Premiership Play-Off reaches boiling point
Craig Cairns casts his eye over the tactical successes and failures during last night's Ladbrokes Premiership play-off semi-final tie.
Regular contributor Craig Cairns casts his eye over the tactical successes and failures during last night's Ladbrokes Premiership play-off semi-final tie between Hibernian and Falkirk.
Mind-games, excuses and a healthy helping of respect for one another - common themes in the pre and post-match interviews of both Alan Stubbs and Peter Houston each time these sides have met over the last couple of seasons. More often than not events on the pitch have provided some fantastic entertainment.
The first leg of the Ladbrokes Premiership Play-Off semi-final was no different, throwing up equal amounts of goal-mouth action, tactical interest and controversy. Hibernian fielded the same eleven that progressed versus Raith Rovers on Saturday but moved Liam Henderson into the number 10 role. This meant they lined up in a diamond formation, as opposed to the narrow 4-4-2 they used versus Raith.
The last time Hibernian and Falkirk met at Easter Road, Houston started the match with Falkirk in a defensive 4-5-1 but his side were thoroughly dominated. He switched it half-time in that match and saw a marked improvement. Houston decided to retain the latter formation for the start of this match, though asked John Baird – one of the two strikers – to drop off Lee Miller and aid the midfield when out of possession.
Falkirk’s defensive display in the first half was exemplary. Their two banks of four denied the Hibs strikers space, and got back into position as quickly as a basketball team each time they conceded possession. Not only this, they executed the half-press excellently, waiting for Hibs to bring the ball over the halfway line before swarming around them. They won possession in the midfield on a number of occasions doing this.
The result was that Hibs failed to create from open play, though they still looked threatening from set-pieces. Moreover, Falkirk took one of their few chances at the other end, giving them a vital lead going into half-time.
Both teams took similar approaches in the second half, yet the game was somehow flipped on its head. Suddenly, Falkirk lost their defensive solidity while Hibernian re-emerged with flair and vigour to take advantage. They again threatened from a set-piece and then carved out their first opportunity through open play which should have been buried by Anthony Stokes.
With their tails up, Hibernian took full advantage. Henderson had been spending most of the match drifting out to either wing to link with the full-backs; for the equaliser, he got himself into the box and pounced onto Stokes’ header to finish a sweeping move.
Then, like they had been threatening to do all night, they converted Henderson corner. Darren McGregor stood behind Paul Hanlon, linking arms with his central defensive partner as they awaited Henderson’s delivery. This meant that Will Vaulks was unable to get close to McGregor in a goal-side position. It worked a treat as McGregor completely lost his marker before ferociously heading the ball in from close range.
As Hibs sought a third, the Bairns threw men forward for an equaliser. The former could so easily have been the case had referee Alan Muir awarded a penalty for David McCracken’s handball before Falkirk grabbed an equaliser through a mistake in goal from Conrad Logan, setting up the second leg to be just as captivating.