Hull City headed into the third international break of the season in the middlest of mid—table. 12th in the table (equal 11th if you like) with six wins and six losses and six points off the play-offs.
Jake Livermore’s winner at the KCOM last week, once a source of great joy for City fans, ended a run of three successive wins but a very respectable performance against the league leaders has done nothing to dampen the guarded optimism that is returning on and off the field. The Tigers deserved at least a point having matched the visitors in most departments and had Kamil Grosicki tucked away the best chance of the game in the first half – who knows what might have happened? On paper, WBA are far superior in every department, but a well-organised, high energy City team made them look ordinary.
A year ago, City sat 23rd after 16 games with 15 points before making drastic improvement through December. This season, despite the loss of popular gaffer Nigel Adkins in the summer and his replacement Grant McCann having to oversee another summer of squad churn and uncertainty over the future of key players, the results and performances have been much more promising. McCann favours a high pressing 4-3-3 system which isn’t dramatically different to Adkins’ approach but has increased the demands on the players when they don’t have the ball to go and win it back.
We’ve seen the benefits of pressing high with City winning the ball back in the opponents defensive third and creating plenty of chances while reducing the pressure on our own back four. The cost of such an approach is that it’s very hard to keep it up for ninety minutes game in and game out. We’ve seen City fade in games such as Bristol City and Wigan at home to lose or draw games. While individually, players like Kevin Stewart and Kamil Grosicki have appeared to be running on empty at times. McCann removed and revitalised Stewart and the team but Grosicki is irreplaceable and continues to soldier on. A very good recent article on Hull Live (stop sniggering) highlighted the demands on Grosicki from City and the Polish national team in the past few months.
The squad do appear to be getting used to the high demands and have showed in recent games, including the few defeats or draws, the ability to keep hammering on the door until the last whistle. That’s in part due to the improvement in fitness levels but also because the squad as a whole are improving individually. At the start of the season, our best 11 was arguably ten who were here last season and a striker. Jarrod Bowen, who continues to be far too good for this level, and Kamil Grosicki are the most important players in the squad along with the centre halves. That’s changed over the course of just a few months with several summer signings now showing real worth.
Callum Elder has been a revelation in all of his appearances. It’s harsh on young Brandon Fleming who never lets anyone down and was particularly outstanding in the home win over Sheffield Wednesday but Elder has justified the decision. His defending has been exemplary in what we know is the hardest part of the pitch, defending behind Grosicki, but going forward he’s even more impressive and has formed a partnership with Grosicki and Irvine very quickly.
Leo Da Silva Lopes had a tough start at City and frankly, looked out of his depth six weeks ago. Playing in the advanced midfield role didn’t suit him at all but since he replaced Kevin Stewart as the holding midfielder, he’s excelled. His athleticism is very useful in front of the back four and his strength is definitely winning rather than retaining the ball. Stewart is still the best option in the role, but Leo is a good deputy and against a decent side in WBA, they showed promise as a pair.
Josh Bowler is another who looked off the pace in a bit-part role but has done really well since Jarrod Bowen moved into the main striking role. There is still a lack of end product from Josh in general but he’s constantly improving, and it was nice to see him get his first goal for the club.
Despite a much better start than last season, there is still plenty of room for improvement which is encouraging in itself. The most obvious place is up front where neither Tom Eaves nor Josh Magennis have pulled up any trees despite both being wiling, hard-working, likeable front players. Josh has arguably done better despite his lengthy suspension for his second stupid red card of the season. City have looked a better outfit though with Jarrod Bowen playing up top though with his mobility. We lost a lot of players in the summer and it’s hard to argue that we’ve missed too many of them, but we’ve definitely missed Fraizer Campbell. Not only was he a threat with his pace and intelligent runs in behind but his link up play was superb – particularly feeding Grosicki and Bowen. Bowen up front gives us the closest replacement to Fraiz.
It will be hard to do anything about it in the January window on what continues to be a very limited budget. The same can be said for the role just behind the front man which Jon Toral made such a difference in for a few games before another injury. We don’t really have another playmaker in the same style and Toral, for all his quality, is unreliable. That will most likely be a case of crossing our fingers and muddling through. George Honeyman is another proper grafter but lacks the same vision and flair. There’s a potential improvement to be had in the manager recalling Markus Henriksen to the squad while he’s still here but that appears to be a situation where no-one is willing to compromise and it’s daft, but we live with it.
The other worry on the injury front is Jordy De Wijs who is, along with his partner in crime Reece Burke, becoming irreplaceable. We are a much, much, much better side with those two as the centre back pairing and De Wijs’s regular knocks are a big danger.
There are seven games left until Christmas which is also, nicely, the halfway point in the league season. City face surprise strugglers Middlesbrough (a) on one of our real bogey grounds (just 1 draw in 11 league visits), title chasing Preston (h), Barnsley (a), Stoke (h), Leeds (a), Charlton (a) and Birmingham (h). They’re all potentially tricky fixtures and yet you could make a case for City turning over any of them. That may seem like fence-sitting, but City are just that sort of team. Four wins and a couple of draws would take City close to play-off contention. I’ll hope for that.