Friday, 9 October 2015

How well have Hull City started the season?

Despite being only ten games old – it’s already been a season of two halves for Hull City. The desperate wait for the closing of the transfer window overshadowing everything that happened in August.

Relegation brought with it an uncertainty over the future of players, manager and owners and the malaise around the whole club was there for all to see well into the season. With constant debate over the futures of saleable assets such as James Chester, Robbie Brady, Ahmed Elmohamady and Michael Dawson, the clearly stated desire to move on from strikers Dame N’Doye, Nikica Jelavic and Abel Hernandez and the pre-agreed departure of Tom Ince that upset Steve Bruce there was a negativity surrounding the playing side that matched the acrimony of the previous two years off the pitch stemming from the attempts to “rebrand” the club.

(C) Hull Daily Mail
As a result Bruce walked around for the first month of the season with a face like a slapped arse – answering the same questions, spouting the same phrases and presumably asking himself every morning why he was bothering. If he wasn’t at the “pouring whisky on your cornflakes” stage, it couldn’t have been far off.

Given the turmoil, the results of those five games were more than satisfactory. Home wins over Huddersfield, Fulham and Preston were harder to come by than they should have been but maximum points can’t be argued with and a point at Wolves was also hard fought. Only the miserable trip to Charlton soured a good start. The closing of the pesky transfer window and the season’s first international break brought clarity to The Tigers season.

For the first time since May – everyone knew what they were up against and who was involved in the fight. The five games since have brought two wins at Cardiff and Nottingham Forest, draws at home to QPR and, disappointingly, Blackburn and a loss at league leaders Brighton. With City in fifth place in the Championship as a result and with a healthy eighteen points out of thirty it all points to a solid if unspectacular opening ten games but doesn’t tell the whole story – performances have been good but this squad is capable of better. 

How have the new signings started?

Bruce had to wait a long time to start bringing players in having watched many leave. His seven signings were low key and cost a combined £8m which would have been headline news for City in most other years but paled in comparison to the almost £25m that the sales fetched.

Moses Odubajo and Sam Clucas have been the pick of the signings. Odubajo has settled in at right back and even forced Elmohamady out of the team after one hundred consecutive league appearances. Clucas has shown outstanding versatility, work ethic and stamina and is producing more quality as he becomes comfortable in his surroundings.

Chuba Akpom has settled in well and his pace and running power are a real asset while Shaun Maloney may be short of fitness after tossing about in the MLS but has already shown his intelligence, responsibility and outstanding set piece delivery.

We’ve not yet seen Norwegian striker Adam Diomande, who if I’m honest, I keep forgetting we have, and Isaac Hayden has impressed only very fleetingly. Ryan Taylor looks about the most pointless signing we’ve made since Mark Hateley was the manager.

Have the big names settled into the Championship?

Part of the reason for feeling that City should be doing even better than they are is the quality of the individuals in the squad. Just take a quick glance down the back of the programme any week and names jump out that every club in the league would give their right arm for. The aforementioned Elmohamady and Dawson, £9.5m signing Hernandez, England caps Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore, Premier League stalwart Mo Diame, Andy Robertson and Curtis Davies.

Most impressive have been Dawson and Davies who’ve turned what looked like a strong partnership on paper to an incredible one on the pitch. Dawson wanted to play in the top flight this season and Davies spent most of last season in a stupor but both have put that behind them and provided an excellent foundation for Bruce to re-build his team upon.

Diame and Livermore have returned from injury and suspension respectively and, fitness issues aside, look a class above the level we’re playing at. Huddlestone hasn’t hit the same heights but is showing signs of improvement.

Hernandez still looks a clumsy footballer whose utterly false price tag weighs heavily on but he has a knack for sticking the ball in the net and that is most welcome. He’s only played eight games (having missed the first two for rabbit punching Man Utd’s Phil Jones last season) and has already scored more than half the goals our top scorer in eight of the last ten seasons has. He also deserves credit for getting on with things without fuss despite clearly wishing to avoid playing in the second tier.

Inconsistency has blighted Andy Robertson’s start to the season and Elmohamady hasn’t hit the level he’s capable of – his manager blaming transfer speculation for affecting his mental state. Allan McGregor has recovered well from a horrendous error at Wolves that left his City future in doubt.

Is there room for improvement?

Despite digging out good results there is plenty more to come from this squad. They’ve shown in patches against Fulham, Cardiff and Nottingham Forest a quality on the ball that few teams can match and that quality from a side blessed with strength and pace in every area could blow teams away.

However that dominance has only been fleeting. Other games have been a battle and Bruce has struggled to find a system and a consistency of selection that he’s content with. This hasn’t been helped by the uncertainty over potential departures, the drib-drab nature of the arrivals and the returns of Diame and, most unexpectedly, Livermore. In some ways, Bruce now has too many options and the temptation to try and accommodate all of the best players is one he struggles to avoid.

The Championship isn’t a league where the team with the best players always wins. There is a blend to be found between quality and fight. That’s particularly important in midfield and the return of Livermore may just be the key to getting it right. Livermore offers effervescence in the middle and a desire to do the dirty work but there isn’t a compromise in quality.

Another problem Bruce has to solve to get the most out of his squad is the negative mentality amongst the players in games. Despite picking a positive team most weeks and making positive changes, the team often play within themselves, pass the ball slowly and look afraid to commit men to attacks.

Bruce has a squad crammed full of talent and with no obvious weakness. If he can solve these conundrums there is no reason why The Tigers shouldn’t finish very high in the Championship table.

Grade the start of the season:

C+. Good but can do much better.

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