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Six takes from Hull City's thumping win: Route to redemption for Grant McCann?

Route to redemption for Grant McCann?
Route to redemption for Grant McCann?

It’s 9.30pm on Wednesday 22nd July 2020 at the Cardiff City Stadium. Hull City’s relegation as the Championship’s bottom side is confirmed after a 3-0 defeat, their 16th loss in 20 games. The forlorn figure of Grant McCann trudges down the tunnel.

At that point, the Northern Irishman could have been forgiven for thinking the whole world had been against him. Hull had been 8th before losing their two best players in January, plus several other key players through injury, and criticism had come at McCann from all angles.

Journalists were ruthless in their critique in post-match interviews and while fans might not have been present at games, their wrath was deafening on social media: calls for the former midfielder to go were more prominent than those condemning the ill-fated Allam regime, while many dubbed him “clueless”.

The scorn was understandable amid such awful form, yet one cannot help but notice the irony that, when many claimed McCann to have “no Plan B”, the ex-Doncaster boss responded to adversity emphatically.

The League One title win of 2020-21 was, metaphorically speaking, McCann’s Plan B. Some might justifiably argue that promotion from the third-tier should not have been necessary, but equally, most of those people would have also said the achievement could not have been attained under their head coach – so can they truly play it down? 

The lows McCann hit between January and July last year would, no doubt, have affected his family as well as his own mental wellbeing – and others connected with the club would have of course been hurt - so such a uniquely defiant response has to be greatly admired.

The Tigers deservedly secured top spot last term and, while it may be inappropriate to make any assumptions about their prospects in the Championship this season based on just one game, they have had a great start.

After falling behind early on at Preston North End, McCann’s troops stormed to a 4-1 victory: so could better times be ahead? The signs, so far, look good…

1. Ingram impresses

After thriving in League Two with Wycombe Wanderers, Matt Ingram has previously struggled to establish himself at Championship level.

The Buckinghamshire born stopper managed just 10 games across four different seasons at QPR which meant, even after being first-choice in League One for Hull last season, there were question marks over the goalkeeping position over the summer.

Ingram, though, has had a good start – making key saves from Tom Barkhuizen when scored were level – which means McCann and the recruitment team may be less inclined to bring in a more proven ‘keeper in the latter stages of the window. 

2. The Jones and Greaves combo

Hull centre-back pairing of Alfie Jones and Jacob Greaves could be perceived in one of two ways.

On the one hand, these are two incredibly talented defenders with the potential to reach English football’s top table and if they click, could form an excellent partnership.

On the other hand, there are risks.

Jones’ best season came when operating in front of a four-man defence while at Gillingham in 2019-20, while Greaves thrived at Cheltenham on the left of a back-three, giving him the freedom to drive forward with the ball.

Critics would ask who the dominant presence could be and those concerns are still valid to a point, after a limp header from Greaves lead to one of North End’s chances.

In fact, if Hull’s defence gets carved open by higher-quality opposition, the lack of experience may yet be an area that McCann will look to address.

Equally, it may be difficult to find an affordable centre-back at Championship level that is strong, experienced and good enough on the ball for the way the Tigers wish to play, without having a chronic lack of pace.

The fact Di’Shon Bernard – who can play centre-back or right-back – has joined on loan from Manchester United would suggest McCann is happy to trust young defenders to adapt.

3. Inverted left-back

For much of the 2010s, it was commonplace in football for full-backs to attack the flank directly, providing the width that classic wingers might have done in previous areas.

In that period, it might have been frowned upon to deploy a right-footed full-back at left-back and vice versa, because of how it would have affected their ability to hit the byline.

More recently, though, we have seen managers be prepared to task full-backs with influencing the game in a more technical way, sometimes drifting into the central areas that may have been vacated by forward-thinking midfielders.

At the elite level, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joao Cancelo, Leonardo Spinazzola and Benjamin Pavard have all become world-class full-backs without pace being the fundamental aspect of their game.

In Cancelo and Spinazzola’s case, they are right-footed players known to be deployed without hesitation at left-back (or left wing-back) and this is a trend that could be creeping into the Championship.

Right-back is one of the strongest areas of this Hull squad, with Lewie Coyle and Josh Emmanuel – both having excelled massively in League One – both in contention.

McCann’s solution to the dilemma, as well as the absence of injured left-back Callum Elder, was to deploy Emmanuel at left-back, believing that the Ipswich academy graduate’s quality made him more valuable in that position than a respected, natural left-footer in Brandon Fleming, who was on the bench.

Emmanuel and Coyle took four shots between them and had 159 touches of the ball, completing 126 passes: this shows full-backs in Hull’s side this season will not be used merely as an occasional out-ball, but rather as regular participants in the build-up play. 

4. Smallwood’s strong start

Richie Smallwood enjoyed a hint of fortune with his goal, which put Hull in front, with his long-range strike taking a huge deflection, but his all-round performance was excellent.

The vigorous veteran put in three strong challenges for City and made a valuable five interceptions, the third-most in the division on opening weekend, whilst playing an inch-perfect through ball for Keane Lewis-Potters equaliser.

Before the season – and still now, depending on how much weight one puts on one performance - there have been question marks over Smallwood’s mobility for Championship level.

The skipper was outstanding in helping Rotherham stay up in 2014-15 and 2015-16, but has since then been more of a League One specialist, helping Blackburn and Hull win automatic promotion without truly cutting it in the second tier.

The more appealing option, on the face of things, might have been to deploy Jones as the anchor man with Smallwood as the back-up option to cover that position for 10 to 15 games, then recruit an experienced centre-back partner for Greaves.

McCann has shown faith in Smallwood, though and it could be vindicated if he can produce more performances like the one on Saturday.

5. Lewis-Potter magic

Jarrod Bowen stormed to prominence at Hull in their first season back in the Championship, 2017-18, with two excellent full seasons and a sensational first half of the 2019-20 campaign earning him a move to Premier League side West Ham.

Based on Keane Lewis-Potter’s City showings so far, there is no reason why he cannot follow a similar path.

The 20-year-old was among the top performers in League One last season, scoring 13 goals whilst using his pace, movement, dribbling ability and craft to become a key part of the collective attack, along with Mallik Wilks and George Honeyman.

If the opening day is anything to go by, Lewis-Potter has carried that form into the division above, showing great awareness to run onto Smallwood’s through ball before producing an incisive finish.

Lewis-Potter is brave in his aerial duels, he’s quick but also has great dexterity and can change direction with ease, his left foot is improving and he can use his ability for the benefit of the collective, often having the selflessness to pick a pass when he gets into a good position.

The latter strength is partly tied to his difficulty when it comes to generating power on his shots, especially outside the box, but if he can continue to get into great positions like he did on Saturday then that will not halt his rise to English football’s top table.

6. The focal point

Magennis and Eaves return to the Championship with a point to prove.

The former has impressed in League One with Charlton and Hull through his strength, hold-up play and selfless graft in wide areas, meaning there have been a lot of games in which the Northern Irishman has played well and made a valuable contribution to attacks, without scoring.

At Championship level, though, there have been questions over whether Magennis is clinical enough to make the most of a low volume of chances.

There has been a similar level of doubt surrounding Eaves, though the 29-year-old is a different type of player.

The 6’3” striker scored 38 goals in 84 League One games across two seasons for Gillingham, with many of them being back-post headers from crosses from the byline.

Eaves’ ability to use his clear height advantage to dominate an opposing full-back in the air for a simple header was, perhaps, confused with the work of a strong, courageous and driven centre-forward who would go into any duel wholeheartedly to help his team up the pitch.

Eaves’ limitations meant he struggled with the step up in 2019-20 but, with a clearer sense of the requirements, hopes to return stronger this time around – like his positional competitor.

Both have enjoyed promising starts: Magennis grabbed Hull’s third goal in Lancashire, before Eaves, coming off the bench, assisted Andy Cannon in adding the fourth.

Route to redemption for McCann? We’ll see – but more results like Saturday’s one at Deepdale and he’ll be getting there.

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Odds correct as of 2023-01-27 14:15 Odds subject to change.
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