The Season So Far
It’s perhaps harsh to say that expectations were high at the KC Stadium this season, but it’s certainly the case that many Hull fans were hoping for better than what they’ve got. With the club looking stable in the Premier League and having reached an FA Cup final, it seemed like the Tigers had a chance of pushing on and doing more than just surviving. It hasn’t quite turned out that way.
Heavy summer spending on exciting talent suggested a new era of attractive attacking football was in store, while the prospect of Hull’s first ever European campaign whetted the appetites of many fans. Instead, it’s been a season of dismal football, poor results and dashed dreams. Hull’s Europa League adventure ended before it began as Belgian side Lokeren eliminated them on away goals in August. They’ve been unlucky with injuries, but even so performances have been some way short of good enough.
With nine games to go Hull sit three points above the drop zone in 15th, but their grimace-inducing fixture list means it wouldn’t be a surprise if they went down. The truth is they’ve spent most of the season looking like a bunch of strangers with no idea how to play as a team, and only the rankness of their relegation rivals – against whom Hull’s results have been good – has prevented them from sliding further down the table.
It’s amazing that Steve Bruce is still in a job – that he recently got a new contract suggests that the copies of the Premier League table that owner and chairman Assem Allam is seeing are upside-down.
Hull are notable as one of the few Premier League sides to regularly play with a back three. However, Bruce’s reasons for doing so aren’t rooted in any kind wannabe-Bielsa football hipsterism, but what he would consider managerial pragmatism.
His ideas about attack have always been based on long balls and crossing – unsurprising given the footballing culture he played and excelled in – and he always looks to play a front two to take advantage of the amount of aerial balls that go into the opposition box. He knows that a midfield three is essential in the Premier League these days, and the only way to play a midfield three and a front two while maintaining the width essential to an attack based on crossing is to play a three-man defence.
Unfortunately for Bruce, that thinking is kind of half-arsed. Firstly, it’s reactive: he starts with an ideal (two strikers) and works backwards to arrive at a gameplan by fixing the faults as they crop up, which is the opposite of how most successful managers do it in the modern era. Secondly, his transfer policy doesn’t seem to reflect his tactical plan: he buys (lots and lots of) players used to other systems and puts them in one that doesn’t suit them, and it looks very much like he hasn’t coached them exactly how to play it as a unit.
Most importantly, he doesn’t take into account the problems which teams playing 3-5-2 usually suffer with: the fact that playing with three defenders against one striker is redundant and gives the opposition more space elsewhere on the pitch; the fact that back threes are obviously vulnerable to long, lateral passes, which players at this level find easy; the fact that their method of attacking tends to become painfully predictable and easy to defend.
Basically, Hull are a mess and Bruce’s naivety could barely be more obvious.
I’ve tried to think of strengths for a few minutes and I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel here.
Hull’s biggest strength in comparison to Chelsea is that their players are so much fresher. Only seven Tigers players have played more than 1500 of a possible 2610 minutes in the Premier League so far this season, whereas the entire Blues starting eleven has passed that mark – indeed, most have already cleared 2000 minutes. That probably won’t make up for the huge gulf in class, but fatigue is a leveller and if Chelsea fail to win, that will be why.
New striker Dame N’Doye is a good poacher, with a respectable if not eye-catching record wherever he’s been. He has three in six so far for Hull and given their preference for direct football and crossing, John Terry and Gary Cahill will have to watch his movement closely.
Hull’s biggest weakness is their inability to make good scoring chances. No Premier League team takes fewer shots per game (10.3) or works the opposition keeper less often (3.3 shots on target per game), and this is down to their reliance on crossing, which almost never creates good chances, and their lethargy in midfield, which comes from Bruce’s scattergun buying policy and subsequent failure to integrate his signings to make a cohesive unit.
Their complete inability to keep the ball means that they find it hard to build attacks in the first place, and often spend matches pinned in their own half, repelling the opposition’s advances. When Curtis Davies was in the team they were almost okay at defending balls into their own box, but in his absence their defence is a bit of a joke.
In addition to the numerous tactical problems listed above, all of which play straight into Chelsea’s hands, Hull will be without the suspended Tom Huddlestone and Mo Diamé seems set to miss out through injury. The midfield trio will probably be Gastón Ramírez, Jake Livermore and David Meyler, which looks distinctly unthreatening and lightweight. Chelsea should play through them at will.
If Bruce has any sense he’ll ditch the back three for this game, but he might decide that his hands have been tied by injuries and persevere with it. Hopefully José Mourinho will think about rotating some players but that seems to be out of the question as well.
It will be a miracle if Chelsea don’t win this by at least two goals.