On Saturday afternoon, Chelsea travel to the KC Stadium in Hull to face a team with a small identity crisis, though quite not in the way that you would think. The debate as to whether to refer to the team as the Hull Tigers or simply Hull City, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is no debate that they are the best of the sides to be promoted for this Premier League campaign.
Manager Steve Bruce has guided the Tigers to 10th in the Premier League, and although that means that they are just 6 points clear of the relegation zone, their performances suggest that they are most likely to stay up for next season. This match will be one where Bruce’s men will look to gain a point, but I doubt that it will be points that they will be counting on for survival. However, the KC Stadium has been a happy place for Hull, with all six clean sheets coming at home and only two defeats in the league.
For Chelsea, Jose Mourinho will bring a team full of confidence and a bit of rest for the first time this season. With six days between the last match in the FA Cup against Derby and another eight days ahead of their home clash with Manchester United, the Blues will be looking to rest and recover, particularly given the absence of Frank Lampard and Branislav Ivanovic leaving them short of numbers at the back and in midfield. Regardless, the Blues are unbeaten since the defeat to Stoke City in early December and will be looking to keep pace with Arsenal and Manchester City in a very tight title race.
This is not the same team that Chelsea faced on the opening day of the season.
In the opening match of the season, Chelsea gave Hull a footballing lesson for the first 30 minutes, coming out with a pace of play and a quality that the Blues have really failed to replicate on a regular basis this season. However, some of that was down to Bruce’s side being a bit awed by their first match back in the top flight, and a lack of positional discipline and focus partially led to their downfall.
That hasn’t happened recently, and this Hull side have been well drilled both at the back and through the midfield. The interesting thing about Hull now is their ability to keep the matches tight and score at opportunistic times. This season, only Manchester United and Southampton have managed to put more than 2 goals past the Tigers in a match this season, and that solidity has allowed them to take points from all of the sides in the middle and bottom of the table that will ensure their survival.
Part of that is down to Bruce’s signings. At the beginning of the season, I said that Bruce had been very shrewd compared to his promoted compatriots by bringing in players, either on loan or through purchase, whom had been struggling for matches at Premier League clubs and had plenty of experience playing at that level. Despite the lack of goals from Danny Graham, Tom Huddlestone and Ahmed Elmohamady have provided creativity and experience that many of their rivals don’t have at the moment. It’s allowed them to not only play very solid in defense, but to spring forward on the counter to generate enough goals to win matches. It’s the biggest problem you have with facing Hull, but you would think that Blues have the quality to survive that style of play.
Tom Huddlestone has had a bit of a renaissance.
Since being cast off a couple years back at Tottenham, Huddlestone’s future as a top footballer was in doubt. This was a player that had made international appearances under Fabio Capello and at one time was viewed as a possible long-term solution in the midfield. Lack of appearances for Spurs and lack of managers that trusted him has caused that promise to fade slightly, but he remains a very good passer of the ball, despite a rather limited mobility.
However, in this Hull side, his lack of pace isn’t a hindrance, and his ability to play passes of any distance and play them accurately has been a major asset. Against Fulham, he singlehandedly dominated the Fulham midfield and also earned a haircut for scoring a rare goal. It’s his passing ability and ability to win the ball that allows the quicker players, like Elmohamady, to counter at pace, and it tends to open up space for the strikers (which we’ll get into in a moment).
This will be an interesting test for Huddlestone and the midfield, particularly because they didn’t really impose themselves at the Etihad against a similar midfield in Yaya Toure and Fernandinho. However, those two did give them opportunities to score, and had Sone Aluko taken his early chance, they might have sung a different tune.
Regardless, a midfield of the resurgent John Mikel Obi and Ramires should provide a different test, with the latter provided a willingness to chase and harry that Toure and Fernandinho don’t always show and a much more aggressive pressing from the three behind the striker. If Huddlestone and the midfield can’t get a grip on the match, it could be a long day at home for Hull.
Hull have one major problem: sticking the round thing in the rectangular thing at the end of the pitch.
If Hull have a major flaw, it’s a profligacy in front of goal. The Tigers have managed 22 goals this season, which isn’t the lowest total in the league, by far, but no Hull player has scored more than 3 goals this season. They create plenty of chances by springing with pace down the wing, but their strikers either fail to connect with the crosses or tend to fire them wide. Graham, in particular, has been a disappointment.
The striker who was so good at Swansea before and during the Michu era has failed to convert his chances since leaving last season for Sunderland. That inability to score has followed him to Hull, with Graham finding the net just once in 18 appearances. That’s hardly a good enough return for a player that does have quality, and I imagine that Hull expected him to be the main threat and not Yannick Sagbo or Aluko.
You can’t simply expect them to not score goals because they do create chances. However, they often fail to convert them, and that is one thing that may prevent them from getting anything from the match, particularly if Chelsea’s recent ruthlessness in front of goal continues.
Juan Mata: the square peg in a round hole.
Many articles have been written about this, but here is my take on the situation. This is the player that was the player of the year over the last two seasons, but this season has made little impact under Mourinho. That’s hardly unexpected given that when you look at Mata, he doesn’t really fit the mould of a Jose Mourinho player. That has played out on the pitch, as he’s now fourth in the pecking order behind Willian, Oscar, and Eden Hazard.
You can hardly criticize Mourinho for this because it is hard to imagine that Mata has made 11 starts this season, which is more than any of the second-choice players for Mourinho. Yet, when he has played, you also hardly notice he’s on the pitch because he’s failed to make the impact that he has in prior seasons.
Why is that? For starters, Mourinho has always liked a bit of physicality in his players and a willingness in the tackle when coming back. You can see that Hazard, more so than Mata, has adapted his game to track back more and use his lower body strength to win the ball. If you aren’t as willing to track back and win the ball, you must be able to play a more direct game, not in the sense of stretching the play vertically, but more of a willingness to take on the defender to create space, as in Arjen Robben in his first two seasons under Mourinho.
Mata’s situation reminds me very much of the situation Joe Cole found himself in under Mourinho. While very technical and gifted, he was not as willing to come back as Damien Duff, nor was he as willing to take on defenders as Robben was when fit. As a consequence, Cole found himself often coming on as a sub, but finding ways to make an impact from the bench. That’s something Mata hasn’t quite figured out, primarily because I think he’s a player that plays best from the start of a match and isn’t as adaptable to the rhythm of the match when coming on late.
Regardless, I do not think he’ll be sold because, like Cole’s situation, Mourinho does like to keep a player that offers a little something different than the players in front of him, and it’s hard to argue that he’s a different player than Hazard, Oscar, or Willian. In addition, should Kevin De Bruyne leave in this window, Mata becomes more important because his departure would leave just the above three and Andre Schurrle to play in that three, with the latter not really being a central player.
John Mikel Obi: The future of the midfield?
Contrasting with Mata, Mikel has found himself in a position to stake a claim to play more regularly. He didn’t have many appearances at the start of the season, but the long-term injury to Marco van Ginkel and the recent injury to Lampard have seen his minutes increase over the Christmas period. Mikel, I think, has taken that challenge and given Mourinho a bit of a selection headache in the middle.
Think about this. It was Mourinho that first showed faith in him as a deeper player, training him in his first stint to be the long-term replacement to Claude Makelele. However, anyone who watched him play for Nigeria knows that he’s deployed there as more of a traditional creative number 10, but without the attacking runs or the ability to play as a second striker. Instead, he’s the creative hub of the team and dictates the play higher up the pitch.
The interesting thing to me is that Mourinho does like a player to do that same job, but from much deeper in the midfield. He deployed Wesley Sneijder in a deeper role as his time at Inter moved on, and he relied heavily on the ability of Xabi Alonso at Real Madrid.
This season, Mourinho has lacked that consistent player from deep that can replicate the abilities of Alonso in this current Chelsea side. If you compare the two sides, this Chelsea side are much closer to the types of players that he had at Madrid, and he’s almost grooming the side with a similar balance. The player he lacks is a player like Alonso to offset the more energetic deep midfielder. While Lampard has filled that role admirably, he’s not getting any younger and someone to lessen that burden would be nice. Ironically, I think Mikel has a similar ability to play passes like Alonso and the numbers show it. He’s completed 90% of his passes, which is much higher than anyone that isn’t a center back.
Alonso was never the defense-splitter at Madrid, and Mikel isn’t at Chelsea. But both roles are very important because they provide a ball retention and a balance to a side full of more dynamic players.