Note: Over the next twenty days, we will spend a day previewing each team in the Premier League in advance of the coming season. We''ll start with the promoted teams, then move up the table, skipping Newcastle and saving them for last. We will finish on August 12, exactly one week prior to the Toon's opener with Manchester City.
Hull City will return to the Premier League after a three-year absence, having achieved promotion via a second-place finish in the Championship with Steve Bruce at the helm. The Tigers didn't have the most impressive campaign, managing just a +9 goal differential, but they were buoyed by a midseason 8 match unbeaten run, followed by a late stretch of 8 wins in 12 matches.
Hull play low-scoring affairs, which is a huge credit to their defensive unit, given their season-long struggles in goal. Skeptics will point to Bruce's usage of the relatively unconventional 3-5-2 as the magic elixir that befuddled Championship-level attacks, while glass-half-full types praise Bruce's willingness to fit the formation to the personnel available to him. He says he's going to stick with the system in the top flight, where it will be tested by fire. The problem with a defense-first system (not that there aren't problems with others) is how to adjust the plan when the other team actually scores. In the Premier League, teams with exponentially deeper benches than those found in the next level down will have the resources to utilize the right personnel to unlock the three center half system, where Championship teams were more or less forced to roll with their default XI, regardless of whether or not that formation matched up well with the opponent.
That sounds incredibly dismissive of Bruce's 3-5-2 and of Hull's accomplishment, which is perhaps unfair. But there's a reason the formation rarely exists anymore, especially in England: it can be picked apart by any team with decent wingers, which English teams (stereo?)typically have in abundance. It will be interesting to see if the gaffer adjusts his system when and if it begins to show cracks. In April, with Hull firmly in second place and promotion no longer just a hope but a realistic possibility, The Guardian rightly praised Steve Bruce for his innovation on his return to football. Within the profile, Bruce admitted to being hurt by his exit from Sunderland, and spoke with pride at the way his "different" system had brought his new club back to the brink of the top flight. One almost gets the sense that he returned to the game to prove a point, that the teams who passed on him and the critics that believed he was too "old school" to be effective in today's game are missing out on a guy who reinvented the wheel by looking not to the future, but to the past.
Of course, any system is only as good as its players. The original 3-5-2 was made famous by the likes of Diego Maradona and Jorge Valdano, neither of which will be suiting up for the Tigers. They did manage to snag Danny Graham on loan from Sunderland (Hull is full of ex-mackems, as might be expected), a move that perhaps didn't receive quite enough fanfare. He'll try to take the mantle of top goalscorer from Robert Koren, who tallied most of his goals from midfield. Former Newcastle man Steve Harper was brought in to compete for the #1 shirt with fellow new boy Allan McGregor, and Maynor Figueroa was added to bolster and already stout defense. In order to be truly competitive, Bruce will have to continue to add to the squad, particularly up front. Otherwise, we may be looking at a team whose main problem is not being able to score enough goals, a malady that will sink any club regardless of tactical persuasion.
Home fixture: September 21
Away fixture: March 1