Hibs produce one Heck of a turnaround against Rangers
Written by: Blair Newman (@Blaz_ftbl)
For most, the inability of Rangers to beat Hibernian in their clash at Easter Road last Friday night encapsulated why they aren’t top of the Premiership. But there are reasons for Steven Gerrard and his team to be positive about the performance. They generally dominated and created enough chances to win what is considered to be one of the toughest fixtures in the top flight.
This match wasn’t all about the title race, however. Hibs recently underwent serious change, with Paul Heckingbottom succeeding Neil Lennon as manager. Heckingbottom has enjoyed a strong start to life in Edinburgh, and his ability to alter tactics mid-game to rescue a point in this particular clash should give fans hope for the rest of the campaign.
NEW DEFENSIVE REFERENCE POINT FOR HIBS
When analysing the way a team defends, it’s useful to refer to the four reference points legendary Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi highlighted: the ball, the man, the teammate, and the space. For most in the Premiership, the opposite man is the primary reference point. This has been true for Hibs over the last few years, but there are signs that Heckingbottom – at least in big games like these – has a different view.
Hibs defended against Rangers in a 4-4-2 shape. Kamberi and McNulty were positioned narrowly up front and focused on blocking the centre and pressing the Rangers centre-backs from inside to out whenever they advanced with the ball towards Hibs territory, while the midfield four focused on keeping their shape. This was a more passive, less man-oriented defensive style compared to what was seen under Lennon, where the midfielders would often press their opposite men aggressively.
Clearly, the primary reference point here for Hibs was the teammate. Moving together, they tried to stay compact and prevent space opening up in the vertical channels on the midfield line, or horizontally between the midfield and defence lines. Pressing would commence once Rangers build-up went wide to a full-back or a dropping central midfielder, with Omeonga and Horgan closing down the ball-player while the rest of the midfield formed a one-line cover behind.
However, Hibs still utilised man-to-man in certain situations, mainly when they had forced Rangers build-up wide. Their near-side full-back would aggressively track the Rangers winger, while one of their central midfielders occasionally pushed up to man-mark the Rangers six closest to the ball.
RANGERS PENETRATE OFTEN BUT DON’T TAKE CHANCES
There seemed to be some confusion for Hibs regarding where Mallan and Milligan should position themselves and if they should pressure the ball. Essentially, they appeared to be caught somewhere between the more aggressive man-oriented style of Lennon, and the more passive, position-focused approach of Heckingbottom. In the first half, Rangers exploited this consistently to penetrate the Hibs midfield line and create a host of decent scoring chances.
Rangers have deployed a slightly altered system in recent weeks, veering away from the 4-3-3 they used in the first half of the season towards a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Arfield supporting Morelos high centrally both offensively and defensively. One of the major attacking developments relating to this change is the use of a double pivot, with new signing Glen Kamara partnering Ryan Jack at the base of midfield.
Before we go any further, it’s important to single out Kamara’s qualities. The Finnish international, who joined from Dundee, possesses composure and control on the ball. He is highly resistant to pressure, and is able to retain the ball in tight spots or manoeuvre beyond his challenger with a feint or some clever footwork. He is an exciting addition to the Rangers midfield, and is already helping them to progress through the thirds more effectively.
Against Hibs, Kamara and Jack were dynamic in their movements. They took it in turns to play centrally in front of the two centre-backs, or drop between them and allow them to split wider, or pull out into the wider areas to support the full-back, or to receive possession from the centre-back away from the presence of the Hibs front two, enabling the full-back to push higher down their flank. Basically, the double pivot gave Rangers a variety of options to bypass the first line of Hibs defence.
One of the issues with the Hibs full-backs going aggressively man-to-man against Candeias and Kent was that the Rangers wingers drifted into the inside channels. Gray and Stevenson were thus drawn out of their positional slots on each side of the back four, which left huge space for the Rangers full-backs to move into down the wings. To cover for this, the Hibs wingers were often forced to track back and follow their opposite men, which gave Jack and Kamara more time and space to receive the ball in the areas vacated by Tavernier and Halliday.
The disorder caused by the movements of the Rangers wingers and full-backs led to confusion in central midfield for Hibs, as Mallan and Milligan were frequently caught between pressuring the ball and staying deep to block off the space behind them. Often they failed to perform either task, and Arfield was free to receive from Jack or Kamara between the lines.
From there Rangers had great attacking potential, as Arfield could run freely at the Hibs back line while Morelos looked to run in behind and the wide men (often Tavernier and Kent) looked to make runs on the outside of the Hibs defensive four. However, poor decision-making from Arfield, as well as a poor final pass or shot in general, meant Rangers failed to capitalise on these opportunities.
HIBS STRUGGLE TO BUILD OUT
Another significant tactical development since Rangers have gone from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 is the increased access Arfield’s presence behind Morelos gives them when pressing opposition build-up. This was visible against Hibs, where Morelos would split the Hibs centre-backs and Arfield would close down the centre-back in possession whilst simultaneously blocking the forward pass into central midfield. This caused problems for Hanlon and Darren McGregor, who were unable to play into central midfield and had to go long.
Generally, the Hibs possession strategy was to play long balls from centre-back to striker. The targeted striker would then be expected to bring the ball down and lay it off to a midfield runner or his strike partner. They would then look for combinations with the intention of one striker being released in behind the Rangers back line. However, this approach regularly failed due to the inaccuracy of the long ball from the back, or because Rangers were able to win the first or second ball.
There was one instance of nice build-up play through the thirds from Hibs when Stevenson played into the feet of McNulty, who had dropped back to receive between the lines. As this pass was played, Omeonga ran into the space behind Tavernier and looked to receive a first-time through ball from McNulty in the channel between the Rangers right-back and right centre-back. But that was as good as it got.
Often Milligan would drop between the two Hibs centre-backs to create a 3v2 in their first line of attack and allow more stability building out against the pressing of Rangers’ front two. However, this took away one of the two central midfielders, and with Mallan failing to adjust his position or being closely covered by Jack or Kamara, Hibs had a complete lack of central midfield presence to play through.
RANGERS FAIL TO REACT TO HECKINGBOTTOM’S CHANGES
Around the 34th minute, Heckingbottom decided to change system. Kamberi came out to the left wing, leaving McNulty on his own up front, while Omeonga came into a central midfield position. Hibs went from a defensive 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1 shape. This alteration allowed them to return to a more familiar defensive style, as they matched up Rangers man-to-man in central midfield. Omeonga focused on Jack, Mallan on Kamara, and Milligan offered coverage behind or marked Arfield.
This change allowed Hibs to get closer to Jack and Kamara and pressure them more quickly whenever one of them received the ball, while Arfield was no longer completely free between the lines. From then on, Rangers were not as able to play through midfield and broke the lines far less often. They began to play more directly, with long balls straight to the front line or switches to the far side. This led to a loss of control of possession and a more open game filled with loose balls and transitions which undoubtedly benefited Hibs.
Horgan began to play a more influential role as his side enjoyed more of the ball and had more opportunity to counter-attack in the second half. The Irishman regularly drifted inside off the right wing, which had a huge impact on the game. Rangers like their full-backs to go man-to-man against their opposite defensively, so Halliday was often dragged out of position by Horgan’s movements. This created space on the left side of left centre-back Worrall, which Hibs exploited more than once with through balls, one of which paved the way for their equalising goal.
Rangers still had some joy down the wings after Hibs’ tactical switch, with the rotations of their wingers and full-backs creating space down the flanks for Tavernier and Halliday to run into and receive. But this wasn’t enough. Their share of possession decreased and they got into dangerous positions less frequently.
Rangers overran Hibs in the first half-hour of this match and could easily have been out of sight had they been more decisive in the final third. While his initial plan didn’t work, Heckingbottom deserves credit for making changes that completely altered the course of the game.
What this contest underlined is that, while they are good at breaking down passive, position-oriented defences, Rangers can struggle when matched up man-to-man in central midfield. This has been shown in multiple clashes with Aberdeen and Livingston this season, and was confirmed again versus Hibs.
In such situations, Rangers could benefit from better movement off the ball – more positional rotations, opposite movements and more players vacating their position to overload another area, as Kent tried to do at times here. On top of that, higher ball speed would help them to disorganise intensely man-oriented defensive systems.