Hibs cruise past Ross County to remain in top half

Despite failing to defeat Ross County in their previous two meetings this season, Hibernian eased past last night’s visitors to secure a much needed 3-0 win. On a bitterly cold evening at Easter Road, Jack Ross’s players simply had more quality than that of their ninth place opponents.

On the same evening, Kilmarnock produced a shock 2-1 win against Rangers. As a result, anything but a win would have seen Hibernian fall into seventh and the bottom half of the table. Manager Jack Ross didn’t hold back, playing a very attack-minded team. All four of Hibs’s new signings in the January transfer window took to the field, and the early signs seemed overwhelmingly positive. Both Greg Docherty and Marc McNulty have had huge effects on the team, providing  some much needed pace. Paired with the midfield dynamism of Martin Boyle and Scott Allan, Hibernian appear to be building a team which could rise up the Scottish table over the remainder of this year.

Hibs started the game very quickly, and in only the fifth minute Boyle missed a golden opportunity to give the hosts an early lead. Following a corner, the ball was headed out to the edge of the Ross County box. From the right side, Docherty curled a ball along the floor and around the defence, only for a stretching Boyle to hit it over. 

Despite this miss, only two minutes later Hibernian took a deserved lead. Counter-attacking against an out-of-sorts County, the ball was played to Allan about ten yards inside his own half. Following a few touches, he played a perfectly weighted ball around the defence for McNulty to run onto. County goalkeeper Nathan Baxter decided to come off his line, but McNulty beat him to it, stabbing the ball past him into an open net. This was McNulty’s first league goal since returning to Hibs, and his fourth in two games following a hat-trick in the Scottish Cup.

In the 13th minute it looked as though McNulty had doubled the lead, only for his low finish to the bottom right corner to be ruled out for offside.

However, after this bright start Ross County adapted to Hibs’s attacking football and grew into the game. For large periods of the first half, the teams battled for midfield supremacy, with neither side having enough quality for sustained periods to win position and control the game.

In the 33rd minute, Hibs lost concentration and, following a ball over the top, the away team were in. Marcus Fraser pulled the ball back from the touchline, only for striker Billy McKay to shoot over the crossbar.

This moment ultimately defined much of Ross County’s performance in the match. After battling hard and playing some nice passes, the quality of the final ball was poor and as a result good chances were wasted.

A few moments later in the 41st minute, Christian Doidge headed home from a corner into the bottom left corner. Hibs had punished County for creating little and the first half ended with the hosts two up.

With no changes made by either side in the interval, the game continued in a similar vein, both teams jostling for possession of the ball. The strongest period of possession of the half arguably fell to Ross County, who supplied constant pressure down the Hibs left side in the ten minutes following the hour mark. Five crosses were sent into the box, but Hibs captain Paul Hanlon seemed to meet every ball, meaning the pressure came to nothing.

County had once again failed to create a clear cut chance despite their strenuous efforts.

In the 82nd minute, Hibernian had their opportunity to secure the three points. McNulty’s cross from the left side of the box was blocked by the hand of the defender and the referee gave a penalty without a moment’s hesitation.

After winning the penalty, McNulty stepped up to take it, only to produce a tame effort. His shot was at a good height for the keeper, not to mention far too central. As a result, Baxter saved the shot, sending it out for a corner.

The resulting corner, however, was headed home by centre back Adam Jackson following some poor marking from County. The goal made the game 3-0 and confirmed the three points for Hibs.

Jack Ross showed fans what type of football they can begin to expect from Hibs, as he set his team up aggressively, with a strong focus on attacking football. Hibs were deployed in a 3-5-2 formulation, with right wing back Boyle being given full license to neglect his defensive responsibilities and roam centrally. As a result of Boyle’s movement, Allan was deployed as a right sided attack midfielder, often covering the defensive responsibilities of his colleague.

In possession Hibs looked devastating at times. With Joe Newell and Boyle overlapping on the wings, the visitors’ back five was stretched. This allowed room for McNulty and Doidge to run in behind the County line. As a result of this movement, Allan and Doherty found themselves in acres of space in the midfield to pick the correct pass.

Hibs were successful because their back three were assured and impervious, allowing the midfield to push forward and join the attack. Constantly aiming to pass out from the back, Paul McGinn (normally a left-back) had an exemplary game as he played as the right-sided centre back. Vykintas Slivka, playing as the defensive midfielder, also had a strong showing, screening the back three and often winning the second loose ball.

Hibs showed that they could be a real force in Scottish football for years to come. Boyle’s pace and ability to drift inside onto his left foot has given the team a new dimension and has made Hibs far more exciting to watch.

Hibs will now look to push on, continuing their good form and aiming to get as high up the table as they can. Ross County, however, still remain just in touch with the relegation battle, and will need to grind out a few results to ensure safety.

Image rights: Jonathon Smith

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