The Season Just Gone
It’s never dull at Hull. Constant upheaval off the pitch has cast a long shadow over the club, with the disastrous ownership of the unfortunate Assem Allam endangering the club’s very existence. Nonetheless, they managed to have a very successful first and only season back in the Championship, never falling out of the playoff places and topping the table for long spells. Of course, with a squad that talented (relatively speaking) it shouldn’t come as too great a surprise, but we only have to look at Aston Villa’s travails so far this season to know how easily things can go wrong in English football’s second tier.
The goals of Abel Hernández and Mohamed Diamé were a large reason for Hull’s success, while the experience and smarts of Tom Huddlestone, Curtis Davies, Robert Snodgrass and Ahmed Elmohamady gave the Tigers a considerable advantage over their opponents. Steve Bruce, for all his faults, is an excellent manager at that level and once again showed his worth in getting his side promoted back to the Premier League. Unfortunately, things got a bit sticky (or, better put, even stickier) at that point.
The Season Ahead
Hull’s only aim this season is avoiding relegation and, as almost everyone has already realised, it’s going to be damn near impossible for them to accomplish that goal. Ex-manager Steve Bruce jumped ship in July, having appraised the campaign ahead of him and realised that it simply wasn’t worth his time or effort. It’s hard not to sympathise with Bruce: given the fact that they only had 12 first-team players to put on the pitch and the level of constant upheaval off it, he was on a hiding to nothing.
Current manager Mike "Yes, Fergie" Phelan was known to the players and the staff beforehand, having previously been Bruce’s assistant, and he has done well to foster a siege mentality and create a tight bond between his players. In some ways it’s not surprising that morale is high: basically every player knows they’re first choice and nailed on to play ninety minutes every week, and that generally makes them very happy. That said, they’re odds on to spend those ninety minutes being humiliated every week, and that’s not fun at all. Recent thumpings at the hands of Arsenal and Liverpool will have been the first of many this season.
Phelan has wisely kept things simple so far this season, with a tight and boxy 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 designed to absorb pressure and frustrate more talented opposition while also providing his side with obvious and effective escape strategies. Simply flooding the centre of the pitch with bodies minimises the opposition’s chances of passing towards goal, while Andrew Robertson, Robert Snodgrass and Adama Diomande are very useful options on the counter-attack. Abel Hernández is a very capable striker for a side like Hull, while club record signing Ryan Mason poses a threat with lung-busting vertical runs into the box from deep positions, like a truly budget Frank Lampard.
Phelan’s is a sensible strategy given his side’s glaring weaknesses and his modest aim of not getting thrashed every week, but it’s also one that falls apart if they concede an early goal. In the first two games Hull struck gold, stealing victories against Leicester and Swansea by nicking leads and holding onto them, but the last couple of weeks have shown just how limited their plan and personnel really are. Chelsea’s aim has to be opening the scoring as quickly as possible.
Nice kit. Cool nickname.Affable manager.
[Ed: be serious, Rob]
Ahem. Seriously speaking: they’re not bad at keeping a decent defensive shape and they work hard to stop the opposition advancing: 19.5 tackles per game, 18.5 interceptions per game and 2.2 offsides won per game are very high figures, while they also make a huge number of clearances per game (29.2) and no other side blocks as many shots per game (7.2). Their keepers have also recorded a very high save percentage (70%).
When you’re that defensive you’ve gotta have a good out-ball to transition from defence to attack, and Tom Huddlestone and company know exactly what they’ve got to do: few Premier League sides play more long balls, and Hull’s success rate with their Hail Marys is respectable when compared to the others who are playing hit-and-hope.
Even taking into account that they know they’re terrible and that they’re set up just to keep the score respectable, Hull are seriously bad. They’ve allowed a total of 23.2 shots per game this season, by an enormous margin the league’s highest figure, while 6.7 of those have been on target. Those numbers can only be offset by serious attacking efficiency, and Hull are neither prolific in terms of creating chances nor efficient in terms of taking them.
They’ve only attempted 8.8 shots per game this season and only 2.8 of those have been on target, both among the league’s lowest figures. While they have several options when transitioning from defence to attack, none have been particularly effective: they don’t create enough especially good chances from set-pieces or counter-attacks for their long-term strategy to bear fruit. In short: they’re going down.
Hull have several injury and suspension worries and no available right-backs, so their starting eleven will be as makeshift as ever. Antonio Conte will look to shake things up following two successive league defeats, with Cesc Fàbregas, Branislav Ivanović and Gary Cahill seemingly first in the firing line.
If Chelsea don’t score at least two, serious questions will have to be asked. That said, the defence seems to be prone to giving up a stupid goal in every game at the moment, so I’m saying 2-1 Chelsea again.