Saturday, 29 August 2015

Hull City 2 Preston 0: Diame starts again, Maloney debuts

The Tigers made it three wins out of three at home in the Championship with a hard fought 2-0 win over Preston North End.

City 4-4-2
Allan McGregor
Moses Odubajo – Michael Dawson – Curtis Davies – Andy Robertson
Ahmed Elmohamady – David Meyler – Mohamed Diame – Sam Clucas
Abel Hernandez – Chuba Akpom

Steve Bruce somewhat surprisingly started Mo Diame again despite his lengthy absence before Tuesday night and deservedly dropped Tom Huddlestone. Nikica Jelavic wasn’t in the squad at all. He’s been struggling with a “sore” knee but Bruce also added after the game that two Premier League teams are interested in signing the Croatian striker and one had a bid rejected on Friday.

For the first twenty minutes or so of this one, City were second best. Preston started brightly and threatened through the pace of Chris Humphrey, a player I was impressed with a few years ago when he played for Shrewsbury, and Daniel Johnson while the midfield which included ex-Tiger John Welsh moved the ball neatly and quickly. City struggled to match their early endeavour and were limited to a couple of breaks.

The Tigers fought their way back into the game though. In part it was due to some patient passing which created good situations out wide but also to a small tactical switch which saw Sam Clucas move inside to create a midfield three and Hernandez pull wide, particularly out of possession, to cover the space on the left. David Meyler and Mo Diame had solid games in the midfield, until Diame tired quite early, and Clucas played very efficiently alongside them.

Preston’s goalkeeper Jordan Pickford did his best to swing the game our way dropping a cross from Elmo against Akpom and getting very lucky that it didn’t fly into the net before charging out of his area to sweep up ahead of a brilliant late run from Clucas – only to dribble the ball into Hernandez and again get lucky with the rebound.

Abel Hernandez still doesn’t look anything like a twelve million euro striker but you have to give him credit for putting in a reasonable effort and getting himself into good positions. He picked up his second goal of the season in fashion which you’d either put down to persistence or sheer luck. Odubajo, who’d really got into the game with a shot just wide of the post after he exchanged passes with Meyler and a decent cross no-one attacked, latched on to a lovely ball from Dawson down the right and forced a corner. I noted that we never score from corners. Clucas delivered it, Akpom got a flick header, Hernandez poked it goalwards and as the defender whacked it off the line it hit Hernandez and flew into the net [1-0]. I’m not sure how he had the brass-neck to celebrate!

City should have gone in further ahead at the break but Hernandez, who’d imagine would be flying, then missed his second sitter of the week. Michael Dawson latched on to a ball in their half, pushed on with it and then hit a shot which deflected off a defender’s hand in to the path of Hernandez 10 yards out and seemingly onside. The goalkeeper had committed himself from the original shot and was grounded so Hernandez naturally shot straight at him.

Half time: Hull City 1 Preston North End 0

The second half started like the first and like some of the previous City games this season but in fairness this time, the momentum was being earned by Preston’s tempo and quick passing. Garner and Johnson missed reasonable chances, the latter blocked by Dawson in fairness, and the visitors kept up the pressure despite their goalkeeper dropping another clanger when he almost let a corner go into the path of Hernandez.

Mo Diame was looking knackered and had hardly been in the game since half time. The gap between defence and attack was starting to widen again and any attempt to break was foiled by fair means or foul – Welsh booked for the latter. Akpom and Hernandez started to look very isolated and threat from wide areas subsided. The obvious substitution was to introduce Isaac Hayden for Diame and shore up the midfield. Instead Bruce went for Shaun Maloney in place of the Senegalese (who is severely injury prone and no-one should even think about buying him this transfer window).

In a more obvious change, Aluko replaced Hernandez – who also looks unfit but has no injury to blame. The substitution was the wrong one and it didn’t change the pattern of the game (initially) with Preston continuing to ask all of questions particularly of Robertson who had no-one in front of him to help out and we were very fortunate to see a PNE midfielder head over a gilt-edged chance when Robertson had been double teamed on their right. To be fair to our young Scot I should also point out that seven games into the season - he finally stopped a cross. Hurrah.

Some people think Steve Bruce is a lucky manager which may be unfair on his experience and instinct but it is hard to disagree sometimes. Despite his substitution looking wrong at our end of the field where Meyler and Clucas were working overtime in midfield and much was owed to our superb defensive partnership, Maloney then took the game away from Preston. He combined with the buccaneering Robertson to win a corner and then sent over a fabulous delivery that Davies absolutely thumped into the back of the net (or where it used to be anyway) on the volley [2-0].

Full time: Hull City 2 Preston North End 0

I’m delighted with the return of ten points from fifteen that sees The Tigers sit second in the Championship going into the first international break. The summer was one of such disruption and the black cloud of relegation continues to hover over the place, and will do so until the transfer window shuts on Tuesday, so I have to give Steve Bruce a lot of credit for what he has done in the face of players leaving, less experienced players arriving and certain players and certain owners sulking their way through the season’s opening month.

Performances haven’t been convincing, there is room for improvement from the players and the manager and there are tougher tests ahead than what we’ve faced so far (Brighton and Cardiff away after the break for starters) but for everyone to move on – the club really needs to get to September 2nd relatively unscathed. Then everyone will know what they’re doing until January and what they are working with and the constant speculation can stop. Only then will we really find out the potential of this City squad to mount a challenge for promotion.

Under some pretty trying circumstances – they haven’t done too bad so far.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Just how good is Hull City's new signing Shaun Maloney?

Hull City completed the signing of Scotland forward Shaun Maloney from Chicago Fire on Thursday for a fee reported in the US to be around £1.5m.

(C) Hull City A.F.C.
It was a move, first mooted by Radio Humberside’s David Burns on August 1st, that has been close for weeks but has taken some time to “get over the line” – to use one of those naff transfer window clich├ęs to which we’re all sadly becoming accustomed. Hull City were able to “get it done”, “tie it up”, “get the player in the building” and what have yer’.

So what about Shaun Maloney? The diminutive Scotland international is 32 years old and only joined Chicago as a “designated player” (basically a player whose wages don’t count towards the MLS salary cap) from Wigan Athletic in January.

His time in Chicago hasn’t been as fulfilling as both parties hoped. That’s also a fine description of his entire career. He’s a very talented player known for his ability to run with the ball, shoot from distance and take brilliant free kicks (see the YouTube video below) but in part due to injury, poor judgement and being seen as a bit of a luxury by managers who played inflexible formations – he’s never hit the heights his enormous potential suggested he might.

Maloney was born in Malaysia (There’s an interesting interview on his childhood here) but moved to Scotland as a youngster, dictated by his father’s employment, and joined Celtic as a trainee. He broke through at Celtic under Martin O’Neill but took a while to establish himself and just as he was starting to really bed in – playing a part in Celtic’s run to the UEFA Cup final in 2003 – he injured a cruciate ligament and missed a season and a half of football.

He returned and got himself ready for the 2005/06 season which still stands up as his career high. Then manager Gordon Strachan played him on the left of midfield and trusted him to play for the team while maintaining the freedom to affect games. He scored sixteen goals that season and achieved the unique feat of being named Scotland’s Player and Young Player of the Year. Strachan continues to be a huge fan of Maloney which probably explains why his form for Scotland these days is so much better than at his clubs. The manager spoke glowingly of him in June when Maloney rescued a point for the Scots in Ireland:

“You can talk about systems but a very good player has got us a point. And a very good player, ten minutes from the end, no taller than me, is back in the right-back position heading the ball away from James McClean. Shaun is the most conscientious football player I’ve ever met and he deserves every bit of praise he gets. If any young football player wants to watch anyone, it’s him.”

That word “conscientious” was also used by Martin O’Neill when he took Maloney to Aston Villa in January 2007. O’Neill said then "Shaun is one of the most conscientious young men I have known in the game.  "What he lacks in height, he makes up in a lot of ability and a lot of courage. He is a smashing lad. But I am not signing him because he is a smashing lad. He is a quality player."

The move to Villa followed a contract wrangle at Celtic. Maloney eventually signed a pre-contract to move down south at the end of the 2006/07 season but Villa paid £1m to take him early. He never really settled amid suggestions of homesickness and an inability to nail down a place in O’Neill’s rigid set-up. He regretted the way he left Celtic saying "In my final few months at Celtic I was negotiating a new contract and now regret the way I handled those talks. There's no doubt it had a negative effect on my game.” His contrition towards his former club was useful because he’d re-join them after eighteen months in Birmingham for £3m.

He was dogged by injuries during his second spell at Parkhead including a particularly nasty Achilles injury and despite a very healthy return of goals and assists – he just didn’t play enough games. On his return to full health, Roberto Martinez took him to Wigan for £850,000 and after taking a while to settle he really came to fruition as a Premier League player in 2012/13. He helped Wigan win the FA Cup and, despite their subsequent relegation, enjoyed some of the best form of his career. He only signed a new two and a half year contract with Wigan in January of that season but by May, Martinez was talking of his struggle to hold on to a valuable asset:

"Shaun Maloney should be playing for teams fighting for titles. He's got the quality of any player playing in that position. Shaun could have been born in any other country in terms of his technical ability. He is someone who can find space - he finds it so natural to turn - and players who can drive into space are a real strength to break things down. I wouldn’t be surprised if a club with more tradition and bigger power looks at him but that’s a compliment to us.”

Martinez was obviously suggesting that Maloney’s technical ability was unusual for a British player but his use of the phrase “Shaun could have been born in any other country” is a funny one because, of course, he was!

Maloney had blossomed under Martinez who he credited with his new found confidence and health “I’d been plagued with injuries for a couple of years before I came to Wigan, but since I’ve been here, I’ve seen a different side of the game under the manager. In terms of tactics and the work we do in training, I haven’t really experienced anything like it.” When Martinez left for Everton, Maloney again struggled with injuries as Wigan took on a Europa League and Championship campaign. He was eventually sold last January when Wigan embarked on a fire sale of high earners ahead of a second relegation in two years. Maloney was heavily linked with Leicester City, his former manager at Everton and a third spell at Celtic but instead joined Chicago.

Maloney failed to light up the Windy City but it’s hardly surprising given that the Fire have been in severe decline for most of this decade having been one of the most consistent achievers in the early years of MLS and one of the leading teams in the Eastern Conference for several seasons afterwards.

He arrives at Hull City with a reputation as a player as great ability who can change games in the blink of an eye with a probing run or a strike at goal. With that talent comes a history of suffering injuries and taking time to settle in at new clubs – and occasionally not settling at all.

Maloney needs to play for a manager who has the faith in him that Gordon Strachan does. A manager who will find him a position from which he can influence games in the attacking third but who also instills in him the discipline to work for the team. For all his faults, I think Steve Bruce is as likely as anyone to do that and I’m quite excited by what the wee man can achieve in black and amber.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Hull City 1 Rochdale 0: The view from the stands

Hull City scraped past lower league opposition again to make the third round of the League Cup with a 1-0 win over Rochdale.

(C) Hull Daily Mail
With a league game on the horizon on Saturday and having toiled through the heat last weekend, Steve Bruce made many more changes than he did in the last round but while the side may have been unfamiliar – their lackadaisical performance wasn’t.

City 4-3-3
Eldin Jakupovic
Ryan Taylor – Harry Maguire - Alex Bruce – Andy Robertson
Isaac Hayden – David Meyler – Mohamed Diame
Abel Hernandez – Greg Luer – Sam Clucas

The big news on the team front was the inclusion of Mo Diame who was starting for the first time since Everton away in December – since when he’s only featured twice as a substitute in April. Having snazzily created the colours of the Sengalese flag with his green boots, red tape and amber socks – Diame set about reminding everyone of his quality with some nice touches, driving runs and smart passing.

He took a few knocks and everyone held their breath but he bounced up again and made a mockery of Steve Bruce’s pre-match comments that he may not be back to his best until the New Year. We shouldn’t get carried away because players often get through early games on adrenaline and then have a dip but he’s certainly looking like the player we missed badly after his injury problems last season.

City started very much on the front foot and were rewarded for some early pressing with a well taken goal. Hernandez played a neat pass to his left and found both Diame and Luer in space. The young striker signed from Burgess Hill last summer took the responsibility (as any good striker would) and finished neatly around the stranded keeper from 18 yards [1-0]. After a powerful run, Diame slid in Hernandez on our left but he shot wide of the near post and then Robertson failed to either pass or shoot after making a good run onto another Diame pass.

That was as good as it got before the break as City took their foot off the accelerator again and coasted along. It’s becoming a frustrating habit and it drew Rochdale into the game. There was a lack of urgency in the play from back to front but also a lack of quality in possession. We stroked the ball around slowly before giving it away cheaply time and again. We seem to have a belief as a group that games are over at one-nil but that couldn’t be further from the truth. As a result of the slow tempo, moving the ball forward becomes difficult because we’re not creating gaps.

Half time: Hull City 1 Rochdale 0

The City players went through a little warm-up before the second half to try and address the slow starts after the break. Perhaps as a result, we started the second half as brightly as the first and created an excellent chance when Diame and Clucas combined to feed Robertson and he brilliantly put the ball on a plate for Hernandez at the back post but he somehow shot over from four yards. Despite that miss and a later one set up by sub Elmohamady, Hernandez had another decent game and put a lot of effort in – particularly in the first half. Robertson had another mixed game. He made one or two important challenges but made poor decisions in defence too often and almost cost a late equaliser running out to close down leaving their sub Allessandra to exploit the space he left and, fortunately, shoot over.

The 4-3-3 system seemed to work well early on when Meyler, Diame and Hayden were busy and the three strikers pressed as a unit but as the game went on we ended up with one striker isolated and no threat from the right. Ryan Taylor’s been a good player but it’s hard to see where he fits in at City. He’s not got anything like the pace or athleticism these days to challenge Odubajo or Elmo for a right back spot and he was equally useless in midfield. He looks a waste of wages.

Sam Clucas is a better investment but he’s playing within himself. He looked far more confident playing for Chesterfield against us recently so it may well just be a case of allowing him to adapt to new surroundings and get used to playing with big name teammates.

The second half went the way of the first and The Tigers ended up clinging on. The crowd of 10,430 – a decent turnout for the early rounds of this competition these days – got more and more agitated with the lack of quality and perceived lack of effort. It all became a bit unambitious. At one point Clucas attacked down the left before realising he had little support and chose not to take on the full back. Instead he went backwards until he found Hayden in midfield and he dropped the ball off to Maguire. Left wing to centre half in two passes.

For all their possession and our jitteriness – Rochdale never really threatened. They might have had a late penalty when Maguire tried a diving header a foot off the ground and landed on top of the ball. There was a big handball shout but the ref waved it away. It definitely hit his hand and I’ve seen them given. He was certainly lucky. In the end, just getting through and avoiding having to watch another half an hour was a relief.

Full time: Hull City 1 Rochdale 0

They say you get what you pay for and having got into this game for free – it was certainly true of this evening. David Meyler picked up the Man of the Match award which he deserved but there wasn’t a great deal of competition. Only the return of Diame, looking as good as new, and the beautifully taken goal of Luer were highlights.

Bring on Swansea at home in round three. Somehow, I don’t think they’ll be scared.

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