14 unless they are moving forward to occupy the opposition’s central defenders, this can leave Holt and Cummings as the only players who will occupy the wide areas. Again, these are two players who’s skillsets and attributes simply aren’t suited to a wide drifting role. Too often from Hibs, we see the two strikers occupying the centre-backs in the middle, the 10 slightly behind them right in the centre, and the full-backs not in advanced wing positions. This allows the opposition to be very compact horizontally, as they don’t have to worry about defending the wings, as firstly, no one is occupying the, and secondly, no one is currently threatening to run into the space left out here as it would be such a large distance to cover. Against poor quality Championship sides who look to sit deep and prevent penetration, not stretching vertically or laterally makes the game a whole lot easier for the defending team as they don’t have to defend the full width/depth of the pitch.
On the slightly uncommon occasion we have seen Martin Boyle deployed as one of the front two, we see far more lateral stretching movements from Hibs. The forward’s quick bursts into pockets of space in wider areas are often quite effective in occupying a wider range of zones on the last line, allowing his partner to do his work in the centre. With Holt and Cummings though, there are less quick bursts into wide areas, and more small dropping movements, remaining in the centre.
Though infrequent, wide stretching movements from Holt and Cummings are not non-existent.
We often see a nice pattern emerge in the final third, where one striker will move onto the wing, the 10 into the near halfspace, and the other striker in the centre.
This occupies one side of the field very well, and allows efficient and clean connections to be made from wing to centre and vice versa. This line can effectively occupy three of the opposition back four very intensely, opening up space for a deep midfielder runner to exploit.
Role of the Wing-Backs
With arguably even more responsibility on them in a narrow midfield diamond formation, Hibs full-backs David Gray and Lewis Stevenson have huge roles in all phases of the game.
Being alone on the flank for the majority of the time, not only do Gray and Stevenson have responsibility for this zone in all phases of the game, the pair also have huge distances to cover according to each situation. Alongside this, though uncommon in the Scottish Championship due to basic ‘old-style’ full-backs, Hibs FB’s can find themselves overloaded by an attacking full-back and a winger, both out on the wing against a sole defender.
When defending in their own half, it is Gray and Stevenson’s duty to press when the ball is on their wing. This will undoubtedly mean leaving the defensive line by a good few metres to engage the opposition ball-carrier and prevent him carrying it forward easily unchallenged or unopposed.
In possession, we see the wing-backs adopt a very direct and dynamic profile on either flank. At goal-kicks, and other situations where a long ball looks likely, Gray and Stevenson will push on quite far up the pitch, often right onto the wings on the last line.
Pushing into these advanced positions signifies at times Hibs long balls do have a target and understood objective. The full-backs may be asked to win the initial headers, or win the second balls from someone local’s header.
As well as the duties of these guys during long balls, there is also another type of direct pattern we see Gray and Stevenson involved in. Usually as the primary providers of width on either flank, we often see Gray and Stevenson high up on the wings. This however, does not mean they are restricted to the touchline. We don’t see many lateral movements into the halfspace to help with circulation or mor efficient connections, but rather direct movements towards the opposition goals. One pattern which commonly emerges is a diagonal run from the wing onto the byline to receive a through ball. As the ball-near striker occupies the ball-near CB, Hibs full-back will remain right on the touchline, to draw the full-back out, this creates a decent space between FB and CB. As Hibs midfielder shapes to pass through, Hibs FB will accelerate diagonally infield off the wing. They should have dynamic superiority here as they are already moving towards the destination of the ball, whilst their marker has to react and adjust his body shape to recover. From here, the FB is in a more advantageous position to cross, as they are closer to the goals thanks to the diagonal movement.
The Transitional Phase
Though not outstanding individually nor collectively in any phase of the game, the one which could be considered Hibs weakest is the transition. Particularly in the defensive transition, we have seen a number of issues and weaknesses in Hibernian’s model.
Relating back to the last two point, regarding the advanced positioning of the wing-backs in possession, this is one key area where Hibs have suffered in the transition. Often pushing up already within the first pass or two of a play, the wing-backs are high up the pitch before a secure structure for progression has even been established. In this case of a turnover this can potentially leave the wings extremely exposed, as Gray and Stevenson have next to no chance of recovering to defend deep.
To compensate in this situations, the outer CB’s in a 3-5-2 will make lateral shifts to defend the wing if the ball goes in behind a wing-back. In this case, the FB or ball-near (depending is closer) will cover the space the CB leaves whilst he defends out wide.
Another compensation shift we see from Hibs (playing 4-diamond-2) when in the defensive transition occurs when Marvin Bartley is the 6. As a tall, strong, commanding guy, Bartley will drop into the backline as a third CB, if in a position where this is possible to do quickly, to defend potential long balls. This is maybe seen as considering there is likely to always be the two CM’s defending the middle being enough, as most Championship teams are very direct and will look to hit their striker as early as possible on the counter-attack, hence why Bartley is more useful as a third CB defending long balls than an extra player who probably won’t be needed situationally in the centre of midfield. If however, an opposition player receives in the 10 space, Bartley has the option to leave the line and press back in his standard position, with the natural CB’s simply pinching back into their previously done narrow positions at the heart of defence.
There is no doubt that whilst Hibernian sit top of the table and still in the Scottish Cup (at the time of writing, they have a 5th round replay coming up against rivals Heart of Midlothian), the side possess a number of issues, both technical and tactical, which will need to be ironed out if Lennon strives for really great performance from his side. We have seen glimpses of what the Easter Road side are capable of (see their 3-0 home win over Dundee United), but this type of obliterating yet widely creative performance must be maintained more consistently if they are to emulate/surpass the football Hibs played under Alan Stubbs.
Complaining is one thing Hibs supporters can’t really do so much of at the moment though. Their club is currently on the verge of promotion from the Championship back to the Scottish Premier League, they have recently won the Scottish Cup for the first time in over a hundred years and behind-the-scenes, things are sweet. Hibs are a club going in the right direction.