Why Hibs are better equipped for Hearts semi-final test than they would have been last season
Managers are often saddled with one particular quirk of their approach to the game. For Pep Guardiola, it was the tiki-taka football that made Barcelona a formidable force on the domestic and continental stages in the early 2010s; for Marcelo Bielsa his unconventional 3-3-3-1 formation.
In Scotland, Jimmy Calderwood’s gung-ho approach of throwing four players up front in matches where Dunfermline were chasing a goal.
For Jack Ross however, it is a lot simpler. Along with right-hand men John Potter and Craig Samson, he has moulded Hibs into a well-organised and well-drilled unit. His squad is broadly made up of the the same players who, this time last year, had managed two wins in 12 games and while there were obvious signs of improvement last term, the defence was still prone to the odd Keystone Cops moment.
Now, the four first-choice defenders have been called up to national team squads; the midfield is well-balanced, and the attackers look likely to score in every game.
Speaking after the match Christian Doidge hit the nail on the head: “We’re just really organised. We know what players are going to do."
Even with players missing through injury and others tasked with operating in unfamiliar roles, there is a level of cohesion in this Hibs team that probably hasn’t been seen since the 2017/18 season.
There have been instances over the last two or three years when watching Hibs has been like a box of chocolates – fans didn’t know what they were going to get.
Baffling line-up choices, seven different defensive combinations in 12 matches, players dropped, restored to the starting line-up, then dropped again for reasons unknown.
It is fitting that this well-drilled Hibs side toiled to a 1-0 win at a venue where, less than two years ago, Kilmarnock strolled to a comprehensive victory over a disjointed, unbalanced Easter Road XI that had two left-backs on the bench and a centre-back in central midfield.
It is perhaps ironic that Hibs still had players playing out of position – Stevie Mallan at left-midfield, Melker Hallberg as a centre-forward for the last few minutes – but telling that this time, it didn’t matter.
Ekeing out a hard-fought victory seven days before a likely attritional encounter with their old rivals at the national stadium was the best result Hibs could have hoped for. A comprehensive victory could have sown seeds of complacency; a loss or draw feelings of doubt.
Doidge touched on the mentality that has helped Hibs to 24 points from 12 matches: “We're going into games believing we're going to win.”
That belief is helping players through matches, whether it’s 18-year-old Josh Doig taking on experienced wingers old enough to be his father, or Stevie Mallan performing well in an unfamiliar role on the left of midfield.
It’s about Lewis Stevenson sprinting across the pitch to reach a loose ball, and Alex Gogic breaking down an attack. It’s about Doidge knowing where Kevin Nisbet is going to be, and Ryan Porteous resisting the urge to dive into a challenge.
Inside 12 short months Jack Ross has transformed this Hibs team, identifying the weak spots and bolstering the strengths.
Who would have pegged Hibs as masters of the gritty, backs-to-the-wall away win this time last season? They’ve picked up narrow victories at Tannadice and Rugby Park, posted comprehensive scorelines at Livingston and St Mirren, and have kept six clean sheets in their 12 league games to date.
The Scottish Cup semi-final has been on the horizon for several months but it is only now that all those at East Mains can start focusing on the biggest game of the season so far.
Saturday’s last-four meeting carries plenty of baggage, not least that it is an overhang from last season with a place in the final up for grabs. There is also a very good chance that this may be the only time Hearts and Hibs meet until at least next August.
It is one thing gearing up for a hard-fought game against Kilmarnock, or holding Rangers to a 2-2 draw. As everyone knows, Edinburgh derbies present a new challenge.
Since the two teams met in March, there have been big changes at both clubs.
For Hearts, a new coaching staff and a raft of new faces; for Hibs, that newly-installed sense of belief and cohesion.
This will not be a repeat of the last encounter by a long shot, although there are enough players in green and white who will be eager to atone for the meek manner of their 3-1 defeat to Daniel Stendel’s Hearts team, even if there is a sense that this is a new season and a new competition rather than a delayed continuation of last season’s tournament.
Any derby is an occasion to look forward to but Doidge suggested yesterday that it will present a welcome distraction from league duty.
He explained: “After the start we've had, it's a nice feeling to have a great opportunity in the cup.
“We know what it means to the fans and everyone around the club so it's going to be exciting, and one we can hopefully win.”
As he chases a first goal against Hearts, and his 100th career strike, Doidge added: “It's a game that everyone wants to play in. It's really exciting in the lead-up, and to play at Hampden in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup is massive for your career.”
The oft-muttered tenet is that form goes out of the window when Edinburgh derby matches are contested. Hibs and Doidge have a perfect chance to buck the trend this weekend… provided they believe that they can.
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