Craig Cairns take his latest tactical look at the SPFL, with the focus on Hibernian v Rangers as well as strikers Leigh Griffiths and Graham Cummins
Hibernian 2 Rangers 1: Both sides change shape, the home side come out on top
In his pre-match interview, shortly before the top-of-the-table clash between Hibernian and Rangers, Mark Warburton insisted his team would line up in the usual 4-3-3 formation. Dominic Ball would move into midfield in place of Gedion Zelalem to bring more physicality to the side while Martyn Waghorn would start on the right of Nicky Clark in attack.
He didn’t. Instead, he lined Rangers up with a back three for the first time this season, pushing Lee Wallace and James Tavernier into more advanced roles and pairing Waghorn in attack with Clark. The change made sense given that Alan Stubbs likes to play with a front two and meant there was less risk of a two-v-two situation at the back.
Hibernian lined up with John McGinn and Liam Henderson the widest of a narrow midfield four. Neither are natural wingers and were more inclined to play narrow than to push into the space behind the Rangers wing-backs. Instead, it was Dominique Malonga and Jason Cummings who stretched the centre-backs by working the channels.
Hibernian defended deep for much of the match, allowing their opponents a lot of possession. Their two banks of four made it difficult for Rangers to get through and, other than for his attempt that was beaten away by Mark Oxley, Tavernier had one of his quieter games.
In fact, for the whole first half, the wing-backs were the only Rangers players who had any attempts on target. This was down to the way the home side defended the edge of their box, especially the way they denied Waghorn space in the areas he likes to operate in.
However, a lapse in concentration early in the second half allowed Waghorn to break free and set up Wallace to score the equaliser via a deflection off Darren McGregor. Waghorn continued to find more space than he had in the first period although he missed a good chance late on to earn a point.
Before this, Danny Wilson had been withdrawn shortly after half-time. This brings us full circle. Warburton stated pre-match that Ball, Wilson and Rob Kiernan were all starting to give his side more physicality and Hibernian won the game courtesy of a whipped corner by man-of-the-match McGinn. Had Wilson still been on the field, maybe Rangers would still have had the physical presence to defend the corner.
Overall, Rangers dominated possession and created a fair amount of chances but were unable to take advantage, partly due to an excellent performance from Oxley in the Hibernian goal. The result means there are now only five points between the sides at the top of the Ladbrokes Championship.
Griffiths a more rounded player at Celtic Park
Leigh Griffiths has started 12 league games this season and scored 11 times, taking his total up to 16 in all competitions. In Saturday’s 3-1 victory over Aberdeen, he scored twice, a few days after his excellent solo goal helped Celtic into the League Cup semi-final. He has opened the scoring in nine of the 19 matches he has started this season, including the last three.
Under the tutorage of Ronny Deila, Griffiths has become a more rounded striker. His finishing has never been in doubt - before joining Celtic he scored 28 goals in 42 appearances for a Hibernian side struggling for goals; netted a goal in 68% of his starts for Wolves and in over 50% of his appearances for Dundee and Livingston.
What has improved since his arrival at Celtic Park is his ability to lead the line as a lone striker, as well as his heading. Four of Griffiths’s 16 goals this term have come from good-quality headers, which is how he opened the scoring on Saturday. In typical Griffiths fashion, a further four have come through playing on the shoulder of the last defender and racing on to a through ball.
Griffiths has also scored three penalties, converted two cut-backs and netted a typical poacher’s goal versus Fenerbahce in the Europa League. In addition to these, he created a goal for himself in the League Cup quarter-final against Hearts.
The one other goal, which came against St Johnstone, was reminiscent of the way he frequently finished at Easter Road as a Hibernian player - drifting to the right before collecting the ball, cutting inside and thundering a strike towards goal.
Griffiths had to bide his time when he first arrived at Celtic Park and that initial patience is now paying off for the Scotland striker.
Graham Cummins has quietly been one of the most productive strikers in the Premiership
St Johnstone have now won eight of their last 11 games, including their last five away matches. On Saturday they became only the second team to defeat Hamilton Accies at New Douglas Park since February – the other side being Celtic.
They did this without suspended captain Dave Mackay and top scorer Stevie MacLean, who was rested as a precaution because of the artificial surface. Graham Cummins and Michael O’Halloran thus formed a partnership in attack and both played a huge part in the victory.
Cummins especially impressed, scoring twice before assisting O’Halloran and taking his league total to six goals and nine assists this season. His aerial ability has been crucial to St Johnstone. The Irish striker’s contribution on Saturday means that half his goals and four of his assists have been headers.
Saints still have a problem when it comes to keeping clean sheets, however. The recent shut-out in Inverness remains their only one in 17 attempts this season, though this matters little when you are scoring as much as they are. Tommy Wright’s men are now the Ladbrokes Premiership’s second-highest scorers with 27, but have conceded more goals than Inverness CT, Motherwell and Partick Thistle.