Vorsprung Durch Tactics

It’s never dull in Hull, so we’re told. Similarly, it’s never dull at Hull City. Unless you count the actual football, that is, which is so interminably dull it pains me to even think about it, let alone write about it. However, if only for historical posterity, I’ll have a go.

And where on earth do you start? From the defence to the attack, we are simply not good enough. Or are we? I rather think we are good enough to at the very least mount a credible play-off challenge. We’re not doing that at the moment, by the way. It is all rather reminiscent of last season, where we always mathematically close, without actually looking particularly likely.  

This time around, we’re just a handful of points away from the promised land of seventh position in the Fourth Division (and if that doesn’t depress you, nothing will). Hell, we even got to within a single point following that marvellous win at Scunthorpe. And what happened yet another false dawn.

So, if we’re good enough, why aren’t we seventh, or higher? Tactics, maybe? Brian Little has a reputation as a cunning tactician, but I’d argue that he’s missed a couple of tricks so far this season. Playing Harper at left wing-back is a flawed plan. He cannot do it any more, if he ever could. His confidence is shot, his play a shadow of what it was. He should have been moved somewhere else on the pitch, or dropped. He is not yet a liability but he is not offering the sort of play someone with his talent (and pay-packet) should be.

Little should move him to right wing-back, where he would probably be more comfortable. Hopefully, when Neil Mann makes his long-awaited comeback, this will happen. Then, you must consider the wisdom of playing Mike Edwards at right wing-back. Edwards is a superb player, with many admirable qualities. However, attacking play is not one of them. He doesn’t make the right runs, or play the correct passes. No problem – with that he’s a centre-back, after all, but it is not fair to ask him to do something he patently cannot do. Like Harper, his confidence is clearly low, and his progress as a player is being harmed.

Then, the very tactics of the team must again be brought into question. It’s not a new debate, of course, but it remains a relevant one. 5-3-2 isn’t working. It didn’t work for Joyce, either. Little, from his days at Villa, West Brom and Stoke, is known to prefer 5-3-2. But it is not wise to employ this formation when it stifles the team at home, and invites pressure away. 4-4-2 is regarded as football’s natural formation, and quite rightly. It provides balance, a definitive shape and best of all, is second nature to most players. It seems quite bizarre to impose an alien formation on the players. Hopefully, when Mann returns, 4-4-2 will make a return, to Mann and Harper playing on the wings, and Whitmore and Brabin in the middle, and a proper flat back four. Well, you can but dream, can’t you?

But no, tactics are not the primary reason we’ve stuttered this season.

The greatest share of any blame lies firmly upon the players. They have shown neither the guile nor the will to win often enough this season. Our tactics are perhaps not helping, but that does not excuse the sheer lack of effort on one or two occasions, most notably against Kettering and Chester.

There is nothing any manager can do about his players not playing properly, save for dropping them and with a squad as small as ours, even that option is not available. Irrespective of who you blame for our financial woes (for some reason, my mind keeps repeating the word ‘Sheffield’), Little simply does not have the option to ring the changes he clearly wants to. For better or worse, we are stuck with what we have.

However, irrespective of which formation our manager opts for, it would appear we have a new tactical option, with the arrival of Kevin Francis from Exeter. His assets are well-known – he’s bloody huge. He will hopefully provide Brown, Bradshaw or Eyre a bit of physical protection up front, giving them more room to do their thing, whatever that might be. However, you can’t help but worry what will happen. Will the defence take the easy option of lumping the ball up front? For that matter, will the midfield? Far easier to aim for Francis’ head than try a simple pass, after all. Will our intentions to play attractive football be sacrificed at the altar of results? No great loss, results are more important than pretty football, but nonetheless, you can’t help but worry.

Furthermore, how will the recent arrival of Rodney Rowe affect things? He has a reputation as a pacy, lively striker with good control and a sharp brain, though he is not noted for being prolific in front of goal. He has toured seemingly every lower league club in Yorkshire, with previous spells at Scarborough, Huddersfield, York and Halifax.

His arrival will bolster our option up front, and suddenly we seem to have a positive abundance of strikers. Brown, Eyre, Harris, Bradshaw, Wood, Francis and Rowe will all be vying for two places. Obviously, that probably spells the end for Harris and Wood, and places a question mark over Bradshaw having much involvement in the second half of the season.

However, with none of forwards in any sort of form, it is easy to see Little opting for Francis and Rowe up front, despite them both being new arrivals. A desperate last throw of the dice, or a master-stroke? Well, Little hasn’t let us down yet, you have to suspect he knows what he’s doing.

Andy Dalton