The data-crazy Johnson was set to give up the dream bridge to Celtic and Rangers

There was another Englishman named Johnson up here in Scotland lately who was talking about building imaginary bridges, drawing on his own deep delving into data. Lee Johnson, the Hibernian executive, spoke earlier this week about “getting closer to the old company.” “We always use data,” he admits. “We present a lot of data to the players.” Should this Johnson also reconsider his bridge-building dreams?

The Hibs manager explained this week: “Celtic are way ahead and then there’s Rangers and then there’s clubs like us.” That’s right, Celtic’s nine-point lead doesn’t seem to be shrinking anytime soon. Then there are rangers. Yes, a 25-point lead in third place feels pretty cozy for Michael Beale’s side. So when he says ‘clubs like us’ does he mean both Hearts and Hibs as their Tynecastle rivals sit in third place?

This is where the facts start to get difficult for statistician Johnson. He wants to bring the Edinburgh teams together. But there is a significant difference between the two rivals at the moment. Not only have Robbie Neilson’s side bolstered their treasury with Europa Conference League group stage football this season after finishing third last season, but they are also currently holding onto the coveted top spot.

It was a process the club worked towards. From that position, Hearts recently put their players back in the spotlight. John Souttar’s performances last season saw the Scottish defender join Ibrox, for example. Lawrence Shankland, meanwhile, has grown into his role as a leader for Hearts, the Scotland international who has taken the helm in place of the club’s injured captain Craig Gordon in recent weeks, both in terms of his goals and performance for the team set a good example . His development is such that one could easily see one of Glasgow’s Big Two trying to lure him down the M8.

Johnson, whose time at Easter Road has been punctuated by ups and downs in form, analyzed data earlier this week to track big scalps at Rangers and Celtic. “Can we close the gap in terms of possession and shots on goal? That all comes in. It’s a very tough game, but we’re at the high end of our faith level.”

There’s that bridge again. Johnson believes gigantic construction is possible, rather than accepting that Hibs is the bridge in this situation.

Having players capable of taking the step up to Celtic, Rangers and beyond should be the aim of every club outside of the big two in Scotland. Currently there isn’t a single outfield player on Johnson’s books who would make the bench for either Glasgow side, while players like Kevin Nisbet and Josh Campbell certainly have the potential. But back to the raw data: Ahead of their midweek home game against Rangers, Johnson said it was “an opportunity to close that gap [to the Old Firm] in a one-off game”. Maybe he should have looked around town first. It’s a five-point lead Hearts enjoys over their Leith rivals. If, by Johnson’s calculations, Celtic are miles ahead by nine points, Hearts will have at least a couple of miles ahead.

However, with the Tynecastle side faced with the almost impossible task of traveling to Celtic Park on Wednesday night, it was a chance for Hibs to gain ground in a race for third place. A draw would have narrowed that gap by 20 percent. Instead, Johnson dreamed of bridging an impossible 27-point gap with their Govan opponents, a chasm that rivals the Irish Sea idea.

Johnson, like any manager outside of Celtic and Rangers, should focus on the data that counts: results against the other nine sides, especially Hearts.

The Hibs manager has been caught up in his side’s recent upswing: before Rangers’ defeat midweek, his side had moved up to fourth in the table thanks to back-to-back wins against Livingston, Kilmarnock and St Mirren – all teams he was set to beat. Johnson needs to forget the minefield lurking in the vast ocean of the Old Firm and focus on gradually getting closer to Neilson’s side, because in football two stats really matter: results and points on the board. Here is the data on how Hibs has fared against the three teams above them in the Premiership this season: P8 W0 D2 L6 F7 A25 Pts 2 (and lifting the trophy). That should eliminate the need for a deeper dive at this point.

Currently, Hearts are the most attractive offering outside of the Old Firm for players looking to increase their presence in the Scottish game and who knows where this platform could lead for the Gorgie club. For Johnson and Hibs, it should be about raising their own profile. Everything else is currently a bridge too far. The data-crazy Johnson was set to give up the dream bridge to Celtic and Rangers

Russell Falcon

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