IF THERE was any extra satisfaction for Hibernian to take from their second win over Heart of Midlothian in this season's SPL campaign it surely lay in doing unto their capital rivals what had been done unto them so often in the past.
Before a ball was kicked in the last Edinburgh derby of the season there was a debate unfolding over whether Hearts, with their reliance on height, organisation and power, were the roundheads of football in the capital while Hibs, with a group of smaller, more technical footballers, clung to a reputation as the cavaliers of the city.
Given the gap which existed between the sides in the SPL, and the combination of injury and suspension woes which afflicted Hibs – Rob Jones, Sol Bamba, Colin Nish, Chris Hogg, Grzegorz Szamotulski, Denes Rosa and Jonatan Johansson were all unavailable – there have been few Edinburgh derbies in recent years when the consensus of expert opinion before the match so heavily favoured Hearts.
While the logic was faultless in some respects, the one shortcoming in Hearts' play which wasn't accounted for was their lack of a natural goalscorer. Hibs manager Mixu Paatelainen knew, however, that Hearts are hardly Barcelona and if he could only devise a system of play which would allow his players to make life awkward for the opposition by denying them space and time, then it would be possible to counter-attack and catch Hearts out on the break.
As it turned out, this match wasn't a story about Hearts adding style to their repertoire but Hibs reacting to adversity by tearing a leaf out of their rivals' book. It was perspiration rather than inspiration, as well as a display of controlled aggression in central midfield, which served the Easter Road side so well in Gorgie. By stopping their opponents, Hibs turned the tables on Hearts.
Csaba Laszlo's unwillingness to concede any advantage to Hibs in his pre-match comments was blinkered since no reasonable judge would swap Derek Riordan and Steven Fletcher for any of the strikers currently on the books at Tynecastle. While there are other areas in which Hearts have prevailed this season – notably with regard to organisation and consistency of performance – Hibs were able to counter those strengths with a stubborn defence, a terrier-like midfield, and the shock use of route one on the counter-attack.
It was because Paatelainen chose to hand Hearts a dose of their own medicine that a supposedly weakened side pulled off such an improbable victory. Knowing Hearts would start the game with their usual 4-4-1-1 formation, the Finn opted for identical tactics, deploying Fletcher in front of a packed midfield and Riordan up front on his own.
Stationed on the shoulder of the last defender, usually Robbie Neilson, the striker was thrilled to get a chance to play through the middle of the attack rather than forage up and down the left touchline. Riordan sees himself as a centre-forward, not as a wide left player, and noted afterwards it was the first time in nine matches he'd been selected in his preferred position. As well as scoring the game's only goal from the penalty spot in the second half, Riordan's powerful shot from the 18-yard line, which Marian Kello tipped wide, was Hibs' best effort before half-time.
Although it was due to serendipity rather than any tactical master stroke – Hibs' tallest players were either injured or suspended – Paatelainen executed his plan to stop Hearts playing in midfield with terriers rather than Great Danes. Ross Chisholm and Lewis Stevenson hounded Michael Stewart and Bruno Aguiar to such an extent the home side were unable to turn greater possession into clear scoring opportunities.
"They are terriers, they epitomise the Scots," Paatelainen said of his young midfielders. "They are not the tallest but they have unbelievable fighting spirit, they are honest guys who really fight for the team. I was so pleased with the performance, the spirit, the togetherness. The team effort was unbelievable. It was exactly as we had planned. We totally and utterly stopped them playing."
For that, much credit must go to the manager. Paatelainen has endured no little criticism this season, not least from his own supporters, often struggling to find the blend in midfield and toiling to erase costly errors in defence. Against Hearts, however, he got the build-up right, the approach right and brought out the best in his patched-up XI.
The high tempo, physically alert strategy which Hibernian used to claim their eighth point of an unbeaten league campaign against their city rivals was effective and must become the standard by which the Easter Road side are judged. Paatelainen undoubtedly bought himself time in Gorgie on Thursday evening. Hibs will now expect him to deliver this level of resolve from the team on a far more consistent basis next season.