Hibernian dominate in midfield at Tynecastle
The first League Cup semi-final, presented by Utilita, was always going to be decided in the midfield area. St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright had confirmed in the run-up that Murray Davidson and Chris Millar were major doubts, though both started the match on Saturday.
Hibernian usually line up in a narrow four, with Liam Henderson and John McGinn operating as shuttlers, and at first glance it seemed this is how they would set up. Alan Stubbs instead decided to go with a diamond formation, asking Henderson to play behind his lively front pairing of Jason Cummings and Chris Dagnall.
Stubbs’s side dominated this area in both quality and in number. McGinn pestered the Saints defence with his driving runs from the left, Henderson found space between the defensive and midfield lines, while Fraser Fyvie remained slightly further back, always keeping it simple.
Dylan McGeouch started on the right of the diamond but held a more conservative position than McGinn on the opposite flank, rarely venturing forward and effectively covering as a holding midfielder.
In a first half lacking in many clear-cut chances, it was from set-pieces that both sides got on the scoresheet. Hibernian opened the scoring through a disputed penalty before Joe Shaughnessy replied four minutes later following the breakdown of a free-kick.
In a surprise move, Michael O’Halloran started up front alongside Steven MacLean, rather than his usual berth on the right. The former Celtic youth has garnered 10 assists this season, eight of which are a result of finding space behind the opposition full-back and driving a low cross in front of the goal.
He played the central striker role to devastating effect in an earlier round at Ibrox but was up against a higher defensive line on that occasion. Hibernian did not push their defenders up as aggressively as Rangers did on that evening, meaning there wasn’t as much space for O’Halloran to run into.
The match opened up more in the second half but St Johnstone were still at their most dangerous from set-pieces and were unlucky not to take the lead when Simon Lappin struck the bar from a free-kick. It was Hibs who created more chances from open play in the second period, effectively counter-attacking and slipping through balls to their attackers. The match was won when McGinn pounced on a loose ball to thunder it home, but his side had several other opportunities to score which they should have converted.
Schalk and Woods combine for all three County goals
Gary Mackay-Steven played himself into contention after a double versus St Johnstone the previous week and he and Leigh Griffiths caused problems with their pace from the off in the second Scottish League Cup semi-final. The pair linked to take advantage of the space behind the Ross County defence within 30 seconds of kick-off and Griffiths almost got in again minutes later.
As they have done in the previous meetings between the sides this season, Ross County ditched their strike partnership in favour of another body in central midfield. Alex Schalk started as the lone striker ahead of a three-man central midfield containing Jackson Irvine, Martin Woods and Ian McShane. Stewart Murdoch started on the right in favour of a natural winger – as they normally do – possibly with an eye on containing Kieran Tierney’s runs from full-back.
This also spelled a change in style from what we’ve usually come to expect from County. Previously known for getting the ball wide and crossing into the box at every opportunity, they instead looked to use Schalk as a link man and to feed through balls into him. A Woods pass was flicked on by the faintest of touches from Irvine, putting Schalk through on goal. This led to a penalty – which was converted by Woods – and to the dismissal of Efe Ambrose.
Schalk made similar runs against Aberdeen a few weeks back and, on that occasion, drew a comparable foul which ended in a red card for Mark Reynolds. Unlike then, on this occasion, Jim McIntyre’s side were able to make their numerical advantage count.
Murdoch was then booked for a challenge on Tierney and was soon replaced by speedy winger Jonathan Franks. Though it is unclear whether it was due to the booking or to give County a more attacking edge due to their man advantage, it allowed them to stretch the play more.
Woods and Schalk were both involved in Paul Quinn’s goal shortly after half-time which gave County the lead. Woods floated in a corner kick while Schalk got in the way of Craig Gordon.
The duo then combined for the third when Schalk raced on to Woods’s through ball before expertly firing the ball beyond the Celtic goalkeeper. County’s change in formation failed to bear any fruit in the previous meetings between the sides this season but the selection of Schalk, along with the change in strategy, certainly did on this occasion.
This was initially published at spfl.co.uk on 04/02/16 as part of my weekly column.