Motherwell Mix It Up To Heap Misery On Hibs

It’s all change at Motherwell. Except not really. Despite last season’s change of style bringing praise for more exciting attacking football and a summer that saw 11 new signings added to the squad, Stephen Robinson’s men are still capable of effective direct play. Hibs, who are struggling at the moment, found this out in the harshest possible way during their 3-0 defeat at Fir Park last weekend.

MOTHERWELL’S TERRITORIAL ATTACKING

Paul Heckingbottom lined his Hibs side up in a 4-2-3-1 system that saw Scott Allan playing in a free role behind lone striker Florian Kamberi. Defensively, this led to Allan man-marking Motherwell defensive midfielder Liam Donnelly while the wingers – Daryl Horgan and Glenn Middleton – looked to press the Motherwell full-backs whenever they received the ball.

Motherwell have gained praise for their change of style, but their new build-up has actually caused them problems this season. They played out short at home to Celtic in league action and Hearts in the League Cup, and on both occasions were ruthlessly counter-attacked to defeat after constant turnovers when trying to play into midfield. Similar issues arose against Hibs.

Motherwell’s centre-backs had few options to pass to, with the main problem being the large distance between lines of attack. Donnelly, who as a converted centre-back is just okay on the ball, was closely marked by Allan. Passing to him under pressure and with the risk of turning over to one of the Premiership’s most creative attacking midfielders was too high risk/low reward. At the same time, the distances between the centre-backs and the No.8s, Liam Polworth and Allan Campbell, were simply far too large for clean passes to be played between them on the ground.

This combination of the structure and the nearest midfielder being marked closely left Peter Hartley and Declan Gallagher with one viable short pass – out to the full-backs. But with Donnelly marked and Polworth and Campbell so far away, the full-backs were easily isolated when they received the ball. Horgan and Middleton, who are both speed machines, got out to them quickly to apply pressure while also denying the route back inside by pressing from in to out, meaning poor Liam Grimshaw and Jake Carroll often had no choice but to belt the ball long from a terrible position next to the touchline.

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Next time you hear someone praising Motherwell for their super sexy short build-up, remind them of the fact it didn’t work in this game, just as it didn’t against Celtic or Hearts. But what did work was when they reverted to (don’t you dare sigh during my article) long balls.

This is why I didn’t describe Motherwell’s attacking structure as ‘poor’ earlier on: Because while there was one time Polworth dropped deep into space to receive and got ignored by Hartley, this structure may well have been a deliberate ploy. Certainly the way in which they consistently played long diagonals out to James Scott on the right wing made it seem not an accident. And if it was deliberate, kudos to Robinson for exploiting a weakness in this Hibs side: namely a lack of physicality.

Scott is 6ft 2in tall. His opposite man, Hibs left-back Lewis Stevenson, is 5ft 7in. To put it kindly, aerial duels between these two weren’t really a fair contest. Scott frequently brought the ball down himself to allow Motherwell to attack from inside the Hibs half, but even if he didn’t Stevenson struggled to properly clear his lines in these situations due to the physical disadvantage.

Motherwell were then set up to fight for the second ball after the initial aerial non-contest. Donnelly was on Allan; Campbell was on Stevie Mallan; Grimshaw was on Middleton – all Hibs players around the ball were man-marked by a physically stronger Motherwell player. So, even if Hibs managed to pick up the loose ball, they were often immediately nudged off it or pressured into turnovers.

This attacking approach could be described as ‘territorial’, as it was focused on getting the ball from the goalkeeper or centre-backs deep in Motherwell’s half to inside Hibs’ half in one pass, exploiting the 1v1 superiority of Scott on Stevenson with good numbers around the breakdown and continued physical advantages over the smaller Hibs players on that side of the pitch. It was straightforward but well-executed and, in the sense it allowed Motherwell to establish possession in the opposition half, achieved the objective.

Once in the Hibs half, Motherwell focused on getting the ball out to their wingers. It’s not yet entirely clear if Scott and Sherwin Seedorf are upgrades on last season’s wide men, Jake Hastie and Gboly Ariyibi. But even if they aren’t quite as quick or unpredictable as their predecessors, they still fit Robinson’s new style of play in that they are direct and aggressive with the ball at feet.

Both Scott and Seedorf want to run at their opposite man, using feints, step-overs and quick changes of pace to throw off the defender and carry the ball towards goal from a wide starting position. This creates a couple of possibilities: 1) They both come in onto their favoured foot and can shoot from more central areas just outside or inside the opposition box, or 2) They can get closer to goal and their teammates in the box, working better angles and shorter distances for low, hard crosses or cut-backs, as opposed to firing in hopefully from the touchline.

Below are some video examples of Motherwell’s attacking play in the final third.

Seedorf receives on the left wing, dribbles at his man and cuts inside onto his favoured right foot, then shoots from a more central location just inside the penalty box.

Scott secures possession on the right wing after a long ball, dribbles across the field and passes to Seedorf on the left wing. Seedorf dribbles past his man and into the penalty box, hits the by-line and cuts back for a teammate in the six-yard box to shoot.

Long balls and crosses are what Motherwell’s attacking game has been based on throughout Robinson’s tenure, and this continues to be the case. There is more variety to their build-up now, but here they showed they remain specialists in direct play: avoiding risky turnovers in their own half, exploiting physical advantages in specific areas, and getting their most skilful players on the ball in space in what are essentially transition moments where the opposition aren’t defensively organised after an aerial duel.

PROS AND CONS OF MOTHERWELL’S MIXED DEFENSIVE SCHEME

Motherwell operated an interesting mixed defensive scheme against Hibs that combined flexible man-marking with pressing. Their full-backs rigidly tracked Hibs’ wingers, while their central midfield three generally matched up man-to-man – Donnelly on Allan, Campbell on Mallan, and Polworth on Vykintas Slivka – with some flexibility to pass their man on if they moved too far out of position. Up front, the front three were responsible for pressing Hibs in their build-up.

Striker Chris Long would generally press the ball-playing centre-back, while the ball-side Motherwell winger would keep tabs on the Hibs full-back opposite him. However, the far-side Motherwell winger would step up, almost forming a defensive 4-4-2 shape. By moving up and inside, the far-side Motherwell winger got closer to the Hibs centre-back on that side.

This type of pressing was occasionally able to nullify the 2v1 Hibs would have otherwise had with their two centre-backs. When Long was drawn to one side, Hibs couldn’t just pass sideways between the centre-backs to create the free man because he could be quickly pressured by Scott or Seedorf. The timing of Scott and Seedorf’s movements was key – if they moved too late the receiving centre-back would have time and space to look up and pick a pass into midfield or out to the full-back.

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The pressing of Motherwell’s front three caused problems to Hibs in their build-up. Loose sideways passes were intercepted, while Adam Jackson was panicked into some poor decisions by Seedorf’s pressing whenever Hibs build-up went from left to right across the back line. This led to turnovers and counter-attacking opportunities for Motherwell in the opposition half with few defenders between them and goal. Sometimes, Hibs just went backwards and long due to an inability to pass along the back line. However, there were cons as well as pros to this defensive approach.

One way of Hibs playing out against this pressing was for the receiving centre-back to play into a dropping central midfielder, who could then pass out first time to the full-back. When Seedorf came up and in to press, Hibs right-back Steven Whittaker became free and could be found through this simple two-pass move. A slightly less risky, though harder to execute, option was for one of the centre-backs or Mallan to ping the ball diagonally out to the free full-back on the far side. This is something Celtic did frequently in their 5-2 win at Fir Park, with Kristoffer Ajer at right-back exploiting his freedom well to maraud down the right flank.

If Hibs were discouraged from playing sideways or diagonally out, there were few – if any – obvious forward options. Motherwell’s man-marking in midfield meant Mallan, Slivka and Allan were all instantly under pressure from behind when receiving, giving them no time to turn. Allan was occasionally able to bypass the pressure of Donnelly, winning his 1v1 duel with a bit of skill. Behind, one of Motherwell’s centre-backs would track Florian Kamberi if he dropped deep while the other stayed spare and Grimshaw/Carroll marked Middleton/Horgan.

Besides Allan’s skill to get beyond his marker, Hibs failed to find solutions consistently to open Motherwell up. There was one instance just past the half-hour mark when Horgan and Mallan dropped deep, Polworth and Donnelly followed them, and Campbell moved towards the right to prevent the switch of play after Scott pushed up to potentially press Paul Hanlon if he received the ball. Suddenly, because of Motherwell’s man-marking, a huge gap was opened up between their defence and midfield lines. Whittaker played a ball over the top for Kamberi with Allan and Slivka completely un-marked in support, but poor execution of the final pass let Hibs down.

Motherwell’s mixed defensive approach had mixed results. There was some success in that it ensured pressure on the Hibs ball-player, hurried their build-up and forced errors in the opposition half. However, there were some problems too with leaving the far-side opposition full-back free and – more pertinently – man-marking leading to huge spaces between the defensive lines and Allan skinning Donnelly 1v1. If Hibs had more co-ordination in their attacking movements and more decisiveness once in the final third, they could have got on the scoresheet here.

HIBS’ LEFT SIDE CHANGE SHOWS PROMISE

As they chased the game in the second half, Hibs altered the dynamic on their left-hand side to try and get an equaliser. Stevenson pushed further down the left flank while Heckingbottom brought on striker Oli Shaw for Middleton. Shaw essentially gave the flank to Stevenson and tucked into the left inside channel.

Around the 70-minute mark Hibs took advantage of this new dynamic. When Motherwell winger Scott pushed up to press Hanlon, Mallan passed out to Stevenson, who was now in space on the left wing. Stevenson drew out Grimshaw, which left Shaw free to receive un-marked in the channel. From there Shaw dribbled directly at Gallagher 1v1, drawing out the Motherwell centre-back and winning a free kick in dangerous territory.

Another aspect that changed was Hanlon became more aggressive in possession, driving forward to try and exploit the gaps in Motherwell’s man-marking midfield and defensive lines by overloading them. On one occasion, as Motherwell’s right winger and right-back focused on marking their opposite men, Hanlon could go unchecked into the space outside Motherwell right centre-back Gallagher to receive a through ball and cross into an almost empty box for Kamberi.

Heckingbottom only made one substitution in the game, which was strange considering the difficulties Hibs had throughout. But the one change he did make had a positive impact.

CONCLUSION

Motherwell may be playing out from the back more than in Robinson’s first one-and-a-half seasons, but they retain an effective directness. The presence of James Scott on the right wing ensures they have a target for long diagonals and their physicality and numbers around the ball allow them to compete for and secure possession in the opponent’s half quickly. Consequently, in games against more aggressive pressing teams, they have the option to go long over the press.

Hibs showed some nice moments of attacking play to disrupt the man-marking in Motherwell’s midfield and defensive lines, and Allan looks set to be a hugely influential figure as their playmaker linking attacking moves and creating chances. However, their lack of strength and/or a natural No.6 to do the dirty work in midfield – following the departures of Marvin Bartley and Mark Milligan, of course – could be something opponents look to exploit throughout the campaign.