Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Higher Than A Four?

Steve Bruce sensibly made it his first priority as Hull City manager to fill the vacant goalkeeping position following the departures of Adriano Basso, Vito Mannone and Peter Gulacsi this summer. The club have been linked with numerous players in numerous positions over the past few weeks but separating the accurate stories from the fairy tales that are eagerly spread by greedy agents and the ubiquitous SKY Sports News at this time of year is a difficult task. As each name appears in a newspaper or on a website fans debate the merits of each name, the likelihood of it happening and the reasons why the player might not come to Hull or why Hull wouldn’t welcome the player.

Leaving aside specific names, it will be interesting to look at the areas Steve Bruce may look to strengthen. This isn’t easy for two reasons. The first being that it’s impossible to know just how many players Bruce will be looking to add to his squad. When speaking on the issue, he has only offered “three or four” as a vague answer In terms of adding quality to an already talented first eleven, that’s probably a sensible number. However modern football is about far more than the first eleven with most clubs looking to carry twenty or more quality players, usually two for each position. The tigers struggled in the last quarter of the 2011/12 season when the rigours of the season caught up on the relatively small first team squad. Nick Barmby was criticised for not using some of the fringe players to freshen up the team but the simple fact is he didn’t think they were good enough. He saw those players in training every day as player and manager for months in some cases and years in others and he didn’t think they could do a better job than a Matt Fryatt or Corry Evans playing at eighty percent of their capability. 

Steve Bruce has promised that everyone will start afresh under his management. It’s a standard and sensible approach. There’s no point him alienating anyone in the dressing room when he needs to maintain harmony in the squad and there’s no point him running down a player that he then hopes to offload to another club. Even though I’m sure he’ll attempt to give everyone a clean slate and to judge them with an open mind, it won’t be lost on him that some players have failed to impress the previous two or three managers (who can’t all be poor judges). So while “three or four” additions is a fair guess from a new manager it doesn’t take into account the lack of depth he might find or the players he might not fancy once he’s worked with them. It’s also difficult to second guess the manager because we don’t know how he’s going to set the team up. Bruce appears to be a 4-4-2 man. He likes a pair of strikers and pace and creativity from his wide players. I’d be quite surprised if we see him wander too much from this system but it’s hard to know what he might have taken from his Sunderland experience or what he might do to accommodate the system that the players have been used to for the best part of 18 months. 

Defensive cover is sure to be something on Bruce's mind. With club captain Jack Hobbs out of action until around Christmas, James Chester is missing his regular partner. Liam Cooper and Sonny Bradley covered at the end of last season but both lack experience at this level. We were lucky that first choice right-back Liam Rosenior avoided injury and lengthy suspension last season as young Danny East was the only natural replacement. Only at left back where Andy Dawson, entering his 10th season as a Tiger, and Joe Dudgeon compete do we have depth and options in defence. Experienced cover at right-back and centre-half comes in the shape of Paul McShane who, despite being the only City representative at the European Championships, hasn't been wanted at the KC. While undoubtedly committed and an infectious character, he lacks pace and is prone to error. The club would love to get his Premier League-level wages off their bill but it's proven difficult. McShane is no stranger to the manager as it was Bruce who "sold" him to us in the first place in part-exchange for the best defender we've ever had. It still hurts. I still wake up in the night screaming.

There is sure to be at least one striker recruited. We've been crying out for a bigger front man for two years. Under Pearson and Barmby, I often referred to it as a Plan B striker. Under Bruce, I'm sure he'll be looking for a Plan A striker to provide a foil for the smaller front players we already have. Nigel Pearson recognised the need last summer but the man he brought in, Dele Adebola, proved to be one of his few mistakes in the market. It was the right man but about three years too late. Pearson's hands were tied a little tighter than Bruce's are expected to be so the mistake need not be repeated. In Matt Fryatt and Aaron McLean we have ready made partners for any new forward. Fryatt is a natural goalscorer, one of the best outside the Premier League, while McLean can stretch defences with his pace and will work right across the front line. Any further additions up front will depend on what future Jay Simpson and Mark Cullen have at the KC. Simpson showed flashes of brilliance under Pearson but never consistently enough to convince him that he was the man while Barmby rarely used him at all. Cullen has been around the first team squad for three years without threatening a real breakthrough and has struggled to impress while out on loan. It wouldn't be a surprise if both or either were shipped out during the season, temporarily or otherwise.

The midfield area provides a few interesting questions for the new boss who has already stated that he feels it's an area in which we are strong. Though that hasn't stopped the rumour mill linking the club with Ryan Tunnicliffe, Paul Coutts and David Meyler. In the centre of midfield we have the old, calm head of Paul McKenna who exceeded all expectations last season. Corry Evans brings youthful exuberance and bundles of energy while Tom Cairney has all the ability in the world but needs to take games by the scruff of the neck. Seyi Olofinjana should provide height, strength and attacking threat from midfield but no Hull City manager has got a lot out of him so far. It's unlikely that anyone will take him off our hands so Bruce will have to try and get the best from him or else he'll become the most expensive piece of furniture at the KC Stadium ... again. With four reasonable options, one of whom eats up a great deal of budget, I think additions to the midfield are unlikely unless a quality player is available on a low-cost loan.

The wide areas appear the most urgent in terms of strengthening. Cameron Stewart is the only natural wide player in the senior ranks now that Robbie Brady and Josh King have returned to Manchester United. Stewart is hoping we'll see the best of him this season after an injury hit 18 months at the club. He endured a disappointing end to last season but feels that was caused by the effects of the long lay-off catching up with him. Bruce likes to employ wide players. In the past wingers like Jermaine Pennant, Antonio Valencia and Stephane Sessegnon have done well playing under him. Another player who's done well under Bruce is Sebastian Larsson who started as a central midfield player but settled into a wide role. That brings us to Robert Koren. Assuming City can fight off interest in Koren from Leicester City and Reading, Koren's position in the team will be a question for some debate again. Koren was originally deployed as a left sided midfielder by Nigel Pearson who didn't fancy him in a two man midfield. When injuries forced Pearson's hand in 2011, Koren moved into the middle and did a terrific job for a few games. The team then settled into the popular 4-2-3-1 system that they'd use for the remainder of Pearson's reign and most of Barmby's with Koren becoming a second striker. This position suited Koren with the team built around him and allowed him to concentrate on attacking, free of any defensive responsibility. If Bruce does settle on a more traditional set-up it raises questions about Koren's position again. Whether Bruce sees Koren as a central midfielder or a wide player also probably affects how many wide players we'll see brought in.

Bruce has already signed a pair of goalkeepers. If he added a winger and a striker, we'd have a good first eleven and he'd have made his "three or four" signings. However looking at our seven subs on a match day, we'd have a similar problem to the one we often had last season in that very few players on the bench had the ability to change the game. Olofinjana would give a bit of extra height and McLean some pace up front. To really change games though, we'll need another couple of attacking players who can challenge for the first team and have impact from the bench. Three or four then starts to become five or six or seven. Steve Bruce may have to do a bit more wheeling and dealing than he's planning. Or perhaps he's planning to do a bit more wheeling and dealing than he's letting on?

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