Team analysis

How is Mike Phelan saving Hull City: tactics and key players

Author: Iain Macintosh

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Hull City started the season with 12 fully fit senior players, a caretaker manager, absolutely no votes of confidence from the media, and yet with two wins, one draw and one hugely unfortunate defeat, they find themselves eighth in the table. How on earth is this happening?

It can only be assumed that the club’s failure to turn manager Mike Phelan’s contract from temporary to whatever passes for permanent in modern football is due to the stuttering takeover talks that have been widely reported. There have been suggestions that Martin O’Neill may leave his Republic of Ireland role to take over at the KCOM Stadium. This would be unwise. Phelan has galvanised a tiny squad. He wants the job, the players are doing their best to ensure that he gets it and there seems little point in complicating the situation. 

Last weekend, Hull snatched a point at Burnley with an injury time equaliser that arrived in the form of a Robert Snodgrass free kick. On the face of it, this appears a rather fortunate result against a team believed to be one of the weakest in the league. But don’t be deceived. Hull did to Burnley what they did to Manchester United. They played smart, they held their shape and they caused problems. Sometimes, as it was at Swansea last month, that’s enough. Sometimes, as they discovered against United, it’s not. But over the course of the season, provided that sufficient reinforcements arrive in January, it should be enough preserve their Premier League status. 

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There’s nothing especially ground-breaking about Phelan’s tactics, but they have proved especially efficient in the opening weeks of the season. Hull have fielded the same eleven in every game this season. In defence, Curtis Davies provides aerial cover, while Jake Livermore, a midfielder for Tottenham in a past life, can start moves from the back. With their ostensibly wide midfielders cutting in, most of the width comes from the effervescent Andy Robertson on the left and Ahmed Elmohamady, both of whom are capable of providing a decent supply of crosses. Both men are vulnerable to a counter-attack and it was Elmohamady’s fatigued moment of hesitation that allowed Wayne Rooney to make United’s winner before the international break, but their strengths outweigh their weaknesses. 

The revelation of Hull’s season has been 25 year old Sam Clucas, a towering red-head whose career was rescued by a stint at the Glenn Hoddle academy after he failed to make the grade at Lincoln City. Spells at Hereford and Mansfield followed before Hull spent £1.3m on him in 2015. He was nearly an ever present last season, but even the most ardent Hull fan couldn’t have predicted how comfortable he would look in the Premier League. Ungainly, he may seem, but Clucas’ positioning is excellent, he frequently intercepts attacking moves and, once in possession, he is utterly decisive. He’ll either play a quick pass to a team-mate or he’ll thrash out a leg and put the ball in a low earth orbit. 

If it is a quick pass, he has plenty of options. Tom Huddlestone and David Meyler stay in close proximity and offer different strengths. Meyler is capable of grabbing the ball and running with it, while Huddlestone prefers a low forward pass. They’re flanked by Robert Snodgrass on the right, making up for lost time after an eternity out with injury, and Adama Diomande, an industrious Norwegian who likes to run with the ball, though he enjoyed little reward against Burnley. Together, they support Abel Hernandez, whose 20 goals were a key factor in returning Hull to the top flight at the first attempt. 

It’s easy to write Hull off as simply a disciplined, compact unit hoping for a break, but there’s more to them than that. When Meyler hit Tom Heaton’s post just before half-time, it was the final touch to an 18 pass move that involved nearly every outfield player. 

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They can move the ball very quickly in the middle, flicking one touch passes to each other before launching a counter-attack, generally through Huddlestone or Snodgrass. Because of their understandable reluctance to over-commit to the attack, these chances are often snuffed out. But not always. 

Hull, regardless of the complications with the takeover talks, should move quickly to, at the very least, sign Phelan for the rest of the campaign. By the end of the month, the Premier League table, and indeed the Championship table, will have taken shape. Sacking season will begin. If Hull don’t want Phelan, someone else certainly will. The Tigers have survived a chaotic summer, but they wouldn’t survive that. 

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Iain Macintosh
Is a football writer for ESPNFC and the editor of  The Set Pieces