Another new year brings another Edinburgh derby. The reluctant, necessary use of an extra notch on the belt post-Christmas is as inevitable as the repeat of one of the most attritional matches in Scottish football. The fixture seems to be inescapable – even as one club suffers from insolvency and plummets to the level below, the other follows, like Tom and Jerry, Batman and Joker or a game of Nidhogg.
This season, however, each match has genuinely been captivating in its own right. Outstanding goals from Sam Nicholson and Alim Ozturk added gloss to the first couple of contests between the sides and this game was particularly intriguing – both teams had enjoyed excellent form going into the tie. Hibernian managed to take the game to Hearts of Midlothian for the second derby in a row and perhaps could have done more with the dominant play they were producing.
The first half of the game was largely dictated by the tactical circumstances. Hearts’ 4-1-4-1-cum-4-3-3 shape meant that Miguel Pallardo sat at the back of the midfield behind Morgano Gomis and Prince Buaben. But that meant the three had direct opponents from Hibs’ 4-4-2 diamond, with Danny Handling directly up against Pallardo, while Scott Allan was against Gomis and Liam Craig had Buaben. That left Scott Robertson at the base of the diamond as the spare midfielder to protect his back four, but he was actually very high up the pitch a lot of the time – that encouraged the other three to push even higher against Hearts’ central midfield and defenders. With forwards Jason Cummings and Dominique Malonga helping to chase down the back end of the Hearts team, it was difficult for the hosts to play into any kind of rhythm.
Hearts made both forced and unforced errors in their attempt to play from the back and the occasional long ball didn’t get them anywhere, with James Keatings given a thankless task on his own up front. They looked like they missed Osman Sow’s ability to win challenges in the air but also to play on the last shoulder to get behind the defence – Hibs’ high defensive line went largely untroubled with little risk of someone with pace running behind them.
The tone for the first half was set with Gomis and Buaben being robbed of the ball at least a couple of times in the first ten minutes, with Allan particularly keen on dispossessing midfielders and springing forward. Even Hearts’ right-winger Sam Nicholson felt he had to come deep infield to get a touch of the ball and he too had it nicked away from him in the opening spell.
Hibernian should have been winning 2-0 in the first 30 minutes, with incessant pressing through the middle and dominance in the wide areas putting them on top
Yet Pallardo’s screening in front of the centre of defence was sufficient enough that Hibs couldn’t play through Hearts at any stage, despite trying. Handling, Allan and Craig all looked for early balls behind the defence for the forwards to get on to, but either the pass wasn’t on or it was competently intercepted. Instead, the threat came from the flanks with full-backs David Gray and Lewis Stevenson providing the width by pushing particularly high. But the goal came from a whipped cross by Allan behind the defence from the perimeter of the 18-yard box, which tested Alim Ozturk’s positioning – Cummings sneaked in to cushion the cross past Neil Alexander after 23 minutes. It wasn’t too long after where Stevenson had the time to pick out Cummings with a far post cross between centre-back and full-back, but Cummings aimed for the wrong side of goal and failed to find the target. It really ought to have been 2-0 to Hibs in the first 30 minutes, with incessant pressing through the middle and dominance in the wide areas putting them on top.
Hearts were missing a trick, tactically speaking. The centre of their midfield was more than matched, but they had the numerical advantage on the flanks. Yet they weren’t making the most of that: any system using a midfield diamond relies on its full-backs to cover the length of the pitch, but if they are pinned back then the rest of that attacking unit remains far too narrow and predictable. Not only that, but without having wide midfielders in front to protect them, they can become quickly outnumbered. However, Hibs’ full-backs had the freedom to attack for most of the first half and, in Stevenson’s case, a fair portion of the second.
What Hearts needed to do was to use the switch in play from flank to flank, to quickly expose Hibs out wide. They were reluctant to do so, though, with all of Pallardo, Gomis and Buaben looking to pass the ball centrally. When full-backs Callum Paterson and Mark Eckersley had the ball, they wouldn’t look infield to their midfielders to get the ball to the other flank quickly, rather they would play balls down the touchline which were relatively comfortable for Hibs to deal with.
It was only after 31 minutes that Jamie Walker had Hearts’ first meaningful shot in the match, missing at the near post from inside the box. It wasn’t a coincidence that the chance arrived from Paterson and Nicholson combining on the right-hand side, leading to Nicholson attacking Stevenson to get to the byline. A couple of minutes later, Pallardo played his first big switch in the game to the right-hand side and Hearts were gradually getting back into the game.
Hearts’ capacity for scoring spectacular goals in testing circumstances never ceases to surprise
The equaliser on 40 minutes still felt a little against the run of play, but it at least followed the tactical theme of the match. Paterson’s poorly executed cross into the box was sliced clear only to Eckersley, with both of Hearts’ full-backs high up the pitch to suppress Hibs on the flanks. Eckersley held the width and played Walker inside, who hit a trademark curling strike into the top corner from outside the box. Hearts’ capacity for scoring spectacular goals in testing circumstances never ceases to surprise, but if they were to win this game they needed to take inspiration from the success they were starting to get in two-versus-one situations on the flanks.
It looked like that pattern might have followed in the second half, with Nicholson immediately going at Stevenson again to send a ball to the far post towards Eckersley. Midway through the second half, Paterson had Malonga tracking back all the way to the Congolese forward’s left-back area to try to prevent the overload on that side. But, for the most part, Hearts didn’t take advantage of these areas as much as they ought to.
Instead, Stevenson pushed Paterson back more than the other way around. Callum Booth replaced Gray on the other side at half-time and while Booth did an adequate job, he wasn’t as influential as Gray was. Gray’s groin injury is being delicately managed, but Stevenson’s effort in the second half made up for it.
The intensity of Hibs’ pressing naturally dropped as the match went on. The contest was even and broken up with lots of niggling fouls by both teams, punctuated by misplaced passes and sudden turnovers in possession. Yet there were still some interesting sub-plots to follow. Pallardo’s lack of power was shown up on occasion, once allowing Malonga to breeze past him at the byline. Allan’s positional play and passing were worth watching. Stevenson’s crossing was pretty good throughout, but betting on when the inevitable shank will come always pays out at some point. Hearts still occasionally found gaps behind Hibs’ full-backs and one wonders if Billy King could have done greater damage if he was given more time on the pitch.
The quality of the football dipped in the second half compared to the first, but there were two memorable moments in the final 20 minutes. Both were crosses that might ordinarily set up the winning goal, but were defended excellently: Allan’s cute dink for Cummings at the far post was only just stretched clear by Paterson, while Eckersley’s cross for Keatings with eight minutes to go was also expertly dealt with. After that, Hibs rallied again with a number of crosses played into the box from the byline, but couldn’t find the winning goal.
A draw was broadly the fair result on the balance of the second-half proceedings. Hearts escape to fight another day while Hibs know that they can go toe-to-toe with the best in the division. A point each is a respectable result in the grand scheme of things. The outcome maintains Hearts’ tremendous unbeaten streak in the league campaign so far, despite not playing as the better team in the last two derbies, while it sustains Hibs’ excellent run of form beginning at their 3-1 win at Rangers at the end of September. Neither team would look out of place in the division above on current evidence.
Man of the Match: Scott Allan (Hibernian)
Scott Allan was crucial to Hibs playing the game positively. He played on the side of the diamond, but marauded forward to steal the ball from the Hearts midfielders, and his passing was tidy at worst and game-changing at best. His cross for Cummings’s goal was put into just the right area for the forward to get the better of Ozturk. His use of deep free-kicks was uncharacteristically disappointing, but the rest of his play was excellent and he has become an indispensable part of Hibs’ recent success.