Few people backed Hull City getting off to a flier when the fledgling Premier League season kicked off a couple of weeks ago.
Yet here we are two games in and the Tigers are all set for a top-of-the-table clash against Manchester United Saturday evening. Such a scenario seemed out of the question as the season approached with the club apparently in crisis.
The Tigers are without a permanent manager after the shock departure of Steve Bruce over the summer, the owners are evidently desperate to sell the club off and interim-boss Mike Phelan has endured an injury crisis that left him with only 13 fit first-team players to pick from for Tuesday’s English Football League Cup tie at Exeter City.
Yet the Tigers negotiated that game in commanding style, winning 3-1, and have so far seen off Champions Leicester City and overcome a hazardous trip to the Liberty Stadium to emerge with all three points after beating Swansea 2-0 last weekend.
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While it is too early to be talking about title-tilts and pushes for Europe, there are some notable similarities between Hull’s campaign so far and the march of Leicester last season.
The most obvious one is winning without the ball. In the two Premier League matches so far, Hull have manufactured wins with only 49% of the ball against the notoriously possession-shy Foxes and yet less, 43% of the ball, against the Swans last weekend.
The Tigers share the Foxes fondness for direct play also, a holdover from the Bruce days, having played 181 long balls so far this season, the most in the division.
While Leicester set out with a strict 4-4-2 and looked to hit Jamie Vardy or Riyad Mahrez quickly on the fast break, Hull operate with the same principle of quick ball movement and efficiency in front of goal built around a 4-3-3.
Hull City have been out-shot 41-26 over their opening Premier League encounters and have scored their four goals off just nine shots on target.
For Mahrez and Vardy read Adama Diomande and Abel Hernandez? Well not quite, but Hernandez has matured since he last represented Hull in the Premier League two seasons ago, and Diomande has shown signs of the predatory instincts that prompted Hull to bring him to the Championship from Norwegian football last season.
Also in common with the Leicester of last season is Hull’s work-rate off the ball. While there is no N’Golo Kante surrogate, Hull are collectively in the divisions top five for tackles (third), clearances (fourth) and blocks (second) over their first couple of outings.
Playing direct football, effective without the ball, efficient in front of net and hard-working off the ball are all attributed that drove the Foxes to glory last season.
Experience is the other key ingredient of the alchemy, and Hull have bags of that. Players such as Tom Huddlestone, Jake Livermore and Ahmed Elmohamady are veterans of the Tigers’ previous unsuccessful top-flight campaign while talents such as Shaun Maloney and Robert Snodgrass share the stigma of unfulfilled Premier potential shared by such as Mark Albrighton and Danny Drinkwater at Leicester last campaign.
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Hull City are not Leicester of course, and their fans will be chastened by the memory of their maiden Premier League campaign in 2008-09. The Tigers won six of their first nine and lost once in that span before sustaining a precipitous drop-off and winning just two of their remaining games as they clung to top flight status.
It is likely that the trap-door will open for Hull in similar style this season again, but we will know more about Hull’s ability to ‘do a Leicester’ at around 7.30pm local time Saturday evening.
And with odds available of around 1000-1 to win the league, well you wouldn’t want to miss out again would you?