Lucas Digne’s hat-trick of assists at Hibs was a timely reminder of his capabilities


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Less than a mile away from Edinburgh Castle, Europe’s most besieged fortification, Hibernian manager Lee Johnson walked around the city centre five hours before kick-off.

He was dressed casually and appeared calm, but the cogs were surely running through the measures he’d put in place to stop Aston Villa’s attack.

By the end of the night, now dressed in more formal attire, a sense of powerlessness hung over Johnson and Hibernian’s night. There was, as Johnson put it, a “gulf in class and athleticism”, irrespective of Villa not needing to wholly exert themselves in their 5-0 victory.

Even accounting for the chasm in quality between the teams, Unai Emery got to learn more about his players. In contrast to the customary management school of thought, Emery prefers an increased schedule. In his view, more matches mean more opportunities to study the inner mechanisms of his squad.

Games can change perceptions. And if anything can be gathered from a midweek thumping, it was an assessment of Lucas Digne. Not for his display alone, but also a reminder that he can fit into a system forged upon a lopsided shape in possession with the left-back crucial to making it all work. Digne duly became the first Villa player to register a hat-trick of assists in the same match since October 2020 when Jack Grealish made Liverpool dance to his tune in the famous 7-2 win.

But it also spoke more broadly about Digne’s future at the club. The France international, capped 46 times, has interest from sides in Europe and Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia, who know of Villa’s perceived openness to moving him on. Digne is one of the club’s highest earners but only the second-choice left-back behind Alex Moreno, who currently injured with a hamstring issue.

Moreno’s absence has given Digne a chance when his sale was being discussed in pre-season. The 30-year-old has started the first three competitive games of this campaign and has been influential to Villa returning to their fully functioning self.

Digne’s situation is curious. He is the one Villa player whose short-term future is uncertain who has played consistently. This is despite the long-held feeling Digne is not a player Emery entirely believes in.

The Villa manager’s preference is for more adventurous, dynamic full-backs who can occupy higher positions for longer. They are able to provide greater width, enabling Villa’s creative players — such as Jacob Ramsey, Emi Buendia and John McGinn — to drift inside. It is why Sevilla’s Marcos Acuna, used on the left wing at times for Argentina during the Qatar World Cup, has been of substantial interest. 

“Very good. Very good,” Emery said of Digne after the game. “Now Alex Moreno is injured, he’s playing consistently. For us the left back (position) is very important because usually we are adding our left back to be higher, more of a protagonist offensively than the right full-back. It’s very important to get him into the attacking third with the quality he has and with the commitment he’s showing us.”

Villa build in a back three shape in possession, with the right-back tucking inside. This was accentuated against Hibernian, with Ezri Konsa — traditionally a centre-back — at full-back. The onus, therefore, is on the left-back to essentially become a quasi-left-winger, shown in the pre-season friendly with Brentford.

The sticking point for Digne has been that his natural characteristics do not necessarily chime with what Emery wants. Digne is more of a stand-and-deliver, traditional full-back, inclined to hold his position and cross, rather than provide the same one-against-one threat as Moreno.

From an attacking perspective, his success at Everton was augmented by the team suiting his strengths. Digne had good headers of the ball, like Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who he would aim for, perpetually swinging in crosses from deep. His first assist for Ollie Watkins was symptomatic of his style; from a standing position, he whipped in a traditional out-swinging delivery, between Hibernian’s two central defenders and onto the forward’s head.

At Goodison Park, Digne did not have to be as precise in his final third ball progression as he does now, with Emery demanding intricate combinations out wide, all with the aim of bisecting defenders with cut-back crosses. In three seasons on Merseyside, Digne was one of the Premier League’s most productive full-backs, registering 18 assists and scoring four times. But since his move to the West Midlands, his attacking output has been in gradual decline. 

Emery wants multi-faceted forwards more than archetypal No 9s. A consequence is they do not possess the same aptitude aerially, even if Digne’s first assist was an intelligently, directed header by Watkins.

Significantly, though, Digne’s second assist and Villa’s third goal was in keeping with the pictures Emery wants his players to paint. A quick switch of play created an overload down the left, with McGinn passing to Digne towards the byline, who stood the ball up to the back post for Leon Bailey to head in.

By the second half, Hibernian had given Digne the freedom of the Scottish Highlands, allowing him to ramble down the left and cross under no pressure. Such was the ease and regularity with which he was delivering into the box, Digne even began using his weaker right foot. The third assist was arguably his best; a caressed driven cross into Watkins’ path, which gave the striker his hat-trick.

Watkins hat trick 1

“We need two very good left backs and now we have an injury to Moreno,” said Emery. “Lucas Digne, always, we will have the respect of him because he’s very important for us. We were managing with him at the beginning of the season of the possibility (of him leaving) if it was good for him, it was good for the club and we could have in the squad two good left-backs, like with him and Moreno. That could be a possibility. But today, tonight, he’s more closer to staying here than to leave.”

The level of opposition illuminated Digne’s qualities, certainly more so than his defensive and athletic shortcomings. Other considerations, such as a replacement and his salary, will also factor into Villa’s considerations.

But at 30 years old — the same age as Moreno — Digne’s performance added credence to the idea of him staying and providing welcome competition at left-back.

(Top photo by Ross Parker/SNS Group via Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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