Livingston 1-4 Hibernian: Nightmare For Livi as Nisbet Nets Hat-Trick
The Tony Macaroni Arena welcomed back competitive football for the first time since the dramatic 2-2 draw between Livingston and Celtic on the 4th of March, a mere 157 days ago. Livingston would be looking to bounce back from a disappointing performance against St Mirren as they welcomed Hibs, who were victorious against Kilmarnock on the opening weekend. The two sides have had close encounters since Livi regained top-flight status, with only one occasion having either side win by more than a single goal.
Livi would make two changes to the side that faced St Mirren, with Alan Forrest and Aaron Taylor-Sinclair dropping out for Scott Robinson and Ciaran Brown, whilst Efe Ambrose remained at left wing-back for some reason. Hibs would welcome back last season's top scorer Christian Doidge as well as room for energetic midfielder Daryl Horgan who replaced Scott Allan and Drey Wright.
It wouldn't be a close encounter though, as Hibs commanded a convincing win over their Lothian counterparts, a stunning first-half display sending the Leith side well on their way to a 4-1 away victory. Two Daryl Horgan crosses were met by new signing Kevin Nisbet as Christian Doidge also netted eventually following a corner, all within the space of 17 minutes of one another. A 3-0 lead at half time put Hibs in cruise control and despite a Lyndon Dykes penalty, Hibs were able to come through strong, netting a penalty of their own with the impressive Nisbet earning his hat-trick. On the day, it was an excellent performance by Hibs who have flexed their muscles with new signings shining brightly, earning a thoroughly well deserved three points.
As for Livi, this performance would be even more disappointing than the previous, with similar issues appearing yet again for the Lions on a dreadful afternoon. Even more worrying is how the defensive unit that many have feared to face seems a complete shadow of themselves.
17 Minutes Of Hell
As mentioned before, a spell of 17 minutes made all the difference in this game as the damage done by Hibs was irreversible. However, Livi certainly didn't help themselves and the damage done is equally the blame of a shocking defensive display. 3 goals all within the 6-yard box to an unmarked player, if you're going to defend like that at this level, you're going to suffer the consequences. Last week, Livi succumbed to a lack of concentration where a moment of quality from Jamie McGrath picked out Richard Tait as the Lions defence went to sleep. The same can clearly be seen here, especially with the first two goals. The first is an astonishing piece of play as a low driven cross manages to evade the Livi defence as Kevin Nisbet was left with an easy tap in.
As the ball comes in from Horgan, Nicky Devlin is trying to recover for Jack Fitzwater who is putting pressure on the Irishman out wide but is unable to get back in time. Even more worrying, is that the standing positions of the two other Livingston centre-backs is not up to standard. It seems as if there was slight overconfidence that Horgan's cross would be blocked as Guthrie and Brown both stand completely flat-footed with poor body positioning. The two would soon be punished, as that extra yard they could have easily gathered with better concentration would have made it easy for a block. However, the position the two ended up in meant that neither could really challenge for the ball, risking an own goal in the process. Due to this, Nisbet ends up with the easiest goal he'll score this season as Livi have again shown an unusual lack of concentration in their own box. Despite the criticism of the Livi defence, huge credit has to go to Daryl Horgan here as it is an exceptional cross. Low driven and at that pace into the corridor of uncertainty, it couldn't have been delivered any better as the winger returned to the starting 11.
Goal 2 is worse in terms of Livi's defending with Ryan Porteous running toward the Livingston goal from centre back. You really have to feel for Nicky Devlin in this passage of play, with the right-back (left of the drawn diamond) as he is offered zero protection. As Porteous rampages through the middle, he's stuck in two mindsets, whether to cover the space which then offers an easy pass forward for the wide player or to allow Porteous to continue on with his run. His closest centre half, Jack Fitzwater, is too far away from Devlin and not marking anyone in this passage of play, the striker in frame being "occupied" by the off-screen Jon Guthrie. As well as this, Marvin Bartley finds himself in no mans land, not marking anyone and not exactly bursting a gut in order to stop the danger. Both Fitzwater and Bartley do nothing to support Devlin and due to this, he has to push out, leaving a clear and easy pass out wide to Daryl Horgan, who had already showcased danger down the left flank.
Last week against St Mirren, I highlighted how a couple of seconds in football can make all the difference, with the example used coming from the goal Livingston conceded that weekend from a cross. What will worry fans and Gary Holt is the similarities between goals scored in successive weekends. The way Devlin was forced to somewhat neglect Horgan to stop the marauding Porteous allows the winger to take a touch and get his head up with no real pressure on him. From here, he'd yet again let his quality of delivery cause havoc, with a dangerous ball being put into the box toward eager attackers and sleeping defenders. From the image below, you can start to see a similar sight to last weekend, an attacker finding himself unmarked between defenders as a cross is about to be shipped in.
As expected from Nisbet beginning to peel off Guthrie, the eventual cross makes its way into the 6-yard box where Guthrie is caught under the ball. As he hasn't stuck close to his man, Nisbet is left with a free header as Ciaron Brown makes a last-ditch attempt to make up for the prior slack defending but is unsuccessful. Unsurprisingly and deservedly so, Livi are punished for two instances of not recognising danger, something Gary Holt will be tearing his hair out over. What makes this situation all the more concerning is the lack of recovery by the Livi midfield. Bartley was highlighted for not recognising the danger from Porteous and didn't do anything to make up for this in a positional sense and within the box, you can see Craig Sibbald a few yards off a Hibs attacker who would be the first to react to a potential knockback.
The third goal certainly isn't any easier on the eyes, with a corner coming in ending up with three Livi and two Hibs players eventually ending up on the deck immediately. A bunch of players run into one another but again, Livingston get caught napping. The highlighted Jack Fitzwater doesn't seem to be in a bad position to begin with in order to deal with the incoming danger.
But for some strange reason as the ball comes closer into the box, he stands flat-footed with his legs spread out further than before, meaning he is disadvantaged immediately to run towards the ball or to keep up with his man due to his shocking take-off position. This is instantly worrying for a defence, especially considering the Hibs attacker Paul Hanlon hasn't used any great deal of trickery in order to get away from Fitzwater and the cross itself isn't exceptionally delivered.
As expected by the poor starting position from Fitzwater, he ends up having to play catch up to Hanlon and the only way he can compete for the ball is with a risky high right foot. In this instance where he is jumping to meet the ball, he is really lucky to not give away a penalty for dangerous play. Fortunately for the defender, he manages to get away with this but the ball drops down in front of the pile of bodies, failing to clear the danger at all.
As the ball drops down, Livi are again slack in responding to danger and half-heartedly are attracted to the ball. The Hibs player on the ball is one of the players who wound up on the ground as you can still see two Livingston players still on their knees. The recovery of these two players is not good or nearly quick enough as they are simply ball watching and in no rush to get back defending and putting their bodies in front of the ball. Meanwhile, as this all happens, a certain Hibs striker is left alone in the 6-yard-box onside with nobody close to him. The player in question is Kevin Nisbet who for a third time in 17 minutes has managed to evade the Lions defence in the 6-yard-box, set for another easy tap in.
On this occasion, Nisbet fluffs his lines but his strike partner, Christian Doidge, is on hand to put the ball into the back of the net to make it 3-0. And yes, that is yet another player free within the 6-yard-box as the entire Livi team, coaches and fans would have been watching in disbelief. A total lack of concentration and organised defending has seen the Lion's defensive prowess of recent years suddenly vanish in the space of two games.
I could look more into other factors on how this game was decided but it really doesn't get much more simple than this. Sometimes you can make errors defensively and you'll be bailed out but if for a period of time, you continue to make the same mistakes, you're not going to get anywhere. I don't recall seeing such a shoddy defensive performance as the way Livi's 6-yard-box was constantly threatened with little pressure is embarrassing. Playing with a back 5 and yet on many occasions, Hibs were easily allowed to walk through for simple tap ins. Big improvement needed and fast for Livi.
The way that Livi have defended in these past two games will send alarm bells to some. There is a clear difference in the way the team is operating for some reason or another. Perhaps it is a lack of match sharpness/awareness that they need time to fully catch up on - in previous seasons they've used the Betfred Cup (succeeding in the group stages but with unconvincing narrow wins over lower league opposition) and first few games of the season to dust the cobwebs off after returning from pre-season. This may be an example of Livi still trying to get up to speed things as usual but at the same time, the other Premiership sides aren't showcasing such poor defensive displays. The Lions were hit with 4 goals on Saturday, half of what they conceded at home last season already and the first time they'd conceded as many at home since September 2015 where Greenock Morton ran out 4-2 winners. Livi need to work something out fast as their next fixtures bring ties against Motherwell, Aberdeen and Rangers, three of the four teams who finished above the Lions last season. It's early season but precedents can be set early on and Livi won't want to get comfortable towards the foot of the table.
As for Hibs, full credit has to go to Jack Ross' side as they capitalised on every error Livi made and produced great quality whenever they needed to. A thoroughly deserved victory and have sent out a statement that they are deadly going forward and teams will need to be at their best defensively to keep the likes of Nisbet, Doidge and Boyle at bay. The Hibees face Dundee United tonight which should probably be a tougher test for the Edinburgh side but they'll be full of confidence after an exceptional victory at the Tony Macaroni Arena. Hibs look good and with Livi, Motherwell and Aberdeen faltering, they are looking strong candidates for that third-place finish - I know it's only 2 games in.