There have been contrasting starts for both Hibernian and Motherwell in the first three games of the new Scottish Premiership season. Jack Ross has led a new-look Hibs team to three wins out of three, scoring seven goals in the process and this early-season form sees them top of the table, level on points with title-chasing Rangers. Meanwhile, Stephen Robinson’s Motherwell side have registered only one point so far, starting with back-to-back defeats to Ross County and Dundee United, followed by a 2-2 draw with fellow strugglers Livingston, in which the Steelmen twice threw away a lead.
These differing starts would no doubt make for an intriguing game as Motherwell have seen plenty of the ball in their opening three games, with their average possession share of 56.1% being pipped only by Rangers and UEFA Champions League-qualified Celtic. In addition, the Lanarkshire side also have the third-highest number of shots per game (11.09), a number which again is beaten only by the old firm sides. In contrast, Hibs haven’t seen as much of the ball in their opening three matches (44.8%) and interestingly, on average, make the fewest number of passes to the final third (36.8) across the entire league, highlighting just how clinical their forwards have been so far this season.
The teams could not be separated in the capital, with a 0-0 draw extending Stephen Robinson’s team’s wait for their first win of the season. A point will suit Hibs who maintain their unbeaten start to the season as well as keeping a hold of the top spot in the table after Rangers’ stalemate with Livingston. This tactical analysis will highlight exactly how both teams were unable to break each other down, with further analysis examining the tactics of each manager and what their teams lacked in this stalemate.
Jack Ross named an unchanged side from the team that started in the midweek win over Dundee United, keeping the 4-4-2 shape that has been so successful for them in recent weeks. Ofir Marciano started in goal with a back four in front of him consisting of Paul McGinn, who started at right-back, Ryan Porteous, who partnered Paul Hanlon in the centre of defence, and youngster Josh Doig who has so far impressed with his energetic performances at left-back. Alex Gogic and Joe Newell started in central midfield, while Martin Boyle started on the right side. Daryl Horgan started on the left of midfield and would be keen to add to his two assists so far this season. Christian Doidge partnered league top-scorer Kevin Nisbet in a front two, whose link-play and clever movement has caused problems so far for the defences of Kilmarnock, Livingston, and Dundee United.
Motherwell made two changes from the side who drew 2-2 with Livingston on Wednesday evening, with on-loan Wigan forward Callum Lang returning from a two-match ban and new signing Stephen O’Donnell coming in for his debut. The away team lined up in a 4-1-4-1 formation with Trevor Carson starting between the sticks. Scotland international Stephen O’Donnell started to the right of a centre-back pairing of Declan Gallagher and Bevis Mugabi, while Rickie Lamie lined up at left-back. Mark O’Hara started in the holding midfielder role, with the impressive pairing of Allan Campbell and David Turnbull starting in the advanced midfielder positions. Sherwin Seedorf started on the right side of midfield with Callum Lang operating from the left. Target man Jordan White started in the lone striker role.
Motherwell’s early pressing
With a total match PPDA of 7.3 and a season-average of 7.85, it is clear that Motherwell are a team intent on pressing the opposition and limiting the time and space they have in possession. This was the case with Hibs, who in the early stages of the game were unable to build possession due to the intense press of the Motherwell front six.
This example highlights the early pressure Motherwell were putting on their opponents, with both central midfielders, Turnbull and Campbell, aggressively pressing a back-pass to Marciano, which the Israeli goalkeeper is subsequently forced to play long, conceding possession.
Here we see a similar result, with centre-back Hanlon this time forced to send the ball long up towards Nisbet and Doidge. The aggression of the Motherwell press is once again clear here, with Campbell pressing the ball and Turnbull, O’Donnell, and O’Hara all squeezed up tight on Hanlon’s short passing options.
This was a theme throughout the game and was effective in allowing Motherwell to regain possession in the Hibs’ defensive half. On this occasion, Horgan gifts possession back to Motherwell, with his concession coming as a result of the aggressive press from the Motherwell right-back O’Donnell, who tracked the Irishman into a narrow position to prevent him from turning and having time to pick out Nisbet or Doidge.
Nisbet and Doidge dropping between the lines
Despite the apparent effectiveness of the Motherwell high press, Hibs were still able to move possession forward effectively thanks to Nisbet and Doidge’s ability to hold the ball up and link with the Hibs midfielders.
Here, Hibs are able to bypass the first two lines of the Motherwell press with a lofted pass into Nisbet, who manages to knock the ball down for Newell, who distributes the ball wide to Boyle, who has the opportunity to attack Lamie 1 v 1. Nisbet’s movement has enabled him to draw Gallagher out of position, which then left space for the Hibs runners to move into.
In this example, Doidge has moved between the lines to receive a clipped pass from a Hibs defender that has eliminated the Motherwell midfield. From here, the Welshman is able to link with Horgan who attempts to pick out the penetrating run of Boyle on the right side of the Hibs attack. This was one of the few occasions that Hibs were able to play beyond the Motherwell holding midfielder O’Hara, which with more quality on the pass from Horgan, may have enabled them to take advantage of the Motherwell defence’s lack of protection.
This is an example of another occasion where the home team managed to bypass O’Hara, this time with Nisbet dropping between the lines. The forward, despite having space in front of him to drive at the Motherwell centre-backs, opts to play wide to Horgan, who beats O’Donnell 1 v 1 and is able to deliver an excellent cross which Nisbet heads narrowly over the crossbar.
Hibs’ forward pairing have caused numerous problems for defences so far this season, problems that have been caused, at times, by their excellent aerial link-up play which allows them to attract a central defender between the lines and isolate the other 1 v 1. However, the pair struggled to create these situations against Motherwell due to the presence of the away team’s holding midfielder.
O’Hara was able throughout the game, to occupy the space between the Motherwell midfield and defence, which meant that when Nisbet or Doidge moved towards the ball, he was able to compete with them in the air, allowing the spare central defender to double up on the higher striker, in this case, Nisbet. On this occasion, Doidge manages to flick the ball on to his strike partner, however, Mugabi reads the return pass from Nisbet and his positioning allows him to intercept the ball, which ends a promising Hibs attack.
This example shows what Hibs were attempting to achieve, as well as demonstrating the problems this link-up play is able to cause defences. O’Hara has been missed by the lofted pass, meaning that Mugabi is forced to track the run of Nisbet into midfield, which causes the Ugandan defender to become disconnected from Gallagher, his centre-back partner, as well as creating space between him and Lamie, the Motherwell left-back.
Nisbet combines with Doidge while Boyle makes a forward run into the space between the centre-back and full-back, which the Welshman attempts to pick out but is unsuccessful in doing so.
Motherwell playing through Hibs
A key feature of Motherwell’s attacking play was their ability to take advantage of their natural 3 v 2 overload in midfield, which allowed them to penetrate the central areas of the attacking half, a position from which they were able to create a few goal-scoring opportunities.
Here, the away team are able to find Lang in acres of space in front of the Hibs back four. This space has been created due to the movement of Motherwell’s attacking midfielders: Turnbull and Campbell. Turnbull is in possession of the ball on the right side of the attack, while Campbell has taken up a position ahead of him in the half-space.
Turnbull’s position has caused Gogic to vacate the central area of the pitch, while his fellow central midfielder, Newell, is marking Campbell in the space between Doig and Hanlon. This lack of protection in the central area means that Lang is unmarked, and after receiving a pass from Campbell is able to drive at the Hibs defence, where McGinn defends well to regain possession.
An almost identical situation occurs here, this time with centre forward White receiving the ball in front of the Hibs back-line. Once again, Campbell is operating in the right half-space, this time marked by Gogic, while Turnbull’s wider position draws Newell out of the central area. The mobility of the Motherwell attacking midfielders creates space for White to drop and receive the ball, forcing Porteous to step out of the Hibs back four.
This theme continued throughout the match and also assisted Motherwell in the build-up phase of the game. In this example, the away side are able to breach the Hibs block, where space in the central area is again created by the positions of Turnbull and Campbell. The latter has moved wide, which, in turn, attracts Gogic, while Newell is occupied by the position of Turnbull. This creates distance between the Hibs central midfielders, which Motherwell are able to exploit by playing a line-breaking pass into White, who combines with O’Hara, drawing pressure from Gogic and leaving Campbell free to receive the ball and drive forward.
This example highlights another occasion where Motherwell are able to breach the Hibs midfield from a deep position. The visitors had transferred possession along the back four starting from O’Hara on the left side, who was under pressure from Gogic, and eventually ending with Turnbull who had moved into the false full-back position.
Campbell remained in a central position, which prevented Newell from moving to block the passing lane to O’Donnell, whose movement into midfield was prompted by Turnbull moving into the full-back position. Turnbull was then able to find the Scotland international in a position beyond the Hibs midfield and from here the right-back plays wide to Seedorf, who is able to attack 1 v 1 against Doig.
Hibs’ change of shape in the second half
In response to the problems caused by Motherwell’s midfield dominance in the first half, Jack Ross opted to change the shape of his team in the second half, changing to a 4-4-1-1 which saw Horgan, later replaced by Allan in the 56th minute, move into a central position behind Doidge, while Nisbet moved out to the right side of midfield.
As seen in the image above, this prevented Motherwell from creating the spaces that allowed them to play through the Hibs midfield in the first half.
Here is another example of how Hibs’ change of shape prevented Motherwell from making progress through the middle of the pitch. On this occasion, Gogic is able to press Campbell as he now has support behind him, which forces the young Scot to play back to Mugabi, who then plays back to Carson. The numerical equality in midfield now meant that Turnbull Campbell and O’Hara were afforded very little space to get on the ball in deep positions and play forward.
This example once again demonstrates the effectiveness of the Hibs midfield three in stifling the ability of the Motherwell creative midfielders to play forward passes. Again, Gogic is able to press Turnbull, while substitute Hallberg covers the space behind him, which means that the Motherwell midfielder is unable to play forward.
Hibs lacking quality in the final third
Hibs created the better chances in the game and could have created more if it wasn’t for some questionable decision-making in the final third. On this occasion, Nisbet had managed to combine with Newell who found himself between the lines of the Motherwell defence and midfield.
From here, the Englishman opted to play a reverse pass to Boyle who was quickly pressured by the recovering Mugabi and lost possession as he entered the box. However, as seen in the image, Horgan was unmarked on the left side and had space to move into and given his service from wide so far this season, that has seen him notch two assists, there is a chance he would have been able to pick out either Nisbet or Boyle in the box.
A similar situation occurred in the second half, where this time left-back Doig found himself in a dangerous crossing position. After receiving a pass from the right, Boyle opts to move inside and attempt a shot from long range, instead of taking advantage of the space that has been afforded to the young Hibs left-back. Again, a lack of awareness on the edge of the Motherwell box from Hibs leads to them missing a good opportunity to test the Motherwell defence.
Both managers will feel that there were opportunities to win this game, however, a point will certainly suit Jack Ross more than Stephen Robinson, whose side’s winless run is extended to four games. Motherwell will be disappointed not to have scored in a game where they were able to register 17 attempts on goal, only two of which were on target. On the other hand, Hibs’ unbeaten run now extends to four games and with Rangers dropping points against Livingston, it ensures that they hold on to the top spot in the Scottish Premiership.