Hibs completed the signing of Steven Whittaker at the weekend, bringing their former youth product back to Easter Road on a three-year deal. Craig Fowler looks at how manager Neil Lennon may plan on using the player over the course of his contract.
Steven Whittaker will look like the perfect signing in the eyes of Neil Lennon. Not only does the prodigal son bring some intangible qualities to the Easter Road dressing room - experience, professionalism, leadership - his versatility will be vitally important for the way in which the manager wants to set his side up.
Lennon doesn’t tend to have a favourite formation at Easter Road. His natural pragmatism has seen him play with both three and four-man defences, narrow midfield fours or spread out midfield fives, and either one, two or three strikers, depending on the opposition. He’s also happy to have his side knock it long, or pass the ball around their opponents.
Whittaker can cover a range of positions and will very likely be asked to do so next season, as his ability (and, in all likelihood, his weekly wage) would dictate he’s a nailed on starter when fit. Though he may be 33, he still played English Premier League football and competitive internationals for Scotland as recently as 2015, and with several Ladbrokes Premiership clubs shopping in England’s League One or Two, it’s a safe assumption he’ll still have enough left in the tank to be a solid addition, at least.
With plenty of strength in depth at centre-back, Hibs’ default setting may be to play a 3-5-2 next season. If that’s the case, you’d have to imagine Whittaker would be first choice on either wing, whether it’s on the right replacing David Gray, who struggled at times last year, or Lewis Stevenson. The reigning club Player of the Year enjoyed an excellent campaign in the Championship-winning season, though his crossing accuracy may not hold up to top flight (and top six) demands.
Similarly, the newest signing would likely be first choice if Hibs go with a four-man defence, though there’s a chance he could fill in at right-midfield if needed to add balance to an orthodox midfield four. He’s got plenty of experience playing in more advanced roles from his time with Rangers and his initial spell at Easter Road.
It will be intriguing to see whether Whittaker takes up a predominantly central role toward the latter stages of the three-year deal. He’ll be approaching his 36th birthday as the 2019-20 season and his contract comes to a close. It’s unusual to see players of such an advanced age play at full-back, let alone cover the ground demanded of a wing-back. By tapping into his near-two decades of first-team experience, he could become an effective screener in front of the defence: anticipating play, breaking up attacks, staying cool in possession.
Alternatively, and this could be used next season if Hibs suffer another injury crisis in defence, he could operate as either the left or right-sided centre back in a three-man defence. As so ably demonstrated by Kieran Tierney in Scotland’s draw with England, a talented full-back should have few problems covering such a role, especially if they have robust and aerially dominant team-mates playing alongside them.