Middlesbrough at home for the second time in 2017.
A little over half a year ago, City tonked Middlesbrough 4-2 in the Premier League, our second Premier League win in 5 days, taking us out of the relegation zone and setting us up nicely for what would turn out to be a narrow defeat in the next fixture away at Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s team had incidentally been the last to beat us at home, several months earlier on Boxing Day 2016. Things were looking good. The clocks had just gone forward, summer was approaching, and pundits and fans alike were talking up Hull City’s Premier League future under our bright young Portuguese manager.
Tonight’s lacklustre performance against Boro bore little resemblance to what we witnessed less than seven months earlier. We’re in a different league, we had an entirely different starting eleven, and performance-wise things looked so different that it might have been a different sport.
Emphasising how far and how rapidly our club has plummeted were:
Tomori Dawson Hector Clark
Bowen Larsson Campbell Irvine
So, a pretty adventurous looking 4-2-4 at kick-off. No surprise to see Henriksen benched, ditto Grosicki. Tomori for Aina was more surprising, but turned out to be like-for-like in terms of performance. They’re both alright, they’re both borrowed from Chelsea and can control a ball well. May be Tomori tackles a bit better, but he can’t throw the ball as far as Aina. As with most of this City squad, you can take one off and put the other on, and you’re not really changing much in the way of quality. Game on game Leonid Slutsky drops some, put some others in, but is changing nothing for the better.
The first few minutes it seemed as if Slutsky — or perhaps our recently appointed Head of Strategy (whatever that is), Oleg Yarovinsky — had at last decided that booting the ball high and long would no longer do as a tactic, and we played some neat and penetrating possession stuff on the ground, as we attacked the north stand end.
But playing two holding midfielders, Meyler and Stewart for now, only works if they hold position in midfield. After a dozen minutes both of them were higher up the pitch than they should have been, leaving a gap to the central defenders. Stewart lost the ball, it went back towards Hector on the edge of the box, who couldn’t – or wouldn’t – get to it before Braithwaite hit it cleanly into the bottom left corner.
Quarter of an hour gone, one down; City are losing and it’s all their own work.
The lack of top division quality in this City team is striking, given how many of them have either played there or are borrowed from Chelsea. Apart from the obvious stuff about wanting to see my team do well, and liking the profile that it gives to the city of Hull, the main thing I miss about the Premier League is watching quality footballers play quality football. Last time we were relegated, we mostly looked like a Premier League team in the Championship, and we still played reasonable quality football most of the time. Not this time round, so far at least.
We seem to have a lot of players who can see the game in their heads but whose ability to do what they see is less obvious. On 20 minutes, Max Clark does the marauding full-back thing, powering down the left. He looks up, sees teammates running into the area, and blooters the cross about 60 ft up in the air. Here’s to you, Andy Robertson.
In midfield, David Meyler bustles about, and to his credit is often on the ball. Time and again though he sees a short and incisive pass, but can’t execute it and gives the ball away.
On the half hour, enthusiastic young Aussie Jackson Irvine bursts into the box with the ball. He looks like he should nip past the defender in front of him and be through on goal. He tries to nip past the defender in front of him. He can’t nip past the defender in front of him. Once again possession is lost.
The one bit of ball retention City can consistently do is along the back four. Dawson, square to Hector, back to Dawson, a short ball to Tomori, who advances a couple of paces, then back to Dawson, then square to Hector. You get the picture. There’s no pressure from Boro, and who can blame them, one-nil up away from home, it’s up to City to attack. But the home crowd is getting restless.
I’m all in favour of possession football when it’s a matter of patient probing to find a way through. I get that having the ball means the opposition can’t score. I admire it when teams frustrate opponents who can’t get the ball off them. But we’re not seeing those scenarios here. City are losing. The passing along the back line stems from lack of options or plan. Impatient shouts and groans come from frustrated fans.
To be frank, City are offering little and looking bereft of spirit and ideas.
Then on 35 minutes, we get a free kick just in our half. Bowen’s hopeful delivery soon bounces back and Boro advance down our left, in front of the West Stand. With little in the way of challenge, Christie sweeps in a deep cross.
In the penalty area, Boro’s record signing Britt Assombalonga strolls towards the six yard box. Noting the ball heading his way, he has time to check his reflection in the mirror and straighten his tie, before standing unchallenged a few yards in front of McGregor’s far post and nonchalantly heading the ball home.
However often the pundits might try to tell you that two-nil is the most dangerous score to hold onto, we’re not coming back from this.
For the final ten minutes of the half, there’s more “see it, can’t do it” stuff from the Tigers.
Campbell advances towards the Boro area. Campbell sees Irvine sprinting alongside, he sees the pass that would put him in on goal, but he can’t execute it.
A minute later, the ball breaks to Meyler after a free kick, he sees the 5 yard pass back to Larsson on his left. He can’t do it, and gives the ball away.
On 45, Tomori cuts inside, advances menacingly to the edge of the Boro area, sees Larsson breaking through the middle, sees the pass that would split the defence. But his pass doesn’t make it.
City are booed off at half-time, and the feeling of malaise is palpable. It’s not as if our besuited Russian manager has many options. The obvious ones are to try something different in attack. May be bring on Dicko or Grosicki . But again, we’ve got a squad and a selection policy that seems to consist of ‘pick any 2 from 4’ in most positions. If it ain’t working, pick the others. We all love Slutsky, as the song nearly goes. We all know that the problems at City are not of his doing and any manager would struggle with the hand he’s been dealt. But Slutsky is not proving himself an inventive or influential manager. If we carry on in this vein, he’ll be gone before long.
At the start of the second half, Dicko is on for Stewart. We retain the 4-2-4, with Larsson dropping into the 2 with Meyler. Stewart has been OK-ish, apart from giving the ball away for their opener. But one game he’s in, then he’s subbed, then he’s dropped, then he’s in again, then he’s subbed.
Five minutes or so into the half, Slutsky brings on Grosicki for Larsson. This time it’s Irvine who joins Meyler in the holding two. Grosicki plays on the left, showing that combination of petulance and skill that we’ve come to expect from a player who may well consider himself – probably rightly – a cut above most of his teammates ability-wise, and yet finds himself by some combination of fate, timing, and the shortcomings of agents stranded in the wrong league playing for a club unrecognisable from the Premier League team he signed for.
The changes give City a momentary lift in terms of zip and adventure. After ten minutes or so, Meyler in his deep-lying midfield position sees a fantastic through ball and this time executes the pass to perfection, down the middle to meet the curving run of Bowen, who sets it up for Dicko through on goal. Dicko has time to take a touch and place it. Instead he pokes it tamely first time at the advancing Boro keeper, Randolph. If you want to excuse him, you could point out that that he’s not been on the pitch for long. Like a number of his teammates, he’s been picked, he’s been dropped, one minute he’s not good enough, the next he’s brought on because his replacement is not good enough. Confidence and consistency are not the watchwords that spring to mind.
Meyler’s classy pass proves to be the aberration, and he’s soon back to giving the ball away, seeing Clark breaking down the left wing, his execution of the intended pass results in Boro possession.
City’s renewed spirit isn’t amounting to much, other than an argument between Tomori and Grosicki in front of my East Stand vantage point. It doesn’t seem to be a happy camp.
Campbell is taken off for Diomande — probably the most whole-hearted Norwegian on our books at the moment. I turn to my neighbour and mutter, more in hope than expectation, “if we can get one now, you never know …”
And as if he can hear me, on 70 minutes, almost out of nothing, Grosicki meets a ball from Dicko on the volley outside the area and hammers it home. A fine goal.
1-2. Game on.
Suddenly the home crowd wakes up, and it’s all City, for a few minutes at least. We start getting corners. The more nervous Boro fans wonder if they’re about to be robbed of the three points.
They needn’t have worried.
On 82 minutes, Boro sub Ashley Fletcher — a summer signing for £6.5 million from West Ham, who had just replaced Assombalonga minutes earlier — breaks into the City penalty area in front of the Boro fans in the north-east corner, with just McGregor to beat. Michael Hector, not the speediest, brings him down from behind.
It’s a penalty. And surely a red card, as Hector was the last defender and his foul prevented a clear goal-scoring opportunity?
Apparently not. At first the ref busies himself organising the taking of the penalty, as if it’s some complex logistical task that has never before confronted him. Hector wisely moves away, like a guilty schoolboy edging to the back of the group. Then after what seems a minute or so, but was no doubt shorter, the linesman calls the ref over, the ref calls Hector over, a red card is brandished, and our loanee centre-back is sent off.
All very weird, and cause for the lino to get roundly abused from then on by the City fans. And by Grosicki who amazingly goes unpunished despite running 15 yards or so to shout in the face of the assistant referee.
Meanwhile, Boro score the penalty; as McGregor dives low and right, Leadbitter strikes high and left.
May be it’s going to be a repeat of Saturday, and we’ll get a pointless second?
Nope, not even that. City are even worse than on Saturday. All that’s left is for the temporary hate-figure running the East Stand touchline to give a foul when Irvine dives into one of theirs from behind. Irvine is booked. Grosicki again harangues the lino, and this time he too gets a yellow.
And that’s it. At the moment City look like a club unstoppably nose-diving on and off the field. Two home defeats in 4 days, 6 goals conceded, and little sign of a plan from a likeable manager struggling to settle on system and selection from an uninspiring squad. To force optimism, the difference between the playing side and the rest of the club, is that a victory on Saturday would go a little way to lifting the gloom with regard to the former. But on tonight’s display, getting anything away to the high-flying Blades is not likely. And changes in the boardroom seem even more unlikely.
The clocks have gone back, winter is approaching, and Championship consolidation is more pressing than any idea that Hull City could dream of a return to the Premier League in the near future.