BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
Next up in the countdown to the kick-off of the impending Barclays Premier League football season is a preview of Hull City, who are returning to England’s top division three years after being relegated in 2010.
Steve Bruce succeeded in a division that he knows inside out, as he led Hull to automatic promotion with a second place finish in the Championship. The team didn’t play the most attractive football, but Bruce made the team extremely hard to beat, as defensive solidity led to the Tigers eventually getting promoted with a miserly goal difference of nine.
There hasn’t been much excitement generated by any of Bruce’s new signings so far, leading many to believe that the manager is going to follow the same template of safety first in order to survive in the Premier League. Hull started pre-season at a canter, scoring nine goals against non-league opposition in their first two matches. They returned to type in the following five matches against tougher opponents, scoring only three goals in the next five games, their lack of flair highlighting the main concern in what is bound to be a difficult season.
On defence: Liam Rosenior established himself as first choice right-back last season, and if pre-season is any indication Bruce will continue to play him there in the upcoming campaign. Rosenior last played in the Premier League four years ago when he was exposed time and again, so his return might just have left wingers in the league salivating at the thought of running at him. On the opposite flank is newly transferred Maynor Figueroa, the Honduran being one of Bruce’s early signings during his stint at Wigan. Despite being a left-back, Figueroa contributes with his attacking prowess, with Bruce already adopting a 4-3-3 formation more often in pre-season in order to accommodate his overlapping runs. If the fullbacks are exposed Bruce won’t hesitate to play a flat back three comprising completely of centre-backs, cramping up space in the box for opposing forwards.
When it comes to centre-backs Bruce will probably tweak the tried and tested duo of James Chester and Abdoulaye Faye, as the Senegalese is now 35 and cannot be expected to start week in and week out in the Premier League. Curtis Davies has been signed at a reasonable price and if pre-season is any indication, he will most likely form the first choice partnership alongside Chester. Faye will be rotated from time to time along with the manager’s son Alex Bruce and another Bruce loyalist, Paul McShane.
Last season’s goalkeepers Ben Amos and David Stockdale have returned back to their parent clubs Manchester United and Fulham respectively after successful loan spells. In their place, Bruce has astutely signed two good goalkeepers. Allan McGregor is an excellent first-choice and is bound to play a crucial role for the Tigers, with Newcastle veteran Steve Harper a very reliable backup goalie.
The midfield: The solidity in midfield will be provided by Bruce’s tried and tested Irish trio of Stephen Quinn, Robbie Brady and David Meyler. Definitely not names that get the average football fan excited, but the three follow Bruce’s template to the tee, very rarely drifting out of position, and continuously tracking back to help the defence.
The creative onus in midfield relies on captain Robert Koren to a disproportionate extent. The Slovenian thrived in midfield, and was the fulcrum on which Hull’s attacks were founded. Koren top scored for the Tigers last season with a paltry total of nine. His greatest asset is switching the direction of the attack, and he can deliver wicked crosses with his cultured left foot. Whether Koren can replicate his form at the highest level is open to question, as he is unlikely to get the space or time to dictate play single-handedly in the Premier League.
The biggest fear for Hull fans is there is no playmaking alternative in midfield if Koren gets injured. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Bruce giving last year’s young player of the season, Dougie Wilson more opportunities during the campaign. If Wilson can hit the ground running, it might just give Hull an added dimension.
On the attack: Scoring goals is clearly the Achilles heel for Hull City. Not a single player reached double figures last season, and Bruce knows that if the Tigers are to have any chance of surviving in the Premier League, their forwards will have to deliver the goods.
The creative onus from the wings falls on the shoulders of last year’s player of the year Ahmed Elmohamady and Nigerian winger Sone Aluko. While Elmohamady doesn’t contribute with many goals himself, he created the most number of chances for his teammates, and is also excellent at tracking back and helping the fullbacks. Aluko on the other hand is more direct, with the pace to beat defenders and a powerful shot resulting in a handy return of eight goals last season. However, against wiser defenders in the Premier League, Aluko’s selfish tendencies with the ball can be detrimental to Hull, so Bruce will have to make him more tactically aware of his responsibilities.
Up front it would be a huge surprise if Nick Proschwitz gets anywhere near the amount of playing time he got last season. To call the German forward’s returns meagre is an understatement. Bruce has tried to rectify the situation by signing Yannick Sagbo, Danny Graham and George Boyd without spending a penny. Bruce has high hopes from Sagbo even though the Ivorian’s stats in Ligue 1 aren’t the most promising, and the same applies to Scotsman Boyd. The pre-season outings indicate that the goal-scoring burden is going to be on the shoulders of Graham. If he can replicate his success during Swansea’s first season in the Premier League, he could potentially be the catalyst for Hull’s survival.
Conclusion: He might not be the most popular manager, and his teams are hardly the most aesthetically pleasing. Nevertheless, the one thing Steve Bruce can guarantee is that he will always field an eleven that are extremely hard to beat. Whether that alone can lead Hull to survival is debatable, as the lack of flair in midfield and attack negates the stinginess of the defence. The Tigers will have to rely on making the KC stadium a fortress, but ultimately if Hull City do manage to reach safety, it will be on a wing and a prayer.