Before Saturday’s third v fourth clash at Easter Road, Derek McInnes suggested onlookers would be writing off his Aberdeen team.
With only two wins in nine, no goals in three and coming off the back of a shambolic 2-0 home loss to another third-place hopeful in Livingston, there was talk a loss to Hibs could spell the end of McInnes’ close-to eight-year reign.
Another 2-0 defeat duly arrived and, bar 10 minutes or so in the first half, it always looked likely to be the case – the Dons were frequently cut open at the back and continued to look bereft of inspiration and speed when moving the ball forward.
Despite having close to 59% possession and making close to 150 more passes than their opponents over the 90 minutes, Aberdeen managed one shot on target (of 11 attempted).
Hibs had five (of 10), so it was clear which team was the more incisive and creating the better quality chances.
After the game, McInnes seemed to suggest he would not walk away from Aberdeen and would have to be removed from his position.
The question now is how much more time will chairman Dave Cormack give him to sort out the slump which has seen the Reds slip five points behind Hibs in the race for third?
Mercifully, fifth-placed Livingston’s unbeaten run ended against St Johnstone and the prospect of dropping out of the European places entirely isn’t quite as immediate.
Will Cormack allow the manager to take charge of this weekend’s home clash with sixth-placed St Mirren in the hope something will click?
What was most apparent on Saturday was Hibs’ attackers were all working to a clear plan – get the ball to Martin Boyle as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, what Aberdeen, who only have 31 goals from 27 league outings, need is a similarly defined attacking identity – like they had in the first few years of McInnes’ tenure i.e. get it forward quickly for widemen Niall McGinn and Jonny Hayes to get in behind and find striker Adam Rooney.
McInnes has spoken about the three-man defence allowing more attackers to be played in the starting 11, but it also seems to be inhibiting those creative players.
Yes, there have been injury issues and departures, but Aberdeen need a strategy which allows their available dangermen to get the ball into the final third consistently and gives them a platform from which to create chances for the likes of loan striker Fraser Hornby.
The difference in Hibs and Aberdeen’s attacks at Easter Road
It’s safe to say Martin Boyle ran Aberdeen’s back three ragged over the 90 minutes on Saturday. He only scored once from open play, his other goal a penalty, but he could’ve had four if Dons keeper Joe Lewis hadn’t saved his team on several occasions.
As soon as Hibs got the ball in midfield, Boyle was on his bike, darting in behind Tommie Hoban, Ash Taylor and Andy Considine, with neither succeeding in picking him up. Between them, Jackson Irvine and Jamie Murphy, both clear in what they needed to do, played four key passes in behind the Reds backline.
Chris Cadden could’ve also scored early in the incident where Aberdeen left-back Greg Leigh hurt his hamstring.
A look at the first half touchmap for Hibs strikers Boyle and Christian Doidge, as well as attacking midfielder Murphy and wingers Chris Cadden and Josh Doig (left), shows how often the home side had the ball in the box or near the byline in the first half.
The right side of the graphic shows the first half touchmap for Aberdeen striker Hornby, supporting players Jonny Hayes and Lewis Ferguson, as well as wing-backs Matty Kennedy and Connor McLennan. These were the players tasked with making something happen for the Dons in the opening period.
Look how the touches out wide are concentrated nowhere near the Hibs byeline, with far less activity in and around the Easter Road outfit’s box.
There was significantly less fluency and no obvious plan in Aberdeen’s attempts to attack Hibs, who, it should be stated, were also using a three-man backline.
If the space afforded Boyle wasn’t enough of an argument for Aberdeen to ditch the back three, however, and return to a back four, it was also noticeable how the Dons difference-makers struggled to get forward from their deep starting positions in contrast to their opponents.
After Leigh went off, Kennedy was at left wing-back and McLennan was a right-back, which, as wingers, seems to stifle their attacking abilities, because they are starting far further back than they would be if they were playing front of a regular full-back.
While Hibs were getting in behind the Dons’ defence time and again, the likes of Kennedy, running from deep, were hitting a brick wall 30 yards from Hibs goal and being forced into crosses from less-than-favourable positions.
Kennedy had team-best 77 touches during the 90 minutes and made 16 crosses over the course of the game, only five of which were “good” according to Opta, while sub McLennan managed just one cross before being taken off again.
Meanwhile, Hayes and Ferguson were getting the ball with their back to goal near halfway a lot of the time – not the best area of the pitch to make things happen. Hayes only completed 58.3% of his passes in the Hibs’ half. Ferguson had the most successful passes in the Hibs half, with a 75% completion rate.
Ferguson also teed up Ross McCrorie for Aberdeen’s only shot on goal and completed one other key pass over the 90 minutes. Hayes, however, who moved to right-back in the second half, had no key passes.
Hornby’s best contribution was a front-post flick-on which McLennan totally missed, while he also hit the bar with a deflected header late on.
The average position graphic tells the story of a Dons front three who spent most of their time on the halfway line trying to get the ball:
In contrast, look at the Hibs players’ average positions, on the left.
Other talking points:
Fit-again McGeouch last played in the 3-3 draw with Celtic at Pittodrie in October. How the mood has changed since then.
The Hoops draw was one of Aberdeen’s best performances this season, while last week, with losses to two rivals in the league standings, was maybe the nadir.
McGeouch did well to come in from the start and play 60 minutes in midfield.
He was tidy enough on the ball, although whether McGeouch, Lewis Ferguson and Ross McCrorie can all play in the same 11 is up for debate.
Former loanee left-back Leigh signed a short-term deal in October – while still fighting back to fitness from a leg break – playing a few times before suffering what he said was the first hamstring injury of his career.
While approaching a return to fitness again, he extended his stay until the end of the season and it appears, having only managed 10 appearances between November and now, he will now be out with another hamstring problem.
McLennan suffered the ignominy of being sub-subbed at Easter Road.
The Buchan-raised youth academy graduate was also taken off before half-time in the 2-0 midweek defeat to Livingston.
Derek McInnes, who recently handed McLennan a contract extension, insisted the decision had been tactical as Aberdeen changed shape to attack Hibs at 1-0 down in the second half.
McLennan, who was sent on at right-back and then pushed further forward, didn’t stand out as being particularly bad among the Dons’ performers.