The key tactics involved as Hearts and Hibs prepare for Scottish Cup semi-final
Two teams from the same city, two fluid formations, two managers familiar with the other’s work, but only one prize at stake.
The Scottish Cup semi-final between Hearts and Hibs promises an epic confrontation as the Edinburgh clubs try to navigate a path to December’s final.
By this stage in the build-up, both have identified each other’s weaknesses and formulated plans to exploit them. Those plans will likely hold the key for whoever succeeds at Hampden Park tomorrow.
Hearts are the Championship club looking to usurp a Premiership opponent. They are expected to deploy manager Robbie Neilson’s long-favoured 4-2-3-1 system with an element of freedom.
Hibs manager Jack Ross, previously part of Neilson’s Riccarton coaching staff, will assemble his team in a similarly adaptable way. His 4-4-2 formation often flips to 3-5-2 during play.
There are comparisons to be drawn. Hearts’ back four in front of goalkeeper Craig Gordon will likely be Michael Smith at right-back, Craig Halkett and Mihai Popescu at centre-back, with Stephen Kingsley left-back.
When Smith or Kingsley venture forward, the remaining defenders can form a three-man back line for that phase of play.
It allows the full-back to become an extra man in attack and the change sometimes stays in place for a while if pressure is sustained. They will then revert back to four defenders.
The holding midfielders – any two from Olly Lee, Andy Halliday, Peter Haring and Andy Irving – support an attacking trio in behind striker Liam Boyce. Haring particularly suits this role given his reading of play and expertise in covering defenders.
Much interest surrounds that forward triumvirate as fans await news on winger Josh Ginnelly’s fitness. Neilson prioritises pace out wide and Jordan Roberts and Elliott Frear could both start if Ginnelly doesn’t.
Craig Wighton is expected to feature after recent goalscoring form, while captain Steven Naismith’s hamstring has hindered him this term.
Hibs have utilised different starting formations under Ross. Their 4-4-2 works well because it easily slides into a 3-5-2 when the chance arises – similar to the tactic used by Neilson.
Right-back Paul McGinn can tuck inside to form a three-man defence alongside Ryan Porteous and Paul Hanlon, while winger Martin Boyle has featured at right wing-back under Ross.
Boyle’s pace will be a major threat to Hearts, one which Kingsley will be asked to stifle.
Lewis Stevenson will be left-back if fit. If not, 18-year-old Josh Doig will deputise. Both can also operate as wing-backs when asked. Behind the defence, the Israel international goalkeeper Ofir Marciano is in steady form.
Alex Gogic’s arrival from Hamilton brought much-needed stability to the Hibs midfield, allowing technicians like Stevie Mallan and Joe Newell to play. The Cyrpiot also covers full-backs well.
On-loan Rangers winger Jamie Murphy is another fitness doubt and Hibs seem to play better with him on the field.
Up front, strikers Christian Doidge and Kevin Nisbet are well-matched. Doidge uses his physical presence to pin defenders and win headers, with Nisbet’s movement and finishing prowess the ideal foil.
Both defences can be exploited – Hearts and Hibs possess midfielders able to pass through lines. With speed merchants like Roberts, Frear, Ginnelly, Boyle and Murphy, whoever makes the running in this game may gain a crucial advantage on the wide-open Hampden surface.