Craig Fowler: What on earth is wrong with Hibs?

Things have taken a turn for the worse at Easter Road. Picture: SNS
Things have taken a turn for the worse at Easter Road. Picture: SNS
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Eight weeks ago yesterday, Hibs defeated near rivals Hearts in what seemed like a watershed moment in the recent history of the club.

After many a derby humbling in recent seasons, not to mention Hibernian’s drop into the second tier and then subsequent failure to follow their Edinburgh neighbours back up again, it felt like there could be a changing of the tide as far as Hibs and their relationship with failure was concerned. No longer were Hibs a soft touch against their rivals or any side in general. They’d been tremendously consistent in the league, had a League Cup final to look forward to and would be playing Inverness CT at home in the next round of the Scottish Cup. As mad a thought as it seems in hindsight, talk of winning a treble was not ridiculous.

Fast forward two months and chief executive Leaann Dempster is having to answer questions over the immediate future of boss Alan Stubbs. The support that once revered their manager is quickly turning against him. Since that night against Hearts, where the players took a celebratory lap of honour as Sunshine on Leith rang out from the PA system, they’ve won only three matches. The dire stretch of form saw them defeated in the league cup final, obliterated in the title race and trailing Falkirk in the hunt for second.

What’s gone wrong? How did Alan Stubbs go from being untouchable to having supporters calling for his head? How did terms like “Hibsing it” go from being pushed far down the narrative only to come back to the forefront with a vengeance?

A lack of bottle is an excuse too easy to use. Besides, it’s not always accurate. It might apply to Tuesday night. Once Falkirk got back into it, the tension around Easter Road was palpable, most notably among the players. However, the claim has been thrown around too easy in other contexts. The League Cup final, for example. Hibs’ lost the game committing too many bodies forward in the process of trying to win it. That’s being naive or too rash. That’s not succumbing to fatalism.

Fatigue

Saying the players are tired sounds like a vapid excuse, especially when you’re linking it to having played so many games due to the success of the side. It’s almost as if the manager is saying ‘it’s not our fault we’re so bad, it’s only because we’re so good’. It also causes fans to roll their eyes because it’s one of the most commonly used reasons for defeat in football, sometimes by managers who should be doing more to make sure their players are not tiring while the opposition is still going at full speed.

In Hibs’ case, fatigue is certainly an issue. It also ties into to the make-up of the squad (more on that later). Getting to the final of the league cup, semi-final of the Scottish Cup and being a major scalp for every other team in your division is going to take its toll, especially since the season is shaped so that if you get into the latter stages of both cup competitions, you end up squeezing a lot of matches in between January and early May. At this moment in time, Hibs have played 21 games since the turn of the year. That’s more than any other team in the country.

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Big match comedowns

Fatigue isn’t just physical, it’s mental. It’s no coincidence that Hibs’ better performances this year have come against Premiership opponents. Even Tuesday’s match against Falkirk, while it had a terrible ending, still saw an improved display over other recent Championship matches against Alloa, St Mirren and Raith Rovers. Against top flight sides they’ve been almost flawless, losing only one in eight. They just can’t seem to get the same lift when they come back to more humble surroundings or games that lack intensity.

This is not an attempt to justify the skid. While Celtic have often suffered dips in performance after big European games - drawing with St Johnstone days after beating Barcelona being the best (and funniest) example - they don’t go on five-game winless streaks against top flight opponents. Similar to Celtic, Hibs have resources which dwarf most of the sides they come up against. The inability to be as dominant after the extra-curricular excursions in the cup exposes a major flaw within the squad and their ability to fully charge themselves for bouts against less fancied opposition.

Over-reliance on certain players

‘Super’ John McGinn has regressed to just being ‘John McGinn’ in recent weeks, while the full backs have become less influential, which is a problem in the 4-4-2 diamond as they need the pair to provide width in the attack. This isn’t as true of Lewis Stevenson, who’s basically the Energizer bunny on permanent recharge, as it is of David Gray. The right back has had some injury problems in the past and therefore he could do with a little more rest than what he’s been getting - he’ll clock up his 40th game of the season this weekend. When he’s tiring he reverts into concentrating solely on his defensive duties Hibs miss his crossing ability.

As for McGinn, he doesn’t seem to have the energy he had prior to February. He’s imposing himself on games less and struggling to make things happen when he does get on the ball. He also misses his partner in crime.

Dylan McGeouch’s absence

McGinn and Dylan McGeouch are key not only to the Hibs midfield but to the team in general. They are the two centre midfielders capable of taking the ball, driving with it and committing opponents. That opens up space further forward for the attackers to exploit. Since the poor run started with a 3-0 defeat at home to Morton, McGeouch has featured in only one other match. That was the 1-1 draw with Inverness CT in the Scottish Cup, in which the former Celtic man was an early injury casualty.

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Lopsided squad building

Until the last few weeks, it was said consistently that Hibs had a stronger squad than Rangers. This has since been exposed as a fallacy. While Hibs have greater numbers, Rangers have created a system that allows the squad to be more flexible, with the likes of Andy Halliday, Kenny Miller and Barrie McKay excelling in previously unfamiliar roles.

Hibs, meanwhile, struggle to squeeze square pegs into round holes. Marvin Bartley, Kevin Thomson and Fraser Fyvie are all sitting midfielders, and they retain that look whenever asked to play anywhere else. James Keatings and sometimes Anthony Stokes have been used at the tip of the diamond, classically the No.10 role, despite both being known as penalty box strikers. This is particularly hard on Keatings who’s retreating more into his shell the further he plays from the shoulder of the last defender. There’s variation in reserve in guys like Niklas Gunnarsson, Martin Boyle and, when fit, Danny Carmichael. But none of those mentioned can fill in effectively for a McGeouch, McGinn or Henderson.

Tactical inflexibility

He’s tried changing things up in the last two games, so it should be noted that Stubbs realised the 4-4-2 diamond was part of the problem. Prior to this, it seemed the Hibs boss had become duty-bound to set the team out in this formation. Last season he would change it up more often, going between the diamond and a three-at-the-back system, while also experimenting with one up top and a straight-forward 4-4-2. This season has been more ‘diamond or die’. Changing up the system should allow him to utilise the strengths of the entire squad a little more.

Jason Cummings’ drought

Regardless of how Stubbs shapes the team, he still may not be able to solve their goalscoring problem. Even when Hibs were at their best they didn’t hammer too many opponents, often winning games by the odd goal or two. That’s because, outside of the strikers, there are few regular goalscorers in the rest of the team. Henderson, McGinn, McGeouch and Fyvie have nine goals combined, with the last two yet to get off the mark. Stevenson and Gray, who, as previously discussed, supplement the attack down the flanks, have one each. It means a large burden falls on the strikers. It’s not so bad if Jason Cummings is in the kind of form he showed earlier in the campaign, but prior to the Falkirk game he’d scored only one in nine matches. In six of those eight goalless matches, Hibs lost. Perhaps more could have been done to add another goalscoring threat from midfield in January. Hibs would kill for a diet-version of Pat McGinlay right now.

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The signings of Stokes and Thomson

There’s a lot of debate around this. Those close to the club are adamant that correlation does not imply causation in this instance, while many fans and casual onlookers believe it’s too much of a coincidence to simply shrug off. The answer is somewhere in the middle. Rather than being negative influences on the squad with their personalities, a conclusion many come to far too easy without knowing the individuals involved, it’s more likely they just weren’t a great fit for the team.

Stokes is a little too similar to Cummings. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s detrimental to his younger partner, it just means another, different sort of striker might have been a better fit. Similarly, Thomson does his best work in a position already occupied by Bartley and Fyvie. There’s too much running required of him further forward and he cannot dictate games within the Hibs system in the same manner he was able to with Dundee earlier this season.

Defensive upheaval

The last point regards the defence. Once the strength of Hibs with the lowest goals conceded total in the league around the turn of the year, they’re now conceding left, right and centre. The midfield and attack have struggled more in recent times, so it’s only natural the defence is going to come under more pressure and break with greater regularity. Although, some of the goals Hibs have conceded in the past few months have been really soft, coming via a lapse in concentration rather than the attacking intensity of the opposition. Injuries to Paul Hanlon and Liam Fontaine have caused unrest in the centre. Then again, Stubbs always liked to rotate the centre backs so that reason falls short of logic. It’s probable that the defensive issues tie in with everything else.

Conclusion

This Saturday’s game is a strange one. For Stubbs it could be a case of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. The absence of a Scottish Cup final from May’s calendar would allow the players to focus their minds on earning promotion at the end of this season. However, it’s difficult to envision the fans accepting a semi-final loss to the worst Dundee United side in recent memory, especially when either half of the Old Firm would be beatable in the final. It seems like it’s been said numerous times in the past few years, but there might never be a better chance for Hibs to win the Scottish Cup.

The good news is that they don’t have to do anything special. They just have to be the side they were from last August to early February. They don’t have to fix all of the problems mentioned in this article, no team is without issues, they just need to solve a couple of them to get back to what they once were. If they can do that then they’re a better side than Raith, Falkirk and Hamilton/Kilmarnock, and this horrible run will be forgotten if they’re a Ladbrokes Premiership team again next season.

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