There’s plenty for Hibs fans to feel positive about after the arrival of Scott Allan in January, writes Craig Fowler
How do they work?
They’re all talented ball-playing midfielders. Partnerships are usually at their best when there’s variance: big man, little man etc. They don’t have to be, though. In this case you’ve got three stars all capable of dictating tempo, keeping their side in possession and unlocking the opposing defence.
Being resolute at the back may be an issue if they were three mercurial playmakers, but McGinn and McGeouch do enough work off the ball so that it’s not an issue. Besides, the other team can’t score if they don’t have the ball.
Even if the opposition were to break through, they’ll find Darren McGregor, Paul Hanlon and Efe Ambrose blocking their route to goal. Fitness is an obvious various, but if everything runs smoothly from now until the end of the season this should be a highly enjoyable team for the Easter Road support to watch.
How far can they can take Hibs?
Second place is not outwith the realms of possibility.
They defeated Rangers at Ibrox, where they were the better side in the first half. They then, in the words of Derek McInnes, “murdered” Aberdeen at Easter Road. Having played so impressively against the two sides above them in the league table, with 11 games to overcome a five-point gap, how can you not call them legitimate contenders for the best-of-the-rest honour?
Consistency will be key from this point forward. Reason should dictate they’ll have a run of victories against weaker sides, but then football can be a very unreasonable mistress. Neil Lennon’s mantra during his first season was a desire for Hibs to no longer “Hibs it”. He wanted them to stop being a soft touch - the Tottenham of the North. They must win games they’re expected to and battle hard in the ones they’re not. He’s been successful at implementing the latter. Aside from the Pittodrie defeat, when have Hibs played badly against any of the teams above them this season? Now would be a great time to work on the former.
What does Scott Allan bring to the trio?
You’ll not be surprised to read that Scott Allan loves a through ball, especially if it’s a reverse through ball. Jamie Maclaren has been advertised as a striker who thrives on such service, and the early indications would appear to bear that out.
Winger Martin Boyle is another who should love playing with Scott Allan. It’s already a dream for the speedster to feature in the same team as John McGinn, someone who can find him in space and give him the impetus to run at overstretched defences even if McGinn is 50 yards away when he gets the ball.
What stood-out about Allan’s performance at Ibrox was the way in which he used his body. While he would drop deep to receive if Hibs built steadily from the back, at other times he was almost a false 9 with Maclaren and Florian Kamberi flanking him. As a result he was often required to take in possession with his back to goal, but this was no problem whatsoever. He showed deceptive strength and balance to either hold off defenders, flicks passes around the corner, or lean into them and make the turn himself.
Is McGeouch a more important player than McGinn?
This season doesn’t provide much evidence one way or another. They’ve only missed one league game each. However, the win at Ibrox added an extra layer to this debate.
When Brandon Barker was forced from the match from injury, Lennon couldn’t make a like-for-like change. Though Lewis Stevenson was on the park, he was occupying one of the centre-half roles as the Hibs boss stitched together a workable back three that also included Efe Ambrose and youngster Ryan Porteous. Instead, he moved McGinn out to the left wing-back position. If this had a negative impact on Hibs’ play then it didn’t show. McGeouch was key to the way they took the game to Rangers as he continually picked up possession and fed it forward down the correct channels.
The visitors weren’t quite the force they were after the break. Again, McGeouch’s play had a significant influence. While in the first half he was granted the freedom of Ibrox to act as pupper master, the hosts put greater emphasis on stopping him in the second period. Josh Windass and Alfredo Morelos would drop back and put him under pressure, while the home side pushed up as a team on the whole, thereby limiting the space between defence and midfield in which McGeouch thrives.
Having said all that, McGinn took the ball on a 30-yard run before walloping it in the back of the net for the opener. He’s always got the capability to make a game-changing, split-second action. McGeouch does too, just to a lesser degree. It all comes down to what the individual coach or fan prefers.
Is there any reason not to play all of them together?
The line-up against Aberdeen is what everyone should expect to see going forward: all three in the centre together; McGeouch as the deep-lying playmaker, McGinn in the middle, performing the all-action role, and Allan as the No.10. Seeing it worked so well against Aberdeen, it’s difficult to come up with a reason why Neil Lennon wouldn’t trust them against the rest of the league, especially when Hibs have acquitted themselves so well in their bouts with Celtic.
Marvin Bartley is set to lose out the most. The enforcer played at Ibrox but was relegated to the role of late substitute the following league game. Lennon is still likely to call on him for tougher assignments, perhaps moving Allan to the role he occupied from the start against Rangers - as a second striker playing off Kamberi - or altering the structure of the team to use all four CMs in a midfield diamond.
However, there will be matches when the weather is dreadful and the pitch is worse. There won’t be enough time on the ball for the more talented individuals to stand above the crowd and the match will become more of a battle. In such circumstances it may be beneficial to break up the triplets in order to bring in someone who can dictate the flow of the match just with their physical presence.
What are the chances Hibs hold on to all three for next season?
All three remaining at Easter Road past the summer seems highly unlikely. Ironically, the player they have the best chance of keeping is the one who’s not actually theirs: Scott Allan. With Ryan Christie still to come back into the fold at Celtic and an army of midfielders already at the club, it’s unlikely Allan will be given a reprieve by Brendan Rodgers. He could go elsewhere, of course, but if he keeps up the form of his first two games from now until the end of the season, why would he? Hibs seem to get the best out of him and he should make the most of that.
McGinn has only 16 months left on his contract and, unless the club are happy to lose him for nothing or a token six-figure fee, they’ll have to sell him in the summer.
McGeouch could still sign a new deal, but the longer he goes without committing his future to the club, with a contract offer on the table, the less likely it appears of happening.
Anything else worth looking forward to?
Derbies. Hearts’ victory at Tynecastle in the Scottish Cup should have made Hibs fans just a little bit nervous. Not so much the defeat itself, but the off-field drama around it. The maroon side of Edinburgh had been given a lift by the signing of Steven Naismith, while Hibs had said goodbye to Anthony Stokes in acrimonious circumstances. These events may seem incidental in hindsight, but at the time it was enough to dent the confidence of the support and they appeared a little more subdued and less bullish than they had been in the league match at the same ground a month prior. Craig Levein’s “natural order” comments rankled the club’s support, possibility because the obvious jibe awoke their greatest fear: that Hearts would once again win the majority of derby matches. Hearts were trending upwards while Hibs were facing an uncertain future.
Since then, Allan has signed, Maclaren and Kamberi look an improvement on those who left, and they’ve beaten the second and third best team in the country. Confidence is coursing through the fan base yet again.
It’ll be a massive disappointment for them if, on at least one occasion between now and the conclusion of the campaign, Lennon and co fail to make Levein eat his own words. They should have full belief that a home win is theirs for the taking on 9 March. And while no side should feel assured of victory going to fortress Tynecastle, their supporters can still pack out the Roseburn Stand with a sense of optimism that they can get their first win in EH11 in five years.