Sunday, 27 September 2015

Hull City 1 Blackburn Rovers 1: Is Steve Bruce running out of excuses?

Hull City dropped two points at home for the second successive Saturday with a 1-1 draw against Blackburn Rovers.

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

The first half was a shocker for City. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve seen plenty worse – but for this group of players at this level it was so poor. The second half against QPR was dour last week but that was explainable in part due to being the third game in a week and the previous two were long treks. There was no such excuse this time.

In fact the excuses are running out full stop. We had an uncertain summer. We had many departures. We had the transfer window hanging over us like a black cloud. We had Mo Diame out injured and Jake Livermore facing suspension. All difficulties for the manager but all now out of the way. His only concern at the moment is putting out a team to win games in the Championship. We’ve started the season reasonably well but in nine league games we’ve only played well for ninety minutes in one of them – Cardiff away. The rest have been bitty performances. Sometimes we’ve dominated for short spells. Against Fulham it was half a game. In others, we’ve barely played well for fifteen minutes.

After nine games it seems Steve Bruce doesn’t know his best team or his best system. He wants to play 4-4-2 to accommodate Elmohamady and Odubajo and to press teams in their own half but his midfielders all look best in a three. More worrying is that regardless of system the football is tedious. The manager keeps telling Radio Humberside’s David Burns after games that we don’t move the ball quick enough or we bypass midfield. If I had a million quid for every time I’ve heard that, I could buy out Mr. Allam! Nothing seems to change in that regard. I mentioned several times last season that we were passing the ball like we were three-nil up despite drawing or losing games.

The Tigers never started this game. Curtis Davies was robbed in possession inside the first minute, booked for attempting to pull his opponent back and had to be rescued by Huddlestone. He had Dawson and McGregor to thank for saving him after similar errors. Grant Hanley headed a free kick wide at the back post and Robertson kicked a header from a corner off the line as the crowd got very tetchy, very quickly. The referee bore the brunt despite not doing a lot wrong but the attitude on the pitch caused the unhappiness in the stands.

When City eventually woke up they forced a couple of saves from Luke Steele through long-distance efforts by Huddlestone and Elmohamady. Davies and Hernandez briefly lit up the game with overhead efforts that looked beautiful but failed to trouble the keeper.

Half time: Hull City 0 Blackburn Rovers 0

The second half was crying out for changes – Maloney and Aluko seemed the obvious ones. Instead Bruce just slightly tinkered with the system to move Clucas inside and Diame ahead of him and Huddlestone. Elmo stayed wide right and Clucas had to cover the left if they got the ball. Not a lot changed, understandably and it was a battle of half chances. Theirs were the better, almost entirely from set pieces with only a tame Huddlestone volley testing Steele at the other end.

Clucas was the pick of the City players. He was lively, came off the left hand side to get involved and pulled their midfield about with his movement. He passed and moved quickly and opened gaps. If the others had played with anything like the same tempo – it would have been a different game. Chuba Akpom had a fine game too with excellent hold up play and strong, direct running. Abel Hernandez worked very hard again and maintained this excellent scoring ratio and Curtis Davies won a lot of challenges in the second half after a wretched opener. Odubajo continues to do a good job at right back but is being suppressed as an attacking force by having Elmo ahead of him. That isn’t quite working.

Mo Diame was completely invisible. He was barely involved and should have come off well before Maloney replaced him. Livermore then came on for Robertson and we started to find a little rhythm. It’s not the first time this season that the subs have changed City's performance. They’d go on to take the lead in controversial circumstances. Jordan Rhodes cut inside Curtis Davies inside our “D” and it looked very much like he was fouled by Davies desperate lunge. If it had been given as a free kick, Davies was guaranteed a second yellow card. The ref didn’t see it as a foul to the fury of Blackburn and with the visitors distracted by their annoyance City broke quickly, found Elmohamady on the right and he delivered a beautiful low cross that Hernandez only had to tap in from five yards [1-0].

 It should have been two moments later. Elmo linked up with Odubajo who swung in a cross towards goal with his left foot. Maloney made an excellent run between the occupied centre halves and met it six yards out. He headed into the ground and it bounced wide. It was a big chance. With the game meandering towards its conclusion, Meyler replaced Hernandez in a standard “hold what we have” substitution. The board then went up with six minutes added and it gave Blackburn a lift. They forced three corners. From the second Jordan Rhodes found space at the near post to head home [1-1]. The marking was awful. Things nearly got even worse from the next as the ball looped up off two players challenging and fell to Hope Akpan who met it well on the volley from six yards only for McGregor to save brilliantly.

With the end nigh and the sense of disappointment so clear you could almost see it Curtis Davies had a chance to make up for his errors. City launched a free kick from the half way line, Hanley missed his header and Meyler nodded it to Davies who was arriving, eight yards out and free as a bird (think Charlton’s winner at the Valley). Davies headed the ball well wide of the post and two points went with it.

Half time: Hull City 1 Blackburn Rovers 1

The Tigers haven’t made an awful start. The points return is alright and the league position is fine but the sense of under-achievement given the individual quality in the City squad is growing. Steve Bruce has a little sympathy in the bank given the tribulations of the early season but coming off last season where we also under-achieved massively – I think it’s evaporating quickly. Excuses are becoming harder to make and tougher to swallow. It’s time to deliver performances and results.

Or find someone else who can?

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Hull City 1 Swansea City 0: Livermore returns, Meyler bags a winner

Hull City progressed to the fourth round of the League Cup for only the fifth time in the competition’s fifty-five year history with a 1-0 home win over Swansea City.

The Tigers goal led a charmed life in a first half dominated by the visitors but the art of football is in sticking the ball into the net and for all their excellent football – Swansea couldn’t manage it. It was a different story after the break and for all their possession and the introduction of some of their bigger names from the bench – Swansea didn’t force a save out of the previously over-worked Jakupovic.

There was a late change to the team as Alex Bruce felt his groin tighten during the warm-up while the headline news saw Jake Livermore return to the City team for the first time since April following his suspension while a failed drugs test was investigated and resulted in the FA deciding he’d suffered enough in the past eighteen months. Elmo, whose head had been turned a week ago, was captain.

City 4-3-3
Eldin Jakupovic
Ryan Taylor – Harry Maguire – Curtis Davies – Andy Robertson
Isaac Hayden – Jake Livermore – David Meyler
Ahmed Elmohamady – Chuba Akpom – Shaun Maloney

After a dull opening the game exploded into life when David Meyler made a crunching tackle in their half, headed for the area and hit a powerful shot straight at Swans’ keeper Nordfeldt who crouched and punched at it and was very lucky to see it fly over. From there it was end to end stuff – more at our end than theirs – with chances galore.

City worked hard and tried to press high up the pitch but struggled against the quick and incisive passing game that Swansea are well known – even if this was mainly a second string. Not only do they move the ball well but they move well off the ball and they dragged City around when we didn’t have possession. What they also do very well (and bravely) is push men forward quickly into the attacking third and overload the defence and midfield. That takes great courage and faith in the players bringing the ball out of defence but it worked beautifully and combined with our attempts to press them high up the pitch, made lots of holes between defence and midfield.

After Rangel headed over from a corner while criminally unmarked, City contrived to present them a brilliant opening. Jakupovic took too long to kick the ball out and was charged down by Eder who ricocheted the ball onto the post. It came out to Sigurdsson who rounded the Jak and slid the ball into the empty net only for Davies to slide across and clear brilliantly. Routledge then went through onto a ball over the top (while the crowd brayed for offside) but finished poorly and then Jakupovic saved a long drive from Ki – just about. Akpom forced a save from Nordfeldt at one end with a powerful left-footed strike and they went straight up the other end and slid in Eder only for Jakupovic to redeem himself with a brilliant smother.

Jak then moved massively into credit with a stunning point-blank save to deny Rangel who’d strolled through our defence to meet Grimes’ excellent cross with a bullet header six yards out. With City struggling to get a grip of the runners Sigurdsson shot wide and Routledge headed over – both should have done much better. City had opportunities to break but wasted them. For all his sheer determination and refusal to stop running, David Meyler isn’t really the man you want bursting at an opposition and he and Livermore made poor decisions in possession.

With half time approaching Swansea paid for their missed chances as City put together a nice passage of play. That broke down but the ball was returned to Livermore who swept a pass out to Elmohamady on the right. His cross was deflected and Maloney arrived to head for goal, Nordfeldt saved it but the ball spun into the air and David Meyler arrived to tap it home with the outside of his right boot from a foot and a bit [1-0].

Half time: Hull City 1 Swansea City 0

Despite the Swansea dominance, City’s players had put in a good shift and had tirelessly chased Swans, and sometimes shadows. Ryan Taylor looked way off the pace and Isaac Hayden was utterly pointless but otherwise it was a solid effort.

The second half was much quieter. Swansea dominated the ball again and City’s 4-3-3 became a permanent 4-5-1 but despite introducing Shelvey, Gomis and Naughton at various points they didn’t test Jakupovic once. The defence won a lot of individual challenges particularly through Davies, who eventually realised he didn’t have Michael Dawson alongside him, and young Hayden really grew into the game making some important tackles and a fine interception.

Nordfeldt made the only save of the half palming away a Maloney free kick which led to a contentious moment when a defender crashed clumsily into Meyler on the edge of the penalty area. It looked inside, or at least on the line, but the ref wasn’t well placed and gave a free kick several yards outside the box. Maloney nearly stuck it in the top corner to end the disagreement.

For the last quarter of an hour, after Odubajo, Clucas and Huddlestone had replaced Taylor, Livermore (to a great ovation) and Hayden at various points, City retreated completely to ten yards inside our half, made sure space was at a premium in behind and let Swansea’s defenders come out with the ball. It wasn’t pretty but it was effective and once we’d masterfully run down the four added minutes – it was all over.

Full time: Hull City 1 Swansea City 0

So it was into the next round for another crack at making history and getting into round five for the first time ever. The attendance of 16,286 may or may not be accurate depending on whether it includes pass holders with free “CUP” games who didn’t attend but would be the fourth biggest home League Cup attendance in our history behind Fulham in 1962 (20,308), Liverpool in 1973 (19,748) and Chelsea in 2007 (23,543).

Several players stated a case for a first team place. Chuba Akpom ran himself into the ground chasing lost causes and intelligent defenders. Jake Livermore bust a gut for almost seventy minutes despite blowing hard from very early on. Shaun Maloney worked diligently despite lacking a bit of fitness and while his shirt was soaked in sweat – he didn’t let up. Ahmed Elmohamady didn’t overly impress, Hayden improved but was far too anonymous to be looking for a starting berth and David Meyler, match winner though he was, didn’t show enough quality in possession.

One man who should be getting some first team games is Harry Maguire as Alex Bruce looks set for a several week long lay-off. Maguire is a bit cumbersome and rough around the edged but he’ll learn quickly playing with Michael Dawson and Curtis Davies. He needed a break like this. I hope he takes it.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Hull City 1 QPR 1: Austin & Dawson headers ensure KC stalemate

The Tigers 100% home record this season was ended in a 1-1 draw with QPR at the KC Stadium.

Considering the quality in the two sides at Championship level and the fact both were relegated from the Premier League last season – the game slid under the radar. Despite having shed a large numbers of players between them, there was a lot of quality on show including England internationals Rob Green, Tom Huddlestone, Michael Dawson and Paul Konchesky as well as recent national call-up Charlie Austin and big money signings Mo Diame, Matt Phillips, Abel Hernandez, Moses Odubajo, Nedum Onohua and Massimo Luongo.

Both sides contained players they’ve held on to over the summer, some surprisingly, alongside young or unknown players brought in to replace those who’ve gone. Neither have been ruled out of the Championship promotion race but few are talking about them either. For two clubs who’ve enjoyed plenty of press in recent years, things are very low key right now and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

City 3-5-2
Allan McGregor
Michael Dawson – Alex Bruce – Curtis Davies
Moses Odubajo – Tom Huddlestone – Mo Diame – Sam Clucas – Andy Robertson
Sone Aluko – Abel Hernandez

City had much the better of the opening 25 minutes with Sone Aluko looking back to his best and Andy Robertson marauding down the left. Robertson was our most potent weapon and Michael Dawson’s diagonal balls out of defence opened up the game and allowed Robertson to destroy James Perch for pace. The only way Perch was getting near the young Scot all afternoon was if he queued up outside the ground for an autograph.

Aluko forced a parry from Green, Robertson’s delicious cross just evaded Aluko’s outstretched boot at the far post, another cross was too high for Diame and Aluko just failed to gather Diame’s chip over the top. There was only one side making the running so obviously it was the visitors who took the lead. Tjaronn Chery’s tame effort from distance started a spell of slightly heightened ambition from Rangers who then won a corner which Cery planted on Austin’s head and it crossed the line via Robertson and the crossbar [0-1]. It was a well delivered set-piece but Curtis Davies let the best striker in the division get the run on him.

The Tigers took a while to get their breath back following the sucker-punch but driven by the energy of Clucas, Diame and Robertson they won a series of corners and slowly dragged themselves back into the ascendancy. Clucas was fouled on the left – it was a soft free kick if I’m honest – and Tom Huddleston delivered to the near post where Michael Dawson got the run this time and planted his header beyond the static Green [1-1]. Both sides had half chances from corners but Angella’s header bounced to McGregor while Alex Bruce’s flew wildly over.

Half Time: Hull City 1 QPR 1

The second half contained little to report. Despite visibly wilting and settling for a draw with half an hour left, QPR had the best chance to win it. Matt Phillips, who’d spent the first half being offside, finally got at Robertson who once again failed to cut out the cross which flew across the six yard box and as defenders tried desperately not to touch it, Chery arrived at the back post and volleyed it over from a couple of yards.

That chance aside, City made all the running and made positive substitutions including Akpom for Bruce (with a tactical switch to 4-4-2), Maloney for Aluko and Elmohamady for the rapidly tiring Diame. They weren’t able to turn the superiority of possession into chances. The football was pedestrian. The energy required to make purposeful runs with and without the ball was lacking and only Robertson looked likely to make something happen but he made a couple of poor decisions in good areas. Several corners came to nothing. Into four minutes of added time (lord knows where that came from) Chuba Akpom burst through two defenders and as Maloney and Hernandez made runs towards the six yard box, he pulled the ball back to the penalty spot. It was a tap in for anyone arriving but no-one was. An indication of the effect the exertions of Cardiff away and two long treks this week had taken on the players.

Full Time: Hull City 1 QPR 1

The result was more than fair in the end. Neither side could claim to have done enough to win it. There were no poor performances from The Tigers but few played at the level we know they can. The back three had another fine game. Alex Bruce stood out with some fine blocks and tackles but Dawson and Davies stood strong for the most part and Dawson’s passing was a very effective outlet with Robertson to aim for. Robertson is na├»ve defensively which is abated somewhat by the wing-back system but most disappointingly this season he’s been ineffective going forward. He put that right here with some tremendous rampaging down the left, phenomenal acceleration, outstanding ball control and one cross that was world class.

In tight home games, more energy from midfield and better movement up front will be required. This was justifiable with Bruce admitting he should have, with hindsight, considered changes despite the team wining well on Tuesday but is vital in future games. Aluko showed the vitality that made him such a threat at this level three seasons but Hernandez gave his usual mixed performance. He just often looks short of stamina. He battled well at times in the first have and produced a magnificent turn on the goal line that left the defender at Hull Station waiting for his train home. He was summed up in one move at the end of the first half. He held up the ball strongly and laid it off to Huddlestone who lifted it beautifully into the space behind and Hernandez turned and raced away. Heading for the penalty area, he then went without the ball and when it eventually caught up the defender recovered and Abel threw himself to the deck. Perhaps that fitness will come – Hernandez finishing a game is still a very rare occurrence.

Overall this felt like a reasonable opportunity to win at home that went begging but the point isn’t a bad one and with that mythical “judge the team after ten games” point approaching – City are just short of two points per game, third in the league and while playing quite well – have room for improvement.

Blackburn visit the KC Stadium next Saturday. Steve Bruce may need to consider re-introducing a back four at home to pressure the opposition switching to his 3-5-2 away to get numbers in midfield and counter attack in numbers. It’s a fine balancing act but we have players with the intelligence to take it on board.

I think.

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