There were contrasting starts for both Livingston and Hibernian in the opening weekend of the 2020/21 Scottish Premiership. Gary Holt’s Livingston side started the season with a disappointing 1-0 defeat at the hands of St Mirren, while Jack Ross’s Hibs battled strongly to a 2-1 win over Kilmarnock.
In recent weeks, Hibs have invested smartly in a team that has seen the departure of several key players, including long-serving Steven Whittaker and Vykintas Slivka, both of whom were released after reaching the end of their contracts. In addition, there was the loss of loan players such as Greg Docherty, who returned to Rangers, along with Marc McNulty, Jason Naismith, and Stephane Omeonga who returned to their parent clubs. These departures left Jack Ross with several gaps to fill, which he has done effectively so far with the signings of Kevin Nisbet, Alex Gogic, and Drey Wright.
Livingston themselves have also strengthened their squad with the signings of Alan Forrest, Matej Poplatnik, and Salim Kouider-Aissa among others, all of whom will be looking to guide Gary Holt’s side to their first win of the campaign.
It was Hibs who managed to secure the three points at Almondvale with a convincing 4-1 victory, which saw them dismantle a lacklustre Livingston side. This tactical analysis will provide an insight into Hibs’ tactics and how they were able to break down a Livingston side who only lost twice at home in the entire 2019/20 Premiership season and were the only side to keep a clean sheet all season against eventual champions, Celtic. Further analysis will also highlight Livingston’s difficulties and how Hibs were able to stifle a team which are normally a tricky side to overcome.
Hibs made two changes from the team that defeated Kilmarnock on the opening day, with Scott Allan and Drey Wright being replaced by Daryl Horgan and Christian Doidge. The team lined up in a 4-4-2 formation with regular number one Ofir Marciano starting in goal and a back four in front of him consisting of Paul McGinn at right-back, Ryan Porteous and Paul Hanlon at centre-back, and youngster Josh Doig at left-back. Alex Gogic partnered Joe Newell in central midfield, with Daryl Horgan starting on the left side of midfield and last week’s match-winner Martin Boyle starting on the right. New signing Kevin Nisbet partnered Welshman Christian Doidge in the attack.
Livingston also made two changes to their starting eleven with Ciaron Brown replacing Aaron Taylor-Sinclair at centre-back and Scott Robinson, who was preferred to new signing Alan Forrest in the front-three. Gary Holt’s side set up in a 3-4-3 formation, with Rangers loanee Robbie McCrorie starting in goal and in front of him was a back-three consisting of Ciaron Brown, Jon Guthrie, and Jack Fitzwater. Nicky Devlin and Efe Ambrose started in the wing-back positions, while Marvin Bartley partnered Craig Sibbald in centre midfield. Scott Pittman and Scott Robinson flanked Lyndon Dykes in a front-three.
Only two points separated these two teams last season in the Scottish Premiership table and this match proved to be a clash of similar styles, with the graphic above indicating both teams’ ability to play quick, effective, direct football through the centre of the pitch. The strikers from both teams, Nisbet and Doidge for Hibs and Dykes for Livingston, were each tasked with securing possession in the final third from long balls and unbalancing the opposition’s defensive line.
Dykes caused Hibs issues throughout the game and despite the result, the Livingston forward’s physicality and ability to commit defenders was a real thorn in the side of the Hibs defence at times, as seen in the image above. Here, Livingston are able to feed the physical striker between the lines of the Hibs defence and midfield. This causes confusion as both Hanlon and Porteous decide not to pressurise Dykes, allowing him to turn and face the goal and create a problem for the Hibs defence, which leads to Porteous conceding a free kick in a dangerous position on the edge of the box.
Dykes continued to cause problems for Hibs in the second half as seen in this image above. Similar to the example shown previously, the Livingston forward’s positioning here has enabled him to create a problem for Porteous and Hanlon. Unlike the previous example, Hanlon has committed to pressure Dykes from behind, meanwhile, fellow striker Poplatnik’s run in behind is tracked by Porteous. This opens up space which Dykes skilfully moves into by controlling the ball on his chest and then flicking the ball over his head, leaving Gogic who provided pressure in front, with no choice but to foul Dykes and concede another free-kick within shooting range.
Hibs’ success in wide areas
Having performed so well last season in a back-four, many pundits have been scratching their heads as to why Gary Holt has opted to approach the first two games of the new season with a back-three. Having only conceded eight times at home in the league for the entire 2019/20 Premiership season, Livingston had established themselves as a tough team to break down. Throughout this game on several occasions, however, Hibs took advantage of a Livingston defensive structure that is still acclimatising to this new system.
In this example, in which Horgan provides the assist for Nisbet’s first goal, Doidge had managed to flick the ball on from a Marciano goal-kick, allowing Hibs to disorganise the Livingston defence. This caused central defender Fitzwater to move out and defend wide, which he appeared to be uncomfortable doing given how Horgan was able to shift past him and cut the ball back across the face of the goal.
Livingston’s defensive issues were also apparent here, in the lead up to the penalty incident that led to Nisbet’s hat-trick. Here, right-wing back Tiffoney and right centre-back Ambrose have both been drawn out to deal with the threat posed by Doidge and Newell in the wide area. Livingston captain Bartley has covered Ambrose, but as highlighted, has left too much distance between him and his teammates, and with no Hibs player threatening the space around him, Bartley should have moved slightly wider to be in a better position to pressurise Newell and make it more difficult for him to cross the ball.
A similar situation occurred here with Boyle, whose position has drawn left centre-back Brown out wide. Gogic has attracted pressure from two Livingston players but manages to squeeze a pass through to the Australian international. Gogic continues his run beyond the Livingston defenders and combines with Boyle who is able to slip the Serbian into a cut-back position, from where he delivers an inaccurate cross.
Livingston struggling to create chances
Last season, Livingston’s aerial threat was one of the most dangerous in the league, with the team scoring nine headed goals, which was the second-highest behind league runners-up Rangers, who notched ten. In addition to this, they had the third-highest crossing accuracy (32%) in the league, behind Aberdeen (38%) and St Johnstone (34%) indicating that they pose a considerable threat from the wide areas.
Hibs’ ability to prevent Livingston from creating chances from the wide areas was key to their dominance in this game, in particular, their ability to create defensive overloads and cover key areas in the box made it difficult for Livingston to execute this part of their game plan.
Here, Livingston left wing-back Ambrose has managed to get into a crossing position, however, is unable to deliver into the box due to the pressure applied by the Hibs trio of Boyle, Gogic, and McGinn. These players’ ability to quickly apply pressure on the ball carrier forces Ambrose to play backwards and redirect the Livingston attack.
An almost identical situation is seen here where Livingston’s route into the penalty area is obstructed by the pressure applied by Boyle, Gogic, and McGinn, who are again successful in forcing Livingston backwards.
The same defensive organisation was present on the Hibs right side and in this example, the away side are able to create a 4 v 3 situation, preventing Livingston from crossing the ball into the packed penalty box. Interestingly, throughout the game, Nisbet appeared to be assisting in these situations indicating that the forward had been given instructions to prevent crosses from deep.
This image optimises Hibs’ dominance in the wide areas and illustrates the lack of space Livingston had to work with in these situations. Nisbet is again pressurising the Livingston wing-back, while Gogic and Newell are preventing any kind of central penetration. Despite Livingston managing to play in behind Boyle, McGinn’s position allows him to get across easily and stop the cross.
Despite this success, there were times where Livingston were able to deliver crosses into the box, one of which led to the home team’s penalty being awarded. However, for the most part, Hibs’ ability to cover the front post area, as seen in the two examples above, meant that only eight out of 22 crosses were met by a Livingston player.
Nisbet and Doidge causing problems
On his debut for the club, new signing Kevin Nisbet impressed with an excellent performance against Kilmarnock that saw him link well with Boyle, who accompanied him in the front two. In this match, target man Christian Doidge played alongside Nisbet and the pair caused the Livingston defence numerous problems throughout the game thanks to their link-up play and clever movements.
In this example, which led to Nisbet’s opening goal, Doidge manages to flick the ball on to Horgan, which immediately creates a 2 v 2 against the remaining Livingston central defenders. Both Nisbet and Doidge provided a physical threat at the top of the pitch that made it difficult for the Livingston back three to deal with them, as evidenced here.
On this occasion, it is Nisbet who manages to compete with the Livingston centre-back and hold the ball up. In addition, he manages to pull Guthrie wide and links with Newell, who crosses to the back post, where Boyle and McGinn combine to create a goalscoring opportunity.
Here, both strikers have moved towards the ball, which completely unbalanced the Livingston defence. Nisbet and Doidge were able to combine and the latter then played to Newell, who clipped a ball into the space in behind for McGinn to run onto.
Nisbet’s movement for his second goal was particularly impressive, as by not engaging with the Livingston centre-back, he makes himself difficult to mark and manages to peel off into the space between the two defenders and direct a header past McCrorie.
Although it is still early in the season, Jack Ross will be very encouraged by his side’s start to the new campaign, one that currently sees them sit top of the league. Nisbet’s form will also be a massive boost for a Hibs side who relied heavily on Doidge last season. It will be interesting to see how this exciting partnership fare against Dundee United on Tuesday night.
Meanwhile, Gary Holt has questioned his players’ attitudes in the opening two games of the season and will be keen to see a resurgence against fellow strugglers, Motherwell, on Wednesday in what already appears to be a crucial game for both sides.