Hibs Should Welcome the Era of Doidgeball

Last summer, Christian Doidge became one of Hibs’ most expensive signings. Arriving for a transfer fee of around £250,000, the 27-year-old striker was expected to get goals right away. But he didn’t. In his first nine league outings, Doidge failed to find the back of the net. Worse than that, he missed several chances from one-on-one situations.

His finishing was lackadaisical, his decision-making was questionable, and he appeared to lack confidence. Quickly, he became a bit of a running joke. Some even described him as ‘the new James Collins’ – a reference to the last six-figure striker Hibs signed from the English lower leagues who couldn’t hit the proverbial cow’s arse.

But while people laughed at Doidge spurning chances, they failed to notice the fact he was getting them on an almost weekly basis.

The Welshman consistently found himself in good positions to score. Eventually, he started converting. By the season’s premature end only Odsonne Edouard and Jermain Defoe had scored more than his 12 league goals, none of which were penalties. Hibs finally had a striker they could confidently build their attack around.

This leads on to a couple of pertinent questions: (1) how on Earth did Doidge turn things around so dramatically? And (2) what does this mean for Hibs next season and beyond?

The art of chance-getting

Doidge isn’t fast enough to regularly out-pace defenders. He isn’t so skilful that he can work shooting chances for himself, or powerful enough a finisher to score from long range. However, what he does have is excellent movement.

In a brilliant article for The Ringer in 2018, analytics consultant Bobby Gardiner broke down Raheem Sterling’s improved scoring record. Sterling had been lambasted as a poor finisher in the past, but here Gardiner explained that this wasn’t the be-all and end-all, concluding that: “Being a top goal scorer is less about taking the chances, and much more about getting them in the first place.”

Following the sacking of Paul Heckingbottom, Doidge started scoring for fun. To some, the easy narrative to latch onto would be that Heckingbottom was holding the striker back. There may be something in this, which we’ll explore later in this article. But it wasn’t all about the change in manager.

Even in the midst of his nine-game goalless run, Doidge showcased an ability to find dangerous locations in penalty boxes. He got into these positions thanks to the quality and timing of his runs.

Below is a scene from his second league start for Hibs, at home to St Johnstone. We see him circled.

As Scott Allan receives the ball, Doidge makes his move to try and get in behind the opposition’s last line.

His first decision is to get between the two remaining defenders, which is clever. If he simply moved into the space to his left, he could be easily tracked by the nearest defender while the other one covered. By instead moving between them he gets on the blind side of the nearest defender and leaves the space open for Allan to play a through ball that he can run onto.

Allan obliges, Doidge gets in behind the last line, and only the goalkeeper stands between him and a goal. On this occasion, he doesn’t connect cleanly with the ball and the keeper makes a fairly comfortable save.

A similar scenario unfolded weeks later, away to Aberdeen. As seen below, Doidge is up against a slightly more aggressive defensive line that wants to step up and play offside when possible. Here he times his run between the Aberdeen centre-backs and is released into the space behind by a through ball.

Unfortunately, once 1v1 with Joe Lewis, Doidge fluffs his lines. With time to take a few touches he perhaps overthinks things and ends up shooting straight at Lewis. To add to the frustration of missing this glorious chance, he misses the opportunity to set up Allan for a probable tap-in. Glenn Middleton can be seen pointing towards Allan, imploring Doidge to square it.

Matt Rhein over at Modern Fitba pointed out that, around this time, Doidge was under-performing his xG (Expected Goals). In other words, he wasn’t scoring as many goals as he should have. The above missed chances were a big reason behind this. But he wasn’t always being spotted by teammates.

In the game against St Johnstone, Doidge showed his intelligence on attacking crosses. Unfortunately, the crosses didn’t come.

Below we see him moving on the blind side of a defender while Hibs advance down the right through Florian Kamberi. When Kamberi plays the ball wide for David Gray, Doidge makes his run across the defender to get on the end of the cross. But Kamberi’s pass is under-hit and Gray is tackled before he can pick out Doidge’s run.

Doidge didn’t get any credit for this bit of good movement because the ball never came his way. He didn’t even get the chance to, well, miss a chance. But again he was causing problems for defenders and getting into good positions.

A change in manager, tactics and…luck?

In the first game after Heckingbottom’s departure, Doidge scored a hat-trick. After the match, he didn’t talk about big changes in style. Instead, he mentioned that he had been doing the right things for weeks and just not getting that finishing touch. “Under the old manager I was getting into good positions but not putting the ball in the net,” he said.

There was a slight tactical shift once Heckingbottom left. Eddie May was in charge for Doidge’s hat-trick game, and he brought in a 4-4-2 diamond that saw Doidge partnered by Kamberi up top. In 11 league games in charge this term, Heckingbottom only used this strike partnership once. Generally, he preferred a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-5-1 with Doidge or Kamberi leading the line on their own.

May’s 4-4-2 diamond worked so well that Jack Ross kept it when he took charge. The Doidge-Kamberi duo continued, and Doidge continued to score. This system also allowed Allan to play his preferred free role behind the strikers, and the three-man midfield helped mask the lack of natural ball-winners through sheer numbers.

But while Doidge started to score goals, the things he was doing in the final third to get those goals were essentially the same as before. In fact, his second goal in the hat-trick against St Johnstone looked a lot like the scenario we looked at against the same team earlier in the campaign.

Hibs went down the right and Doidge got on the blind side of his defender before attacking the cross in. The only difference on this occasion is that the cross actually comes in.

Of Doidge’s 12 league goals, half of them were headers from crosses. Two other goals came from him making intelligent runs in behind and latching onto through balls, and another two were straightforward tap-ins. The above goal against St Johnstone came from good movement to attack a cross and finish with his feet, rather than his head.

To be honest, the only goal that involved unorthodox finishing came against Livingston at Easter Road, where Doidge – with his back to goal – angled his body to deflect home a driven cross into the box.

Almost all of Doidge’s goals are built on one or a combination of the following factors:

1) His movement to find good positions.

2) His timing to arrive at the correct moment.

3) His ability to head the ball.

Of his 12 goals, 11 were one-touch finishes. The only one that wasn’t one-touch involved two touches – one to take it around the goalkeeper, the other to finish. What this underlines is that his scoring record is all about getting into position to apply that one final touch.

Maybe it was an upturn in luck, maybe it was what data analysts call ‘reverting to the mean’. Simply put, Doidge had been getting chances since he arrived in Scotland, only now he was taking them.

Doidge’s all-round game

Some goal scorers are virtually redundant outside the penalty box. This isn’t the case with Doidge. Even when he wasn’t finishing, he was contributing to the team in other ways. During the striker’s drought, Heckingbottom defended him by saying: “We want him to play to his strengths, get us up the pitch and use his aerial threat and be the one linking the play and holding the ball.”

Doidge did all of this fairly well. He won 39.3% of his aerial duels this season, which according to Wyscout data puts him among the most efficient target men in the Premiership. While he lacks the pace to run the channels, he was hard to beat in the air.

He also showed some quality under pressure, holding onto the ball and laying it off to teammates. He virtually never turned to dribble – even when un-marked he was reluctant to turn – so if there were no support runs made off him, possession basically had to restart. But there were fleeting glimpses of good combination play with Allan, like in the situation below.

Here, against Livingston, Allan plays it to Doidge and runs forward to receive the return pass. Doidge draws the defender out, flicks the ball into Allan’s path, and Allan could then dribble into the space created.

When he was still settling in Scotland and goals were hard to come by, Doidge showed other aspects of his game that could be of value. It was evident that he could prove useful in the right system, and when the goals eventually started to flow he became un-droppable.

The question now is: How do Hibs get the best out of him?

Doidgeberi or Doidgenulty?

After Jack Ross’ appointment as manager, Hibs mostly lined up with a front two. Ross started by keeping the 4-4-2 diamond and ended the season with a 3-4-1-2 which allowed for the same dynamic of two strikers with Allan between the lines. These systems allowed for better progression, with an extra striker alongside Doidge and Allan to aim for with forward passes.

Playing in a front two helped Doidge in build-up by ensuring he had more support around him to link play when he received with his back to goal. However, the dynamic changed depending on who he played with.

Kamberi brings pace, directness and lateral movement to the frontline, running the channels and offering an option for the long ball into space behind. Alongside the Swiss, Doidge had more responsibility in build-up as Kamberi doesn’t really want to go short and receive back to goal. However, Kamberi’s tendency to pull wide in the final third helped stretch defences and allowed Doidge to concentrate on attacking space in the penalty box.

When Kamberi left for a loan spell with Rangers in January, Marc McNulty returned to Easter Road as his replacement. McNulty isn’t as quick as Kamberi, but he is more inclined to drop off and show for the ball to feet rather than spinning off and running in behind. This eased the responsibility on Doidge in build-up, and the pair combined nicely on a few occasions, most noticeably in the win over Kilmarnock.

Here we see a ball into the front two from wide right. McNulty positions himself in front of Doidge as if to receive it, then steps over the ball. Doidge receives and McNulty quickly turns to offer the lay-off. If there were a run in behind from Allan or someone else, McNulty could then play a through ball to them, but unfortunately nobody made the run.

However, while McNulty’s combination play in tight spaces was better than Kamberi’s, his instincts in the final third are very similar to Doidge’s. McNulty, like Doidge, wants to be the striker getting on the end of moves. He’s less likely to drift wide and take defenders on or cross, and more likely to try and time a run behind the back line and apply the finishing touch.

The stats back this stylistic comparison up. According to Wyscout data (not everyone’s favourite data, I know, but still), Kamberi averaged twice as many dribbles and crosses as McNulty this season.

It’s difficult to say which strike partner suited Doidge better. Kamberi and McNulty are very different players who complement Doidge in very different ways. But it may be the case that neither partners Doidge next season.

Kamberi described his loan move to Rangers as a dream he had since coming to Scotland, so it’s hard to see Hibs fans welcoming him back in Edinburgh next season. As for McNulty, his second loan spell at Hibs didn’t go as well as his first. He scored just one goal in six outings, and there’s no guarantee that’s enough to convince Hibs to sign him again.

The finisher and the playmaker

Other than Celtic’s trio of Edouard, James Forrest and Ryan Christie, no Premiership player claimed more assists this season than Scott Allan’s eight. When it comes to splitting a defence or spotting a run, few in Scotland are better at it than the Hibs playmaker. With him and Doidge available, Jack Ross has a seriously productive 9 and 10 duo to utilise. Perhaps Hibs don’t need Kamberi or McNulty.

While Ross preferred a 4-4-2 diamond or 3-4-1-2, there are other ways to get Allan in his preferred role between the lines. One option is to go back to the 4-2-3-1 Heckingbottom used. The 4-2-3-1 was all but discarded when Hibs changed managers, with some fans wanting to see Doidge and Kamberi playing together. They got their wish for a strike partnership, but it may not be the answer in future.

Doidge and Allan connected well at times in their first season together. Arguably their best game came in the draw with St Mirren in February, where Hibs lined up in a 4-2-3-1. In that match Allan made a real effort to get close to Doidge and offer a lay-off option to the striker, while he also came close to setting Doidge up with a precise through ball.

An interesting aspect of Hibs’ attacking play seen in this game was how the wingers can help stretch defences. One example of this is seen below, with Boyle on the right and Horgan on the left taking up wide positions outside St Mirren’s back four. Allan is trying to find pockets of space between the lines, while Doidge is looking to attack the gap between St Mirren’s centre-backs.

Playing this expansively, with two quick wingers on either side and Allan roaming between the lines, will only help to pull apart defensive lines and create more space for Doidge to do what he does best – make runs in behind. If the full-backs narrow, there’s space for Boyle and Horgan to attack outside them. If they try and stay close to the Hibs wingers, there’s more space in the channels for Doidge.

Another quandary is whether the centre-backs should go with Allan or stay and reduce the space behind for Doidge. If they leave Allan, he can get free to receive and play penetrative passes. But if a centre-back goes with Allan, there’s one less defender to deal with Doidge’s movement. An example of this is seen below against Hearts. Allan ‘shows’ and Doidge ‘goes’, and Hibs nearly play the striker into the space behind the Hearts back line.

It’s also worth remembering that over half of Doidge’s 12 goals this season came from crosses. Playing with two wingers and two full-backs as opposed to just two full-backs gives more options in wide areas and opens up greater possibility for crosses into the box. Doidge has proven he is good at attacking crosses in the air or along the ground, so Hibs should be looking to create more of these situations next season.

Wider implications of the Doidge-Allan combination in a 4-2-3-1

Let’s say Hibs go with Doidge as a lone striker and Allan supporting with Boyle and Horgan on either side. What are the implications of this setup on the rest of the team? And what does it mean for Hibs in terms of recruitment?

Firstly, Ross needs to find a way of getting the best out of Horgan. The Irishman has pace and he is hard to predict due to the fact he is comfortable going around the outside or cutting inside off the flank. However, he didn’t offer much this season in terms of dribbling or end product, and if he can’t get back to the form of his early days at Easter Road Hibs may need to sign another winger.

There are more important areas to strengthen, though. Firstly, Hibs need someone who can win the ball to anchor their midfield. Since Marvin Bartley left they haven’t really found a proper replacement to break up attacks through interceptions, tackles, pressing and fouling, and it’s vital that they do this soon. Melker Hallberg needs a viable partner in a two-man midfield – his energy and work rate isn’t enough on its own.

Another area needing improvement is central defence. Ryan Porteous shows promise but needs to curb his reckless tackling tendencies to play consistently without injury or suspension. That leaves Adam Jackson as the only Hibs centre-back comfortable playing out from the back. Paul Hanlon and Darren McGregor are both in their 30s and slowing, and both are very much inclined to play the long ball under pressure.

With a proper ball-winner at the base of midfield, Hibs would be able to play more expansively, with full-backs supporting natural wingers and Allan behind Doidge, and not be so concerned about being opened up on the counter. And with centre-backs that are comfortable on the ball and able to play accurately into midfield, they could break the lines more and get into situations where Allan and Doidge can combine and penetrate.

The only remaining concern would be pressing. Doidge works hard, but on his own he lacks the pace to apply serious pressure to opposition build-up. He needs support, and Allan probably isn’t the best man to provide it. Hibs could take inspiration from Motherwell here.

Motherwell press in a 4-3-3 with one striker supported by wingers, who take it in turns stepping up to help in pressing. It’s fair to assume that opponents would be a lot less keen on passing along the back line if Boyle and Horgan were pressing forward in this way on sideways passes between centre-backs.

No matter what happens next, Doidge has proven himself as a goal scorer. Indeed, he’s the first striker Hibs have had since Leigh Griffiths to break double figures in the Premiership. He’s also proven himself an effective focal point for attacks with his combination of movement to get behind, ability to attack crosses, aerial strength and hold-up play.

Hibs have lacked a clear identity for a while. When they plan to solve this in the months ahead, Doidge should be one of the first players they think about.

Blair Newman is a freelance scout and writer who has worked for several SPFL clubs and major publications, including the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and the Herald. If you’d like to hire him, his email is blairn22@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @thesecondball

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