Hull City paying the price for Steve Bruce’s inflexibility
With a more progressive manager, Hull could be sitting comfortably in the Premier League’s midtable.
Last season Hull City survived relegation impressively, with gritty, hardworking performances ensuring they were a surprisingly difficult team to beat. Much like manager Steve Bruce, it wasn’t particularly pretty, nor particularly refined, but function triumphed over form as they cruised to a mid-table finish. Indeed, they finished so solidly that they took it upon themselves to try and take the next step, injecting some flair into their oft-unwatchable style.
The result was the fairy incongruous arrival of several exotic attackers, like new record signing Abel Hernández, Gastón Ramírez from Southampton and Hatem Ben Arfa from Newcastle, who all seem rather alien in the grisly industrial surrounds of a wintry Humberside. Hull did make some rather more conventional signings too, but their summer business signaled a clear shift away from looking to grind out results with miserly defensive performances and towards a more intricate, attacking game.
However, the problem with signing more specialised players is that the manager needs to have the ability to adapt and integrate them into the team. If Hull had one who was able to do so, then there’s no reason why their squad wouldn’t be able to challenge for the top half. But almost halfway into the Premier League season, with Hull sat second from bottom and heading for a nasty relegation scrap, it’s fair to say that Steve Bruce has failed to get the best from his star players.
The sorry case study of Ben Arfa is a revealing one. The 13-time French international looked like a terrific signing back in the summer, after four years of admittedly patchy but often decisive performances at Newcastle United. Ben Arfa, of Tunisian heritage, is a player who perfectly fits the old stereotype of the North African playmaker: capable of turning a game single-handedly with a moment of creative brilliance, but whose strokes of genius are often preceded by frustratingly forgettable sulks out on the flanks.
The logic of fielding a player like Ben Arfa is that the team will carry him defensively, but with the knowledge that on the attack, he could produce the match-winning moment. But it was clear Bruce would have to change his approach if he wanted to accommodate him. And he hasn’t been willing to. Indeed, he has tried to fit round pegs in square holes, and Ben Arfa being hauled off the pitch at Old Trafford just 35 minutes into the Tigers’ dismal 3-0 loss to Manchester United last month in order to “stem the tide” may well go down as the defining moment of their season.
It was the most startlingly obvious indicator of Bruce’s complete inability to extract the best from his star players; the strange persistence of long-ball football, despite a team of attackers that excel with the ball at their feet. Ben Arfa, who will have his loan terminated in January, is merely the most obvious example. It’s the same with Gastón Ramírez, who is said to be set for a quick return to Italy after failing to break into Bruce’s first team.
The result is that Hull are losing the players who could have turned them into one of the Premier League’s more interesting outfits. The opportunity they were handed by their brilliant summer transfer window has passed them by, thanks to their manager’s inability to accommodate his own signings. But then again, that is hardly a new phenomenon.
Throughout his managerial career, Bruce has shown himself to be adept at getting teams promoted, though less impressive when it comes to consolidating and establishing his teams in top flight. After getting Birmingham City promoted in 2002, he just about kept the club afloat before being relegated again in 2006. At Wigan Athletic and Sunderland, more unspectacular finishes followed, and he was sacked by Sunderland — as close to an established Premier League team as he’s ever managed — with the Black Cats in a genuine relegation battle in 2011.
It’s a cliché that certain managers have certain specialisations, but one that certainly isn’t without foundation. Sometimes difficult decisions need to be made for clubs to improve — perhaps the most notable being Southampton’s sacking of Nigel Adkins back in 2013, despite the club being in no immediate danger of relegation. The English press decried his harsh sacking, but their impressive eighth-place finish under boss Mauricio Pochettino a season later soon proved chairman Nicola Cortese right. Perhaps Hull should have done the same last season.
Hull can take some comfort in the fact that Bruce is not a bad manager. He’s survived relegation scares before. But they should now see that he wasn’t the right man to have led their attacking revolution this season. With a more flexible, more progressive tactician, they could genuinely could have done something impressive. But with the club in the bottom three and a January exodus of their flair stars imminent, that ship has already sailed. They’re in the relegation fight for the long haul.