Are Hibs better without Anthony Stokes in the starting XI?
The Easter Road side have won three games on the bounce, defeating Hearts, Motherwell and Kilmarnock in a terrific seven-day spell to move them into third place in the Ladbrokes Premiership. They achieved those results without the aid of their leading scorer going into that tricky trio of fixtures, one Anthony Stokes.
Context should be taken into account. In the previous four games before the Hearts match, Hibs played Celtic twice, Aberdeen and Ross County. They still won the match they were favourites to win (Ross County) and drew at the home of the champions. Having said that, this period did come off a frustrating spell where they failed to defeat Hamilton, Dundee, St Johnstone and Motherwell in successive league games.
It’s a small sample size, so we really shouldn’t read too much into them. But seeing as this is football fandom and we read too much into everything, let’s take a look at the win percentage in the league with regards to Stokes and team-mate Simon Murray.
Both Murray and Stokes start: 33 per cent (two from six)
Only Murray: 100 per cent (four from four)
Only Stokes: 0 per cent (zero from two)
Again, small sample size - it should also be noted that Stokes’ two games alone were against Celtic and Aberdeen - but it does enough to raise the question.
The Irish striker re-signed for his former club in the summer following his exit from Blackburn Rovers. It’s fair to say the move has worked out well for everyone involved. Stokes has netted seven goals in all competitions thus far and his play has been of a strong standard. So why have results picked up without him?
If correlation implies causation in this case, then it would be down to how the rest of the team is constructed.
The biggest difference in Murray and Stokes from the way they each play the striker position relates to their movement. Murray likes to hit the channels and run in behind. Stokes, meanwhile, likes to drop short. It changes the manner in the way Hibs can approach the opposition. They like to pass around teams if possible, but Murray gives them the option of the up-and-under. John McGinn is especially adept at dropping the ball on to a penny from 40 yards, and when he and Murray are in the same side it’s a little like quarterback and receiver watching one trying to search for the other downfield.
Murray also fits the profile of the other attackers who’ve been in the Hibs starting XI of late: Brandon Barker and Martin Boyle. Both men are wingers with a lot of space to burn, particularly Boyle, and Murray’s not exactly lacking in that department either. The trio in a three-man spread or 4-4-2 diamond with Barker at the tip is a lightning quick attack.
Murray also leads by example from the front with his defensive work. The 25-year-old will happily run all day. So much so that Neil Lennon has told him to reign it in a little so he hasn’t tired himself out before it comes time to do the most important aspect of his job, and that’s put the ball in the back of the net. Even still, while he’s not the type of striker who can drag the team up the park with his hold up play, he can force opposing defences into mistakes, thereby giving Hibs possession in an advanced area.
Stokes and Murray, aside from the pair lacking aerial prowess, should compliment each other very well as a strike-force. They’re the buddy-cop formula: Murray is the grafter, the eager by-the-book rookie; Stokes is the maverick, doing it all by his own rules but DAMMIT he gets results. The reason why it’s not led to more victories relates to the team around them. A two-man attack either moves one of Marvin Bartley, Dylan McGeouch and John McGinn - arguably the best midfield trio in the league outside Celtic Park - either to the bench or out of position. Meanwhile, there isn’t room for both Barker and Boyle in the starting XI.
There’s also the aura around Stokes. When he plays, you always notice. He’s had the most successful career, is arguably the most high-profile and plays in the game in a manner which makes you know he’s definitely there. This is not a criticism: he drops into good areas and links well with team-mates outside the box. But perhaps the attack just flows that little bit better with Murray’s more humble style as the focal point.
Stokes is expected back this weekend after shaking off an ankle knock. His manager will just be happy to have him return to the squad. Because regardless of whether he fits into Hibs strongest XI, or he’s better used from the bench, he’s a cracking player to have in the Ladbrokes Premiership.