A comprehensive view of Middlesbrough’s upcoming opposition so you can be in the know.
(I do not claim any of the images as my own: all image sources are named and images are hyperlinked to the website that they were found. All research and sources used can be found at the end of the article)
The Tigers lost their Championship spot in the 2019/20 season with a disappointing 24th placed finish. Despite their pedigree as a former Premier League side, this relegation came as little surprise to those that paid attention to the club at the time. Assem Allam, a migrant success story and local hero, bought the club in 2010 for the nominal fee of £1 and the commitment of £30m investment into the club. However, strained relationships between Allam and Hull City supporters have come to the head in recent seasons as Allam aims to run the club for financial gain while trying to set unpopular plans in motion. This desire to make Hull City a viable business has caused Allam to sell Hull City’s best players and he has made little effort to replace these gaps in the squad. Furthermore, he introduced a cap into all future contract negotiations that would greatly hinder the clubs' ability to compete in the market. Subsequently, Hull City was relegated.
Twenty-seven wins, eight draws and eleven defeats later Hull City returned to the Championship after clinching the top spot. They were relatively prolific during their momentary pause from the championship scoring 80 goals across the season while the defence was also relatively resolute in conceding just 38 goals. However, it is a considerable jump from League One to the Championship and without carefully considered investment they could end up becoming a yoyo club.
Hull City has had a less than ideal start to the season as they find themselves rooted in the relegation zone with only points-deducted-Derby sitting beneath them in the table. Grant McCann will be looking to find a way out of the sides current predicament sooner rather than later but any expectations that the side will rise up the table will have to be tempered with the limited quality of Hull City’s squad. The club’s next attempt to charge above Peterborough, Barnsley and Nottingham Forest will come when they face Middlesbrough in the next match. If the scoreline ends in their favour and results elsewhere go the right way then the side may be sat in a position of unstable security this time next week. Alternatively, Hull City need to get points on the board through any means possible as if they continue in their current form then a gap could open up between themselves and those just above the relegation zone. A gap such as this would prove to be a considerable challenge later on in the season and it could essentially doom them to a place in League One. So do not be surprised if Hull City appear content to take a draw against Middlesbrough.
Neil Warnock’s side won convincingly against Sheffield United last time out helping to repair some of the concerns that had recently been raised by considerable sections of the Middlesbrough fan base. However, Middlesbrough will need to continue in this ilk if fans are to be convinced that the current route is the right direction to go. A win against lowly Hull City may not be impressive in its own right but a continuation of what was displayed against Sheffield United could prove to be an incremental step in the right direction for Warnock’s side.
Hull City have chalked up just 6 points to date and the sides last win, the only win of the season, came on the Opening Day with a resounding 4-1 victory over Preston North End. A promising start that may have boosted the optimism around the club but it was an optimism that was misplaced. Since then Hull City fans have had just 3 draws to satiate their frustrations that the side has lost 6 within the early period.
The points that Hull City have obtained so far this season (4-1 Preston, 0-0 Bournemouth, 0-0 Swansea, 1-1 Blackpool) indicate that the club has a Modus Operandi. They thrive within the role of the underdog, most prominently seen with the anomalous draw with Bournemouth, but they often struggle to bridge the gap in quality between themselves and the upper echelons of the league visa vie they have a good track record of stealing points from clubs that sit within the lower-mid table. This is not a good sign for Middlesbrough. Even though their win over Sheffield United took them into the top half of the league they have spent the majority of the early stages of the season in the lower-mid section of the table. If this is the natural home for Middlesbrough’s current squad then Hull City could spring a minor surprise on Neil Warnock’s men.
The club draws also share another glaring similarity. Hull City is relatively effective at churning out a point if they do not concede. Bournemouth and Swansea were both held to a 0-0 draw by McCann’s men. Blackpool is the anomaly here but a single goal in the first half resulted in a change in momentum in the game with Hull City dominating possession and ultimately breaking down the opposition's defence to find a draw. Middlesbrough will want to focus their attention in the final third against Hull City as a goal or two should be enough to secure all three points.
It is hard to pick out any considerable strengths when talking about Hull City. On their day they can be resolute defensively but they have also shipped 15 goals this season which places them 5th worst in the league. When the floodgates open it pours for Hull City. Instead, the young developing squad is Hull City’s most impressive strength.
Grant McCann is currently leading a side with an average age of 23.7; one of the youngest squads in the clubs' history. Many of these young up and coming players are products of the youth system opening a direct route to first-team football for future prospects. Those youth players currently in the squad have been able fortunate in getting exposure to a very good level of first-team football. This may present a sink or swim moment for some of these youngsters as it provides a steep learning curve but it could help to produce some considerable talents for the future. Talents that could secure the clubs future in the long run.
As vaguely outlined above, Hull City’s failures have largely occurred within the final third. McCann’s men have managed to score just 6 goals so far this season equalling their points tally and securing their place as the lowest-scoring team in the league.
To put it simply, Hull City do not have the quality needed to fire their way to security. Josh Magennis and Tom Eaves, the two experienced forwards on the clubs' payroll, have limited experience at this level of the game. As a result, they have no experience to augment their current situation and, despite their solid careers, they prove to be an unknown quantity at this level. The next most experienced player, a former Barnsley winger, Malik Wilks, has played at this level but with limited success and so he will see this as an opportunity to prove his worth on the championship stage. Ryan Longman, Tyler Smith and Keane Lewis-Potter make up the remainder of the attacking force. These players are relatively young and relatively inexperienced. While the current situation at Hull City could prove to further their careers, and there are indications that a few of these players are talents for the future, they do not bring the know-how needed to start scoring on a more frequent basis.
Top Goalscorer: Keane Lewis-Potter (2)
Most Assists: Keane Lewis-Potter (2)
Most Yellow Cards: Di’Shon Bernard (3)
Most Red Cards: George Moncur, Lewis Coyle (1)
One To Watch: Richie Smallwood
The former Middlesbrough defensive midfielder joined Hull City last season. He would go on to make 27 appearances for the club as they wrestled themselves out of League One. His solid performances during his first season at the club turned him into a respected part of Grant McCann’s outfit and he has clearly relied upon him this season too. The trust that McCann has for the player is highlighted through his decision to give the midfielder the captaincy.
The 30-year-old has made 7 appearances so far this season as one of the two players in the double pivot. The 4-2-3-1 formation heavily relies on the success of these players and so Smallwood’s distribution has been highly appreciated this season as he has averaged an 83% pass success rate and he has almost created a chance per appearance so far this season. These chances have also led to one of the clubs few goals giving Smallwood an assist. The former Blackburn Rovers player is also willing to dispatch a shot when the opportunity arises with a 100% shot on target rate and a goal to date. However, these mostly augment a player in this position as it is their defensive attributes that prove to me most vital in this formation,
Richie Smallwood is the second most prolific tackler in Hull City’s squad averaging 2.1 interventions per appearance. While he is the most proactive reader of the game in the side as he has managed 2.1 interceptions per appearance; the most of any Hull City player. However, these are offset by the defenders' propensity to foul the opposition as his 1.6 fouls per game is only beaten by Tom Huddlestone (their best player if it wasn’t for a current injury) and so free kicks may prove to be a serious opportunity for Middlesbrough.
Richie Smallwood will appear unassuming in the Hull City XI as he will sit behind the three attacking midfielders and just ahead of the defence. His primary focus will be to protect what has been a leaky defensive line but he will also get on the ball should the game allow it and from there he could come into his own and provide a threat from his deeper position.
Hot Prospect: Keane Lewis-Potter
Hull City’s offensive issues have not been for the want of trying by Keane Lewis-Potter. The 20-year-old youth academy graduate has become something of a staple in Grant McCann’s side, making 84 appearances for the club since his return from loan at Bradford PA. In that time Lewis-Potter has managed to score 20 goals averaging a goal every 4.2 matches. While he has been directly involved in 2/3rds of the side's goals this season.
Lewis-Potter is a left-winger by trade but he is flexible enough to play a role at right-wing and centre forward allowing him to be malleable to the limitations of Grant McCann’s current squad.
He likes to isolate defenders in one-on-one situations where he has enough tricks in his locker to get beyond them and into dangerous positions. A really good change of pace means that once he gains the advantage over a defender he is more than capable of taking the player out of the game. He will terrorise his marker when he faces Middlesbrough and the likeliness of the defender having a torrid time is only worsened by the players' two footedness. Lewis-Potter is a very good dribbler of the ball and he will be a problem for defenders up and down this division but he can lack an end product at times as his momentum and advantageous position causes him to rush the delivery into the box causing his crosses to go wayward on occasion.
If this was not enough of a problem for Middlesbrough fans to be concerned about then the fact that he is part of an elite group of goalscoring wingers should. The 20-year-old scored 13 goals last season predominantly from a wide position which is an impressive return albeit in League One. This run of goalscoring form looks set to continue this season too with the winger finding the back of the net twice so far this season cementing himself as the clubs' top goalscorer to date. If he continues in this vein then he will score 9 goals by the end of the season, an expected drop from his return in League One, but no less impressive in a side that has struggled to create chances so far this season (22nd in big chances created and 21st in shots on target per match). He has managed to be so successful in front of goal as he is willing to join the strikers in the box when the attack is building on the opposite side or through the middle. When he finds himself in the box he is very good at finding space and from their providing the finishing touches to the opportunity, usually through an accurate side foot.
It is clear that Keane Lewis-Potter is Hull City’s primary danger man and Middlesbrough will have to ensure that they keep the youth prospect quiet if they wish to avoid an upset.
Manager: Grant McCann
After a career that spanned from West Ham United to Linfield FC Grant McCann looked towards a career in coaching. He would start this journey at Peterborough, the penultimate club of his playing career, where he took the assistant manager role becoming an apprentice to Dave Robertson and Grant Westley. He appeared to flirt with the possibility of a future in the top job during these early stages of his new career as he was called upon as an interim manager on two occasions. During these temporary moments in charge, McCann managed to lead the side to three wins and a draw, or ten points from four games. It would come as little surprise when McCann was offered the permanent role in May 2016 after his run of two wins as interim manager secured his role as first-team manager. A solid run of form would follow with the manager averaging 1.47 points per game across 103 fixtures consistently placing the team in the top half of the table without seriously competing for promotion. He would then depart from the club with Peterborough looking to bridge the gap between their current position and the title challengers. Peterborough was also promoted last season and this fixture could prove to be an interesting dynamic considering the history between the manager and his former club.
McCann’s next job was at Doncaster Rovers. He would build upon his previous experience at Peterborough during his time with Rovers as he managed to secure the final playoff position. The dramatic and entertaining playoffs followed with McCann’s side making their way to the final before ultimately falling short. A large proponent of the side's success that season was due to McCann’s ability to get the best out of John Marquis. The talented but maverick forward’s form often fluctuates but McCann succeeded in squeezing 21 goals out of the forward.
This impressive stint at Doncaster Rovers would lead to him garnering interest from Hull City. Joining for the 2019-2020 season, he would be powerless to stop the clubs slide into League One as the hierarchy recognised and permitted for him to stay at the club. A very impressive season would follow where the manager improved on his previous League One best by winning the division. Hull City have now bounced back into the Championship but McCann’s job is still a difficult one.
Allam’s desire to run the club for profit meant that there was little investment in the squad following the promotion forcing McCann to work with the limited thin squad that he has been afforded while simultaneously trying to secure their place in the Championship next season. This is no mean feat and if he can succeed then he will garner a lot of praise and respect from within the game.
Prediction: Middlesbrough 3-0 Hull City
Middlesbrough should have too much quality for Hull City. The Tigers have managed to deal some surprise blows on some respectable sides in this league but Middlesbrough’s squad should be just beyond Hull City’s reach on this occasion.
https://youtu.be/_H2Tw3ZS7es (Keane Lewis-Potter highlights)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3MErYyBcXFk (Keane Lewis-Potter highlights)