Tiger Kings: Hull City’s Unpredictability an Advantage in 2022-23
Of the 72 clubs in the English Football League, Hull City are one of the hardest to predict for 2022-23.
For most, there’s a range in the table a team is likeliest to inhabit this season, even if we can never tell for sure.
The Tigers, though, really could finish anywhere after starting their season with an opening day 2-1 win over Bristol City.
There’s a world in which the fresh investment provided by Acun Illicali, and the audacious, exotic recruitment policy, allows City to bring in players who are well above this level ability wise and they win the league.
There’s another world in which the 10 new players, including five from abroad, take time to settle, Keane Lewis-Potter is sorely missed, it’s a case of too much, too soon and Hull find themselves embroiled in a relegation scrap.
The Tigers have a top-10 budget, though, so the expectation is significant improvement from last season’s 19th-place finish.
After the 2021-22 Survival
It’s been eventful.
Hull lost George Honeyman to Millwall, who also have eyes on the play-offs this season, which was a divisive topic among supporters. They also lost fellow creative star Lewis-Potter to Brentford, but as that move was considered as progressive for the player, there has been a more positive view from Hull fans.
However, City have been able to recruit international experience, with Illicali stating his desire for Premier League football within three years.
Most goalkeepers peak at 30, which is a scary thought in terms of Nathan Baxter’s potential.
The 22-year-old was talked about as being a contender for Chelsea’s back-up first-team stopper this term, but has instead returned on loan to the KCOM, talking in glowing terms about the project ahead.
Baxter has some competition in the form of Matt Ingram, solid himself at this level, but will expect to start given his output last season.
Since 2021-22, Baxter is within the top 10 goalkeepers for goals prevented in the Championship (4.1), with 17 goals conceded (excluding own goals) from shots on target totalling 21.1 expected goals on target (xGOT) based on Opta’s model.
All the Greaves are Black & Amber
With Lewis-Potter departing, Jacob Greaves is the one remaining poster boy for the success of Hull City’s academy.
As much as Tigers fans have embraced Turkey and welcome the international recruitment policy, there’s something to be said for having the club’s own identity stamped onto the pitch as well, in the name of homegrown talent.
Greaves fits the bill. Not only has he come through the youth system, but he is also the son of Mark Greaves, a City legend from the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Mark, himself, was a centre-back, very much of the no-nonsense variety. Jacob has inherited elements of his father’s love for defending – he’ll throw himself in front of shots.
Operating on the left of a back-three, Greaves loves to drive forward with the ball and get attacks going but when that’s not on, he can also play a beautiful diagonal to the flank.
Not only is a Greaves a fantastic defender with enormous potential, but he’s also a shining beacon for what City’s academy can produce. He has that connection with supporters. He gives the club that sense of identity.
Lack of experience at the back was a minor problem for Hull last season, rather than a major one.
Hull’s defence was reasonably strong last year: the Tigers conceded just 54 goals – the 10th fewest in the Championship and one fewer than play-off side Luton Town – although their 1.39 Expected Goals Against (xGA) per game ranked them 19th in the Championship in 2021-22.
The Tigers had four talented defenders vying for three spots and generally, it was Di’Shon Bernard and Alfie Jones competing to start to the right of Sean McLoughlin and Greaves.
Each are accomplished ‘ball-players’ who also did the basics of defending, and the numbers support the notion that City didn’t need much in the way of experience.
Hull did, though, lose by one or two goals 21 times, and the fact they found themselves on the wrong side of fine margins in 46% of their encounters would suggest a little extra knowhow at key moments wouldn’t hurt.
Tobias Figueiredo fits the bill. The 28-year-old centre-back was part of the Nottingham Forest side that won promotion last season.
On the opening matchday of the Championship season, Figueiredo gave Hull fans a taste of what to expect, with his surging runs with the ball out from the defence. On his debut against Bristol City, the Portuguese tallied 26 progressive ball carries and a total progressive ball carry distance of 269m – the former the most of any player on the opening weekend and the latter the third highest.
It was a solid debut with Figuieredo clearly unafraid to get in combat when required.
Faith in Emmanuel
Even in such a busy summer, Hull have not strengthened at right wing-back, which suggests two things.
Firstly, that the club have a lot of faith in Josh Emmanuel overcoming recent injury woes. After starring in 2020-21 League One title-winning campaign, the former Ipswich academy graduate was hit by injury and hasn’t since played competitive football.
When fit, Emmanuel is a dynamic, modern wing-back more than capable at this level, but it’ll be a big ask for him to rediscover top form straight away.
Secondly, that there is belief in Lewie Coyle. Initially, the ex-Fleetwood stalwart was believed to be better as a right-back than as a wing-back but finished the season well in the latter position and is hoping to kick-on in 2022-23.
Hull’s midfield looks very different this season. In 2021-22, the Tigers were reliant on both Lewis-Potter and Honeyman for creativity – both players created twice as many chances overall as any other team-mate – while the likes of Jean Michaël Seri and Ozan Tufan have come in.
Seri was one of the Championship’s top performers last season with his assurance and passing range: the intricate Ivorian’s arrival represents a huge coup for Hull. Although not known for his goals, he scored the winner late on against Bristol City with a deflected long-range effort – already equalling his tally in 34 competitive games for Fulham last season.
Tufan, meanwhile, brings with him less than complimentary reviews from Watford supporters based on his four starts in 2021-22, with the 27-year-old struggling with the tempo and intensity of the Premier League.
If the Turk – who also scored last weekend against Bristol City on his competitive club debut – has worked on his fitness over the summer, however, then there is that chance for him to show why he’s been capped 65 times and scored nine goals for his country, as well as playing in the Champions League and Europa League with Fenerbahçe.
With a touch more technical quality coming into the midfield, there may be more opportunities for Arveladze to implement the style he was brought in for, even if it wasn’t in evidence in the second half of last season.
Need for Bite
Arveladze favours a 3-4-3 (or 3-4-2-1) and, wherever that formation has worked, one of the central midfielders, if not both, must cover a lot of ground.
When Chelsea won the Premier League title in 2016-17 with that system, they had N’Golo Kante’s unique tenacity allied with Nemanja Matic’s destructive qualities.
When Wolves won the Championship title the following season, they had Romain Saiss bringing the ball-winning element in midfield and even Ruben Neves, an astonishing technician, chipped in defensively.
Two years later, Coventry were able to get away with having an enigmatic technician like Liam Walsh at the base of midfield enroute to top spot in League One, but that was partly because the other number six was the aggressive Liam Kelly, and ahead of them were terriers Jamie Allen and Callum O’Hare.
Last season, Exeter won automatic promotion from League Two, partly thanks to the physicality and dynamism of Timothee Dieng in midfield, but also the stamina of Matt Jay as one of the number 10s – those two were the hardest working on the pitch.
In essence, the success of the system depends on wing-backs getting high and wide, so while the deeper midfielders may have some chances to venture forward with a forward drive, a smart carry or an off-the-ball run when things open up accordingly, the remit is mainly covering gaps, stopping counter-attacks and keeping play ticking over.
It’s possible to get by with one player in that role who isn’t hugely destructive but does stay deep when required, because that way the team can at least retain a semblance of shape while wing-backs and others reclaim their positions.
It’s impossible, though, to make it work without either number six being energetic, tenacious and not shy to the occasional old-school challenge.
Hull hope they can make it work with Regan Slater filling that role, after some promise in pre-season.
With Alfie Jones set to be classed as a right-sided defender, though, there is nobody else in the squad who can provide the destructive element and relying on the 22-year-old would be a risk, seeing as the club has ambitions of challenging.
Slater might well be great, but he didn’t have too many opportunities at Sheffield United and is still, to a point, finding his way at Championship level.
Fleming’s Bond with Supporters
After the success of Greaves and Lewis-Potter, Brandon Fleming is another example of what Hull’s excellent academy can produce.
The intelligent wing-back was widely considered to be among Hull’s top five performers last season: a notch behind the aforementioned duo, yet at a similar level to Honeyman, Baxter and McLoughlin.
Fleming was solid defensively, after recovering from an injury that ruled him out over November and December, and tidy in possession.
Without being especially explosive or direct, Fleming’s movement was excellent and that allowed him to ghost into advanced positions unchartered, and thus produce quality deliveries from good positions.
If Fleming can overcome the injury troubles that have seen him miss the start of 2022-23, the 22-year-old could go up another level.
Much of Hull’s play this season will go through the middle with the increased quality in midfield and attack, as well as the ability of defenders such as Greaves and others to step out of the backline and progress the ball into the middle-third.
If opponents allow them to bring the front-three into play at first attempt, then Hull can create chances that way, but if they condense space centrally, the Tigers have another angle of attack.
With Coyle and Fleming getting high up the pitch, City will have a late reverse ball in their locker, allowing both wing-backs to find space and get deliveries in.
Sometimes, these will be low cut-backs to allow Seri, Tufan or a forward with some clever movement to get an effort at goal from just in front of the defence.
Other times, these will be higher crosses to maximize the aerial strength in the front-line.
Óscar Estupiñán scored 15 Primeira Liga goals last season, including a league-high seven with his head and more than any other player following a cross (eight).
That may also reflect the fact Estupiñán had more headed shots (28) in 2021-22 than his divisional rivals but nonetheless, he’s a threat with the right ammunition.
Tetteh, meanwhile, is 6-foot-4 and if he can peel off onto aerially weaker defenders, there may be chances for the Ghana international to do some damage.
The 25-year-old was not expected to be at full fitness on the opening day but, after replacing Tyler Smith up top, he offered a crucial reference point to Arveladze’s side and made a difference – the Yeni Malatyaspor recruit could grow as the season goes on, too.
Mid-Block Press & Sayyadmanesh
Hull under Arveladze look to be neither an intense, high-pressing side, nor a low-block, counter-attacking outfit. Rather, they are happy to let opposing defenders have the ball, but then be very aggressive once the ball comes near the opposing half.
Key to this will be Allahyar Sayyadmanesh, who will operate just off the main striker in a narrow front-three.
The forward picked up an injury early on after his January loan move, but that may have taken the pressure off the Iranian and allowed him to settle into a new country before having to deliver on the pitch.
With that extra time to adjust to English culture, Sayadmannesh finished last season in excellent fashion and if he can put in more performances like the one in the 3-0 win over Reading in April, he could be one of the stars of the Championship.
Not only does the 20-year-old press vigorously from the front, but he also doesn’t give up if the initial efforts don’t go to plan: he will track back and make tackles.
That aggression will be crucial to ensuring that Sayadmannesh makes the space for his pace, trickery and penchant for a deft finish to come to the fore in the cut-and-thrust of English football’s second tier.
Many have argued that the Allam family got a lot wrong at Hull, but one of the things they got right was the work they did on the youth academy.
The Tigers have a lot of top talents coming through the ranks, including Andy Smith. The centre-back came off the bench against Fenerbahce in a pre-season friendly and he looked comfortable, amid the hostile atmosphere, reading the game well and being strong in the air.
Forward-thinking winger McCauley Snelgrove is now also coming through the ranks: he hit a hat-trick against Sheffield United at U18 level in 2020-21 and has since become an U23 regular.
Also coming through are midfielder Callum Jones, Ireland U19’s centre-back Jevon Mills and Bermuda U20’s goalscoring winger Sincere Hall.
In addition, the club have recruited for their Development Squad, poaching 19-year-old forward Vaughn Covil – formerly USA U15s and England U16s – from Forest Green.
If the U23s setup is strong, the club can focus on recruiting quality over quantity for the first team squad, and not sweat too much about immediate cover when injuries hit.
Shota in the Dark?
Hull were in good form when Arveladze came in: they’d just won six in 11.
It was helpful in some respect, because the players were not short of confidence, but less helpful in others: not all the players would have been in favour of Grant McCann’s dismissal.
The football, subsequently, left a little to be desired. This can be accounted for, to some extent, by the absence of personnel in some areas suited to the style.
For example, could Arveladze have implemented expansive, possession football with Richie Smallwood at the base of midfield and Tom Eaves up top?
Perhaps up to a point, but it would have been difficult because those two players have skillsets that wouldn’t immediately make them natural fits for such an approach and alternatives were scarce.
Instead, Arveladze made his side hard to beat and maybe even approached the 19 games with the mindset of just doing enough to tick off the 50 points, knowing he would almost certainly have the summer to evolve the squad to his taste.
Following his appointment in late January, only matches involving Blackburn Rovers (1.89) averaged fewer goals per game in the Championship last season than those involving Hull (2.16).
Now, though, Arveladze has the personnel he wants. And, while some allowances can be made for the fact it has been a busy summer and a lot of new players are settling into a new country as well as bedding into a new team, but this year’s grace period will only last so long.
Hull have been ambitious in the market: now, they intend to deliver.
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