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Three points the only acceptable outcome at Hull

The Tigers are about as bad as you think they are

West Ham United v Hull City - Premier League Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Everton have a quick turnaround this week, and close out both the calendar year and the first half of their season with a trip to meet Hull at the KC Stadium.

Hull City overview

The numbers are ugly for the Tigers:

Expected goals courtesy of Michael Caley

Hull sit bottom of the table at the moment and unfortunately they deserve it. Arguably Swansea and perhaps Burnley—despite what their results tell you—have been worse at times but the point is that this is not a case of bad luck, at least on the pitch.

Failure to launch

Okay so Hull are bad, but why? Interestingly, they profile a bit differently from their bottom-of-the-table counterparts. Most of the time, crap teams show up poorly in possession and passing numbers. They tend to have low rates of possession, low pass accuracy, a low passing tempo (passes per minute of possession), and a high emphasis on long balls and dribbling. (I am not claiming that good teams can’t show up poorly in these metrics as well—see Leicester last year).

While they are 20th in the main table, Hull are 16th in possession, 11th in pass accuracy, 4th in passing tempo, and 11th in percentage of passes that are long balls. Notably, when they’ve played other lower-table teams they’ve tended to have more of the ball. This was the case against Burnley, Bournemouth, Sunderland, West Brom, and Crystal Palace (Swansea are the main exception here). At face value, this suggests that they are decent about keeping hold of the ball and pinging it around, at least against mediocre or poor opposition.

So what’s the problem? Well, all of this passing and possession tends to happen in Hull’s own third, and almost never in dangerous areas. Hull tend to sit incredibly deep:

Data courtesy of WhoScored

As a result, their final third pass ratio and chance quality are 19th and 20th in the league, respectively.

Paul Riley took a good look at the Tigers a few weeks ago and noted that they pass around the back like a top team but pass out of the back like a relegation team. No prizes for guessing which is more important for a team’s overall success.

Defensively, Hull’s low block has brought some of the benefits you’d expect—their shot-blocking numbers are excellent and they are allowing the 5th lowest average chance quality in the league—but the volume they are conceding is still running the show. If you allow almost 20 shots a game, bad things happen.

Riley’s article gave some concrete suggestions to how Hull could improve, namely:

  • Re-inserting Tom Huddlestone in the lineup to help advance the ball centrally
  • Moving Robert Snodgrass centrally to get him into better shooting positions then he gets into cutting in from the right
  • Freeing Mohammed Elmohamady from right back and getting him into more advanced positions

Somewhat shockingly—to me at least, and not because I didn’t think Paul was right, but because I didn’t think anyone was listening—Hull implemented these changes. They’ve gone to a 3-5-1-1 in each of their four games since Riley’s article. Two of those were against Tottenham and Manchester City, so the odds were never going to be great there, but against Crystal Palace and West Ham, Hull actually played pretty well, by their standards. Admittedly it’s still not pretty but it’s at least a little bit more effective:

Snodgrass is a clear focal point in the middle, Elmohamady is higher than he would be in a 4-man back line, and Huddlestone is the central midfield hub. The defense is still shaky but attacking xG numbers have risen.

Matching up with Everton

Everton got off to a slow start against Leicester but grew into the game after their opening goal and were much more dynamic after Gareth Barry went off in place of Tom Davies. I know it’s unlikely that Davies becomes a starter but the trio of him, Barkley, and Gueye gave the midfield a great mix of energy and composure.

Against a low block like Hull’s, it’s important not to give the defense a let-off by attempting a low-percentage cross or shot, or by dribbling into a dead end. Unfortunately Everton have a few players who love doing this sort of thing, so the key will be to keep hold of the ball around the box and try to force Hull into a mistake, rather than getting impatient. I would think to this end that Koeman would return to a 4-2-3-1 and retain Kevin Mirallas and possibly Ross Barkley—two players who, while flawed, are keen to use movement and one-touch passing to combine around the box with Lukaku. Barkley, though, is not always the best at refraining from shooting or dribbling in bad areas. My worry is that we end up hitting 20 long shots, 20 crosses, and can’t actually score. This will be a good test of Everton’s composure and maturity.

In any case, this is one of those games where anything less than a win will leave us all disappointed heading into 2017. At this point it’s fair to say that Everton are solidly a top-8 team; dropping points against the likes of Hull will ensure they don’t improve on that.