Middlesbrough may have performed admirably against Fulham, but it was not enough to take anything from the game. Now they aim to bounce back against Hull City.
Most Middlesbrough fans will have gone into the clash against Fulham with a precautious optimism. The sides recent impressive form had opened up the possibility of a David vs Goliath narrative. However, even the most optimistic fans would have recognised that it would have been no small task. There is no doubt that Middlesbrough put in an admirable performance against Fulham; exhausting and frustrating the Whites for much of the game. Yet, Mitrovic’s clinical touch would ultimately be the difference. Middlesbrough’s impressive performance was also mirrored in Marco Silva’s post-match interview wherein he recalled and acknowledged Wilder’s side as “the most difficult game for us from now until the end of the season”.
Ultimately, the result will have been disappointing following an impressive performance. However, Middlesbrough will have to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and go again as they run out against Hull City this weekend.
A lot has changed since the Riverside Observer covered Hull City. We discussed the breaking down of relations between local hero Assem Allan and the Tiger faithful as he opted to run the club for financial gain at the cost of Hull City’s competitive edge and their Championship future. Since October 2021, Assem Allan has left the club replaced by Acun Ilicali, a Turkish multimillionaire TV mogul. A change in vision swiftly followed alongside incoming manager Shota Arveladze. The ability of the Georgian remains in contention as the club has continued to struggle for form, but they look set to stay in the league despite the sides apparent lack of talent.
Of those in the squad, former Boro combative midfielder Richie Smallwood has been a consistently strong performer. Also, fellow talent from the North-East of England, George Honeyman has performed well as the creative side of the midfield coin. Meanwhile, Jacob Greaves has been an absolute revelation at the heart of the defence. The 21-year-old has played a key role in forming a defence that is notably superior to those sides that surround them.
Owner: Acun Ilicali
Assem Allan was the owner of Hull City for 11 years. In that time, he went from a hero to a figure of contention. However, his tenure came to a close in January with the club changing hands to Acun Ilicali. The Turkish media entrepreneur’s story is one of someone climbing the ladder. An on-screen personality. He would bring together enough funds through his screen time to buy a tv station. Under his tenure, and utilising his understanding of media, the TV station rose to become the most watched tv channel in Turkey.
In celebration of his success, he expanded. He would become owners of domestic television stations in numerous countries continuing to do well in each new domain. The consistent growth of the channels have allowed him to look to diversify his income. He recognised the growing digital market and founded Exxen in this space. A streaming service based in his home country and focused on family-oriented content.
Hull City are not his first foray into football either. Ilicali had a partnership with fellow Turk, Özgür Işıtan Gün, to own a portion of Fortuna Sittard. A year later he announced that he was moving away from the club having agreed an amicable split with Özgür Işıtan Gün. He cited a desire to own a club in English football as the reason for him leaving. An aspiration that came into fruition when he acquired full ownership of Hull City.
Since his arrival at MKM stadium, Ilicali has begun to establish a warm relationship with the Hull City faithful. An affair that has been strengthened by Ilicali’s open discourse about his aims at the club. In his first interview following the takeover, Ilicali admitted the need to secure Championship survival in the short term. But, in the long term, a return to the bright lights of the Premier League have been placed on the cards. Naturally, bringing this target to fruition depends on numerous factors but this ambition alone would have warmed the Hull City faithful to his tenure. A necessity considering the raw hostility that had formed prior to his takeover.
His takeover in January may have given him little time to turn around a limited squad but he highlighted his intentions through the firing and hiring of managers. Grant McCann was removed from his position despite a stellar start to the new reign with a 2-0 win over Blackburn Rovers. While Shota Arveladze replaced him. The Georgian is a relative unknown quantity in English football but in the recruitment alone it is clear to see that Ilicali is planning on using his diverse understanding of European and Asian football to give Hull City an advantage on and off the pitch.
Ilicali has also revolutionised the owner-fan relationship in the few months that he has been in charge by offering a giveaway. The millionaire has stated that he will pay for 250 loyal Hull City fans’ holiday to Turkey. A gift from the entrepreneur to thank them for their support during a difficult season; it has enraptured fans and media alike with excellent coverage. He plans to fly these lucky individuals by private jet to Turkey where they will stay in a lavish hotel. Ilicali expressed the desire to build relations and understanding between the diverse cultural environments by opening up the wonders of Turkey to a select group of fans. A move that will have increased the fans respect for the owner and his patriotic pride will have furthered his reputation at home.
We are currently in an age where sports documentaries are intensely popular and widely available. F1’s Drive To Survive, for instance, has been heralded for drawing in new audiences. While a plethora of documentaries on various teams across wide strata of sports are available to peruse on Amazon. There is no shortage of behind the scenes sporting documentaries. Yet, there remains a fervour and an expanding market for such shows. Hull City, under the tenure of a media entrepreneur, could be join this expansive market. This could provide additional revenue for the club. It will also provide additional incentive for Ilicali to financially support the club as a successful season would reap the rewards on his TV empire.
It is a bit early in the day to evaluate Ilicali’s intentions or tenure at the club. Hull City fans, after their previous experience, will be conservative when it comes to evaluating their new owner. However, the early signs only point in a positive direction. Let’s hope they continue to look that way.
Manager: Shota Arveladze
We previously highlighted Shota Arveladze as a relative unknown in English football. He may have a couple of months under his belt at Hull City, but it has been with a side that he has yet to make his own. Nonetheless, if nothing extraordinary occurs, the Tigers guaranteed safety from the jaws of relegation this season. Despite being wholly new to English football, he may be a figure that some readers are familiar with.
Most of those readers will remember him from his period over the border in Scotland. Or, more accurately, during his time in the blue of Rangers. He would make a name for himself during his stint at the club with a clinical return of 44 goals in 95 appearances and he would become a cult hero to the Ranger’s faithful. This was far from an impressive outlier for Shota Arveladze though. The Georgian striker scored consistently wherever he went.
He sparked onto the footballing scene with his native Martve Tbilisi and Dynamo Tbilisi where he scored 33 goals in 30 games and 51 goals in 67 games respectively. Having impressed with his form in Georgia’s limited league, Turkish giants Trabzonspor took a gamble on the forward. He first signed a temporary agreement in Trabzonspor but his 15 goals in 18 games settled any qualms. A permanent deal was struck up and Arveladze would go on to thrive at Trabzonspor scoring 79 goals in 123 games or a goal every 128 minutes. This outstanding form established him as a heroic figure in Turkey. A reputation that he would only further in his managerial career. Yet, before then, the satisfied onlookers Ajax agreed £1.44m to take him to the Amsterdam Arena. Naturally, his impressive form would continue with 72 goals in 125 appearances.
It was following this impressive return at a major club in central Europe that Rangers pounced paying £4m to take him to Scotland. His successful period at Rangers ensured that he maintained his consistency. Through this consistent goalscoring he was able to validate his return to Dutch football with AZ Alkmaar. The free transfer meant minimal risk for the Alkmaar based side. However, this turned into a bargain agreement as he would continue with his goalscoring ways. In 82 games he scored 47 goals averaging a goal every 142 minutes. It was during his time at AZ that the potential for a career in management arose. Louis Van Gaal compared him to Daly Blind and Frank Rijkaard in terms of mental strength and professionality highlighting that he had the balanced head needed for a big job in coaching. He would begin his coaching career at AZ but not before a failed transfer to Levante.
He mustered only 4 appearances for the Spanish side, totalling 36 minutes and signalling the end of his playing career. Nonetheless, what was a major loss on the field would become an advantage on the side lines.
Arzeladze hung up his boots after filling his trophy cabinet with some considerable silverware. He won 5 trophies in his early years at Dinamo Tbilisi, the same number of cups at Rangers, three celebrations at Ajax and two cups at Trabzonspor respectively. Yet, he was also rewarded individually with two top goal scorer rewards and three Georgian Player of the Year accolades.
Furthermore, he left the playing side of the game as Georgia’s top goal scorer in all club competitions and his 26 goals in 61 games is the best strike rate of any Georgian player following the independence of the state. This success resulted in him being nominated as the best player in Georgia’s history.
On his return to AZ, Arzeladze was offered the assistant manager role. He duly accepted and learned a lot under his former coach Louis Van Gaal. He simultaneously impressed in the role as he held a firm grasp on his position despite the management carousel going into full swing. He helped bring Ronald Koeman and Dick Advocat’s AZ into life during his time with AZ.
Satisfield with the experience gained under their leadership but wanting to branch off and instigate his own managerial career; Arzeladze signed on as manager of Kayserispor in Turkey. He churned out a respectable run of results during his two yearsstint. He would average 1.35 points per game in his first foray into management; the form of a respectable mid-table side. The club would build on this foundation in the following seasons as they staked a claim for European places.
He would move on from Kayserispor by taking over at Kasimpasa. Despite an abrupt return to the Super Liga, the ownership at Kasimpasa were not happy with the how things were developing under Fuat Kilic and went to Arzeladze to turn things around.
Arzeladze’s work was nothing short of phenomenal that season turning a newly promoted side into a team that finished 6th. A position that he would establish as the golden standard for the club by repeating the feat the following season. However, when he failed to meet these heights in the next season it was clear that there needed to be a change. Kasimpasa may have regained their standing the following year with a 7th place finish, but they ultimately fell to a standard mid-table finish.
Meanwhile, Arzeladze’s former side Trabzonspor took him on as coach. However, he failed to improve on the 1.4 points per game seen at Kasimpasa and so his tenure was short lived. He left Trabzonspor after only managing 15 games for the club. He would return to football the following season with Tel Aviv. Arzeladze showed a marked improvement on his previous points return mirroring the improvement in quality relative to the league they were based in. He would secure an average 1.83 points per game showing that his upward trajectory had not halted following his less-than-ideal start to life with Trabzonspor.
Then Pakhtakor Tashkent came knocking. A difficult decision ultimately fell on the side of Uzbekistan’s Super League side, and it can now be deemed as totally the right decision. He would average an astonishing 2.33 points in the heat of Uzbekistan winning his first trophy and then subsequently another three. Arveladze managing to do the double two seasons in a row ignited the possibility that his growth over his career to date had put him in a position to really move forward.
Ilicali, having seen him both on the pitch and the sideline, offered him the chance to turn his learned experiences onto the Championship. While he has the lowest points return in his career so far, this is arguably the most difficult job he has taken on to date. Keeping the side in the league, regardless of his PPM, which still stands at a respectable 0.93 (considering the situation he adopted), should be considered as no small feat.
Arveladze describes his football as attractive. The type of football that brings fans into the stadium for want of seeing a good game of football. Yet, he recognises the importance of a solid defensive base, and it is from this foundation that he has built his Hull City side. They, unlike him, may not be the most prolific side in the division but their superior defensive return in comparison to their rivals has been central to their probable survival.
It is too early to judge Arveladze’s time in charge at Hull City. His contract runs until the end of next season, and it is at that point where we can gauge the level of success he has had at the Tigers.
One To Watch: Richie Smallwood
Richie Smallwood started his football journey at Blackburn Rovers. The Rovers provided him with an education in the sport before he switched blue and white for the red of Boro. He would go on to make 74 appearances in the Northeast before he fell to the fringes of the first team. A loan and then permanent move to Rotherham United followed. He would go on to play for two other sides, including his boyhood club Blackburn Rovers, before arriving at the Tigers.
Since his arrival in August 2020, he has become a key player. He has made a total of 68 appearances during this period, of which, 36 of them have come this season. Smallwood has repaid this belief in him by being one of the club’s best performers this season.
Under Shota Arveladze, Richie Smallwood plays as the defensive player in a central midfield pivot. His confident assurance in the combative quarters of the game provide the security for his more progressive teammate to be influential in the areas that they are best in. A confident assurance that he backs up in his statistics.
The 31-year-old’s 2.2 tackles per game is second only to recent young high-flyer Brandon Fleming showing his ability to break up play in the centre of the pitch. Comparatively, he ranks among the top 20 players in the Championship within this category. Impressive when considering the current standing of his team. Additionally, his impressive rate of interceptions, averaging 1.9 stolen passes per game (1st in the side), highlights his positioning an ability to read a player’s intentions before the ball is released. Comparatively, Richie Smallwood is 10th placed in this category showing that he is simply one of the best interceptors in the league.
While playing in this deeper role, he can often occupy a position where he can provide the necessary clearance. His return of 1.4 clearances per match may be 7th in the side but he is the top non-defender in this category. An unsurprising shakedown of the statistics as clearances are far more prevalent in defenders.
Finally, a player in his role needs to recognise if and when to tactically foul. These decisions can prevent the opposition from creating clear cut opportunities, but it may result in the end of the defender’s involvement in the game. At 1.6 fouls per match, Richie Smallwood has taken this occupation upon himself. Despite racking up a considerable 8 yellow cards in the process he has yet to have been dismissed this season. An impressive reflection of his consideration and restraint especially considering this is the 12th highest rate of fouling in the league.
He does have his defensive weaknesses though. He is particularly vulnerable to dynamic midfielders as his lack of pace and being slow on the turn means that he has been dribbled past 1.1 times per game. This is not the highest in the side but, as a defensive player in a central position, it is a minor cause for concern.
All the same, if we are to take tackling, interceptions, and intelligent fouling as the primary characteristics of the defensive side of Richie Smallwood’s role then he is one of the best defensive all-rounders in this position in the league.
Naturally, his occupation demands an ability to distribute possession. A responsibility that he does not shirk. Richie Smallwood makes the fourth most passes of any player in the side. His 41.8 passes help to keep the side ticking in possession but often with the express desire of finding his more creative teammates. Interestingly, Hull City’s passes (as a team) place them as 12th best in the side despite only holding the possession 46.3% of the time, or 17th best in the side. This highlights the intensity by which the Tigers play a passing game and Smallwood plays a key role in this process.
A key role that, with an average pass success rate of 77% indicates that he is willing to attempt a riskier pass if it is available. A theory that is reflected in his 94% pass success rate during his most successful passing period at Rotherham United. Furthermore, his average of 3.9 long balls per match, the 2nd highest outfielder in the side, reflects his willingness to attempt risky passes. It also reflects his ability to change the dynamic of the team’s patterns of play pushing the side to play in the final third. This is a considerably positive characteristic to have in a defensive midfielder as they are typically widely regarded to be conservative on the ball. This means that they will opt for the sideways and backwards pass even when a progressive or incisive option is available to them. Despite this, his pass success rate could still be improved especially since Hull City have to coddle the ball when they do get it.
Yet, arguably even more important for a player in his role is to be press resistant. A concern that we brought up regarding Peterborough United’s Jeando Fuchs. A defensive midfielder that plays a role in the teams build up play can become a point of interest for the opposition. The opposition singling this player out is particularly the case when they demand the ball off the defence and goalkeeper. In many cases, these players make this request with their back to the rest of the field. Some more intelligent players, call for the ball on the half turn. By doing this they reduce their period of vulnerability and allow them to keep an eye on some of the opposition number.
Nonetheless, these players are often highlighted as a press trigger. In these instances, when it appears that the player will get the ball then the opposition moves to put pressure on them to win the ball high up the pitch. The impact of these moves was laid bare in the Middlesbrough vs. Peterborough United clash as Jeando Fuchs lost the ball in dangerous positions often resulting in a Boro shot on goal.
In Richie Smallwood, Hull City have one of the best press resistant players in the league. He has only been disposed once every 10 games with these most likely occurring in his rare forays into the attacking realms. His resistance to the press means that he can be trusted with possession in his own third. While Middlesbrough are largely unlikely to find any success if they do decide to single him out in the press.
Despite occupying a deeper role Smallwood still provides a notable threat. In his career to date he has managed to find the back of the net 11 times. Most of these goals have been beautiful strikes highlighting his long-range shooting technique. A component of his game that he has been able to deploy more readily at Hull City. He has opened up on goal 0.6 times per game on average reaping a solid 2 goals. These usually come about due to his late runs into the opposition’s half leaving him unmarked and open for a strike at goal. Middlesbrough will want to be wary such openings when they face their former player.
So far, this article has highlighted his physical and technical successes and limitations but there is more to him than just that. A year ago, Hull City announced that Richie Smallwood would be the club’s captain. A reward for his effort and successes on the pitch. But it also highlights his ability to lead vocally and by example; putting him on a pedestal to further his influence in this parameter. His influence has clearly been felt in the defensive areas of the side and with additional incomings the club could quickly re-establish itself in mid-table next season. A position from which to build off.
Richie Smallwood was well-liked during his time at Middlesbrough. A young talent that seemingly had a head beyond his years; he was always an exemplar professional. There was always a rawness in his game and a propensity to make costly mistakes. However, his footballing journey has smoothed these rough edges and a well-rounded player has come out the other end. He is one of, if not the, best defensive midfielder in the bottom half of the Championship. His statistics and their comparison with the rest of the league highlight as such. In the short term, Smallwood has performed admirably, and it would come as no surprise if he picked up his second individual accolade of his career so far at the end of the season.
Hot Prospect: Jacob Greaves
The main reason attributed to Hull City’s likely survival has been their defensive record. While those around them have racked up a considerable goal against tally, Hull City have endured a respectable 45 goals. The only side match them from 15th down is Derby County; a side that have performed far beyond their relegation position imposed upon them by the hefty points deduction. In fact, per game, Hull City are an impressive 10thin the league for goals against. This impressive feat is down to no single individual particularly since they opt for a back five defensively. But Jacob Greaves has played a key role in that system, and he should be praised for his contribution.
Jacob Greaves burst onto the scene at Hull City in the 2019/2020 season after an impressive period with League Two’s Cheltenham Town. He would play a key role in the side’s promotion back to the Championship. He became a near-constant feature with 39 league appearances for the Tigers. His key first team role would continue into the following season, this season, wherein he has been an ever-present figure for Grant McCann and Shota Arveladze.
A modern ball playing defender. Jacob Greaves is typically deployed on the left side of the back three despite being right footed. Yet this potential limitation has not prevented him from succeeding in the role.
Jacob Greaves has been the most prolific passer in the side. His average of 48.8 passes per match is nothing short of impressive highlighting how he is comfortable on the ball and looking to be involved in the sides build up play. A role mirrored by his heatmap which shows him taking up possession the middle of the pitch either to maintain pressure or to add an extra man to the midfield mix. While his 78% pass success rate is far from the best, and second to his opposite number in right centre back (Alfie Jones) within the defender’s metrics, it remains a comfortable return for a player who is getting their first taste of Championship football. Additionally, as highlighted with Smallwood, as the 3rd highest outfield long ball distributor, there is an expected dip that occurs especially when marked against Alfie Jones’ 2.8 (Jacob Greaves: 3.2).
Unsurprisingly, these passes rarely produce an opportunity with him only averaging 0.2 key passes per game. While a low return it is reflective of the conservative style that is demanded of Greaves. His conservative role is further mirrored in his output on the flank providing just one cross every ten games.
These metrics are only a point of interest if Greaves can supply the foundation: Defensive Solidity. A feature of his game that he does not lack. Yet, he doesn’t come out on top in any of the defensive statistics. The vast majority of his solid 1.8 tackles per game will have come from defending the flanks and corridor of uncertainty (the space dictated between the wingback and wide centre back). Yet, this only positions him 6th in the side. A solid return as despite expectations centre backs rarely commit themselves to a challenge instead opting to defend within the parameters set out by Paulo Maldini (“If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake”). However, the hybridity of the wide centre back role means that tackling is demanded of them to marshal the wide spaces when needed. As such, his return, while not the highest in the side, should be praised.
Instead, he is well positioned and capable of sweeping up stray or attempted passes. Greaves is 3rdin this category. His 1.6 interceptions behind the previously highlighted Smallwood and the sides central centre back, Sean McLoughlin, both of whom are expected to fulfil a larger charter of interceptions due to their role. He is also very good at removing the ball from danger. His 3.9 clearances per match, second to McLoughlin, highlights his intelligent positioning and awareness of danger which has been formed at a tender age.
However, there is one parameter in which Greaves is markedly superior: Aerial duals. Greaves challenges for the most aerial duals in the side making a massive 196 headed attempts so far this season. Despite not being unusually tall for a defender, measuring in at 6ft 1, he has a very impressive success ratio of 66%. To put this another way, two of every three aerial challenges go the way of the 21-year-old.
He has yet to provide a goal for Hull City but if he can weaponize his aerial ability then he could quickly become a goalscoring centre back too.
Jack Greaves is not yet the best defender at Hull City. However, he has continued to improve since he secured his position in the side. His aerial strength will be integral to his long-term future in the game while his distribution will turn heads in the Premier League. If he can continue on his current trajectory, then there is a possibility that he will have a long career at the top of the championship or even in the mid-to-lower parts of the Premier League.
The Irishman was referenced previously in comparison to Jack Greaves and for good reason. He has been a very strong performer at the heart of defence. The point of reference through which the rest of the defence is dictated. His successes are reflected across his statistics but his 4.7 clearance per game places him in an admirable 8th place across the league.
A close competitor for the Hot Prospect accolade; Brandon Fleming has been an outstanding influence on the left flank in recent months winning two club awards for his performances. He was only pipped to the post due to the consistent influence that Greaves has had on an impressive defensive record. However, with 3 assists in 12 games and some very respectable defensive statistics to boot, he could prove to be a formidable opponent this weekend.
Prediction: Middlesbrough 1-0 Hull City
Hull City’s admirable defensive record may mean that they are hard to break down this weekend, but Chris Wilder’s side should have enough to keep all three points at the Riverside Stadium.