Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Five things to take from Sunday's Edinburgh derby

In what was surely the final Edinburgh derby of the season, ten-man Hearts came from behind to salvage a well deserved point.  Hibernian extended their unbeaten run to seven matches although will be disappointed not to have taken all three points.

Ryan Stevenson can play as a striker, as long as you don’t expect him to win an aerial battle

It was surprising to see Stevenson again take up a striking role for Hearts.  The former Ayr United midfielder was deployed as an auxiliary striker in the 1-0 win over Rangers in January but looked out of his depth on that occasion.  The difference on Sunday was that he was joined in attack by Stephen Elliott in a 4-4-2/4-2-4 formation.

Furthermore, and again unlike during the victory over Rangers, the strategy of Hearts was to move the ball quickly towards Andy Driver and David Templeton, who took up advanced positions on either wing, and not to hit long, direct passes towards the edge of the box.  Hearts have struggled to fill the void left by long-term absentee Kevin Kyle, especially in matches where they have a tendency to, or are forced to play long ball.

Stevenson opened the scoring in the first half with a control and finish that any seasoned SPL striker would be proud of.  Not only this, he also dropped deep earlier in the move to link play.  As well as this, Stevenson relentlessly closed down the Hibs defence and was one of the start performers on the day.

Stephen Elliott is definitely better with a strike partner

Relatedly, the Hearts performance in the first thirty minutes showed that Elliott is much better when not used as a lone-striker.  Stevenson’s presence in attack and the advanced positions taken up by Driver and Templeton meant that Hearts effectively lined up man-for-man against the Hibs defence.  Consequently, Elliott was afforded more space than usual and his movement between the lines and the inside channels caused the Hibs defenders many problems.  Early in the match he found himself on the end of a few well worked moves, one of which he should have scored, another that should have earned his side a penalty.

After the red card, Elliott was moved to the right side of midfield in a 4-4-1 formation.  He continued to perform impressively, although Hearts inevitably created less and most of his work was defensive in nature.  He was left unmarked for the equalising goal after some poor set-piece defending from the home side yet finished well.

Hibs failed to take advantage of their numerical advantage in midfield

Hibs started the match with a numerical advantage in central midfield.  Even before the ordering off of Marius Zaliukas, there were times when Hibs had a 3v2, and sometimes even a 4v2, advantage in the centre of the pitch.  Despite this, and perhaps counterintuitively, Hearts dominated.  Jim Jefferies’s side started with two deep-lying central midfielders and defended the area while avoiding playing through it.

Therefore, on paper at least, Victor Palsson, Liam Miller and Matt Thornhill should have dominated the central areas.  However, they failed stamp their authority on the match until the second half when Hearts were down to ten men and were more inclined to sit nine men behind the ball.

Thus, the three main reasons for Hibs failing to dominate the midfield early in the match were: (i) they failed play the ball through the area effectively, (ii) Hearts defended the area well and avoided playing through it themselves and, (iii) Elliot and Stevenson showed a willingness to defend from the front and press Hibs high up the pitch.  There was no such willingness from the Hibs strikers.

Hibs looked better with wide men in advanced areas

Admittedly it is more difficult to judge when possessing a numerical advantage, however, Hibs were much more dangerous in the second half when Ricardo Vaz Te was introduced in place of Martin Scott.  Hibs had started in their familiar 4-1-3-2 formation (although it appeared to be more like a 4-4-2 diamond formation with Thornhill more advanced than Miller has been in the same role recently) but moved to a more expansive 4-2-3-1 after the break.  Vaz Te took up a right-wing role, with Derek Riordan moving to the left in a fluid front five and Hibs instantly improved.

The switch meant that Hibs no longer relied solely on their full-backs for width.  Callum Booth managed to get forward for most of the match from left-back whereas Richie Towell struggled to do the same on the opposite flank.  Not until the second half did Richie Towell regularly find himself in possession in an advanced area, although this was partially down to Driver’s frequent drifting into the centre, leaving plenty of space on that side.

What should have been the winning goal for Hibs came from the right-hand side and involved Towell.  By this time he was linking up with Wotherspoon down the right and Vaz Te had moved to just off Akpo Sodje in attack.  With players like this available to Calderwood, a  4-2-3-1 or similar variant certainly an option for Hibs.

Hibs will be fine under Colin Calderwood

Much doubt was cast over Calderwood after a terrible run of results, including a Scottish Cup exit at the hands of Ayr United shortly after taking over.  He inherited a side low in confidence before making six new signings in January.  He has now not only steadied the ship, but also has everyone involved with the club looking up rather than down the table.

Their recent run, although admirable, had until Sunday come against teams mostly from the bottom six.  Seven games without defeat, including matches against Kilmarnock and Hearts, looks a lot more impressive.  To expect to end the season in the top six would be overly-optimistic, although they should have no problems finishing in the top half of the table next season.

Calderwood was appointed at Easter Road with an impressive record in the English lower leagues behind him.  Those who prematurely, even in the merry-go-round era of football management, called for Calderwood to be relieved of his duties after two wins in his first fourteen matches in charge must surely now recognise his pedigree.  In the space of a few months and with very little money, he carried out effective business in a notoriously difficult January transfer market.  He has now turned a side fighting relegation into one that has now reached the form the supporters expect.

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