Hull City have been the surprise outfit in the Premier League thus far. After a disastrous summer that saw Steve Bruce leave the club over a lack of transfer activity, Hull were almost universally pegged by pundits and journalists to get relegated. Mike Phelan took over a squad with only 14 fit senior players on an interim basis and summarily knocked off league champions Leicester in the season opener then beat Swansea away. Only a 92nd Marcus Rashford winner kept Hull from nicking a point from Manchester United and they drew their last match away to Burnley. That’s 7 points, equal with Arsenal and level on goal difference.
Phelan has opted for a 4-1-4-1. With both Michael Dawson and Alex Bruce out long term with injuries, Jake Livermore has filled in admirably as a makeshift center back alongside Curtis Davies. Davies has been heroic. He has the highest player rating in the Premier League at whoscored.com. He leads Europe’s top five leagues in interceptions, blocks and clearances and has a pass success rate of 87.9%. Ahmed Elmohamady plays right back and will look to push forward. Andrew Robertson plays left back. Sam Clucas shields the back four at the base of midfield. The 25 year-old has played in the Conference, League Two, League One, the Championship and the Premier League in five successive seasons. David Meyler and Tom Huddlestone operate in slightly more advanced central midfield positions either side of Clucas. New club record signing Ryan Mason made his Hull debut as a substitute against Burnley and may slot into one of the three central midfield positions. Robert Snodgrass plays wide on the right. The Scottish international has been excellent, netting the winner against Leicester and scoring a brilliant equalizer from a free kick last week at Burnley. Adama Diomande plays wide on the left and offers some pace going forward, Abel Hernandez plays striker.
I focused the bulk of my attention on how Hull set up in their home defeat to Manchester United as that match will likely offer a better clue of their approach than the Leicester, Swansea and Burnley matches. You’d expect Arsenal to have more of the ball, just as Manchester United did in their visit to the KC Stadium when they had 62% possession. Against Leicester Hull had 50% possession and against Burnley they had 61%. I don’t foresee them reaching totals that high.
Defensively Hull set out in a deep 4-1-4-1 against Jose Mourinho’s side. There was a midfield block of four in front of a defensive block of four. Sam Clucas sat in the space between the two banks to deny space between the lines. The deep, compact defensive shape succeeded in frustrating United. With Clucas denying space between the lines, Wayne Rooney had to come deeper and wider from his #10 position to get on the ball than perhaps he would have liked (graphic of his received passes versus Hull below). He ended up providing the vital assist for Marcus Rashford’s winner but wasn’t particularly effective during the majority of the 90 minutes.
It’ll therefore be interesting to see how Ozil performs with limited space between the lines where he tends to thrive. Ozil is a positionally more intelligent player than Rooney and a better passer but he wasn’t at his best last weekend against Southampton, who were also defending with a compact midfield block of five.
As I mentioned above Curtis Davies has been excellent at center back. However I did see some areas of his game I think we can exploit. There’s a reason he leads Europe in interceptions. When the opposition striker drops in deeper areas to receive a wall pass he loves to be ultra aggressive and try to step in front of the intended recipient to intercept. He did this multiple times when Ibrahimovic tried to drop in to receive passes from midfielders and his timing was immaculate. However, every time he is aggressive in stepping out of the back four line he’s leaving space in behind him that we can exploit if we have players intelligent enough to make diagonal runs into that space.
In Caulker Davies has an inexperienced center back partner who may not be as alert to the danger that occurs to his left when Davies leaves his position and steps forward to try to intercept. If Caulker doesn’t tuck inside a bit when Davies pushes out, it’ll leave a big gap between him and left back Robertson where our midfield runners can push on into if they’re alert. The graphic below shows an example of movement Arsenal can do to exploit this aggression from Davies. Here Ozil is in possession in midfield with Giroud in a central striker position. Giroud makes a run back towards Ozil to give him a passing option. Davies steps forward anticipating the pass into Giroud and looking to intercept. This opens up space behind Davies that he’s just vacated. Sanchez makes a diagonal run from his position on the inside left into that vacated space to receive a pass from Ozil.
Those vertical runs in behind the opposition back four are ones that our midfielders are too often reluctant to make. Alexis loves to come deep to get on the ball when he plays on the left but at times we need those vertical runs to stretch the opposition defense.
The wide midfielders Diomande and Snodgrass work hard to provide cover for their two fullbacks Robertson and Elmohamady. This is important as neither fullback is particularly good at defending 1 v. 1. Elmohamady was easily beaten by Rooney for United’s winner and Robertson was beaten to the endline down the right side on more than one occasion. When we do get in positions to run at the fullbacks in 1 v. 1 situations we should certainly take advantage.
When Hull get on the ball they’re tidier in possession than I maybe would have expected. Huddlestone has an excellent range of passes and brings a calm assuredness to their possession.
They aren’t an especially pacey side so they need to be competent moving the ball in midfield. Without a ton of speed they can’t hit you with the direct vertical counter attacking play we saw from Leicester last season. Along with a lack of pace, their defensive shape makes it difficult for them to counter. Because they defend with a midfield block of five, Hernandez can become isolate up front when they win the ball back. Since they don’t have a second player up front with him the way you would when you defend in blocks of four with two up front, Hernandez is the only outlet and is tasked with holding the ball up long enough to give other players the time to push forward.
Depending on how we’re feeling physically after the PSG encounter I’d be tempted to press high up the pitch immediately when we lose possession. This should force Hull into knocking long hopeful balls towards Hernandez who will be on his own. As good as Davies has been he’s anxious in possession and will simply clear aimlessly the instant he’s put under pressure. Likewise, Robertson was really poor when United finally started to press in the second half.
Diomande seems to be their quickest, most explosive attacking threat. In possession he’ll tuck inside from his starting position on the left into more of a withdrawn striker role just behind Hernandez. There were two occasions when he received passes between the United lines that lead to half chances for Hull. In the 23rd minute he collected a pass from Huddlestone between the lines and forced Fellaini into fouling in a dangerous area. Snodgrass put the ensuing free kick just wide. In the 47th minute he again received a pass in a similar position between the United lines and slipped Hernandez through on goal but Daley Blind did well to cover. We’ll need to be cautious of where he is.
I think Hull will allow us to control possession. Since they don’t pose any huge threat on the counter I would be tempted to use two ball playing holding midfielders in Cazorla and Xhaka as we did in our best performance of the season, the 3-0 win over Watford. Against a deep defending side this is probably a game for Giroud up top since he poses a physical threat and there won’t be space in behind for a quicker striker to exploit. Hopefully Giroud reserves his poor decision-making for Champions League fixtures.
We have our difficulties breaking down compact, deep defending opposition so it’ll be interesting to see how we cope with a side that’s been pretty well organized this season. They’ll get a boost from a home crowd that has been left pleasantly surprised at the positive start their team has shown so I think we’ll need to come into the game quickly as Hull will look for a fast start. The talent gap between the sides is significant. That should be enough to see Arsenal through but if we don’t improve on the performances of our last two matches we could be in for a frustrating day.