Words by Mark Jirobe (@VillaMarkPGH)
With all of the excitement surrounding Aston Villa up against Hull City on the weekend, there is quite a bit to talk about in terms of how the teams are going to line up. For Steve Bruces’ Aston Villa side, there are a multitude of question marks in the midfield area of the pitch. With talisman midfielder Mile Jedinak out through recovery from surgery, new signing Glenn Whelan could very well make his first impact of the season against Hull City. Whelan definitely impressed through the eyes of most Villa supporters during preseason. His tireless work ethic showed that one may think there were two or three of Whelan on the pitch at the same time. A few dodgy passes from the Irish born midfielder were a bit of a concern, but were mostly quelled due to his relentless and astute defensive positioning throughout.
Conor Hourihane, Henri Lansbury, and Birkir Bjarnason are all healthy and chomping at the bit for a start against Hull, and for good reason. All three looked up to the task in preseason, and would like to rid of last seasons failures quickly by picking up all three points on Saturday. Hourihane would be a fascinating choice for the starting eleven, due to the fact that he has only picked up a single goal in thirteen starts for Villa since his acquisition in January 2017. Seeming that Hourihane netted 31 total goals for Barnsley in 3 years with the club, it is time he put his shooting boots on and did right by Aston Villa and the supporters moving forward. If he is up to the task, I can see the Villa faithful paying him back in spades with unabashed support. Although Villa absolutely needs a goal boost from the midfield after the well ran dry last year, if Hourihane gets going in terms of scoring, look out.
Hull City on the other hand have their own selection problems to deal with. The club had somewhat of a fire sale in the off-season by most notably offloading defenders Harry Maguire and Andrew Robertson to Premier League clubs in an attempt to bolster transfer funds moving back into the Championship. After being appointed Hull City manager in Janurary 2017, Marco Silva resigned in May after Hull City’s exit to the Championship was a reality. Silva would only capture 6 wins in the remaining 18 fixtures. Hull would go on to appoint to Russian born Leonid Slutsky to head coaching duties. Slutsky is sort of a unique appointment for Hull. His most recent club head coaching job was with CSKA Moscow from 2009 to 2016, with a win ratio of 55.75% throughout his time with the Russian powerhouse. Adding to his enigmatic flair, Slutsky would set a club record which saw CSKA play 15 consecutive matches without conceding a single goal in 2012. This would signify a new defensive tactical approach coming from the Hull City Tigers. Even though their two biggest subtractions to the squad were defenders, it would be a wise decision for Steve Bruce to carefully watch exactly how Slutsky is going to line up. Aston Villa had a bit of a terrible time last campaign with teams who got men behind the ball and retain possession well. Last year Hull City had a pretty impressive possession rate, even for a side that would be doomed to relegation, at 49%. When taking into consideration the quality of teams in the Premier League, this statistic shows the club has a foundation of being able to keep the ball and work their way into dangerous areas. The addition of midfielder Kevin Stewart from Liverpool could very well turn into a great signing for Hull, and further solidifies the defensive and skillful possessive style that Slutsky is undoubtedly looking for.
Although a new managerial term is on the cards for Hull, there are a few shocking facts from last season that could very well haunt them this coming year. With only 5 goals conceded from outside of the 18 yard box out of 80 total conceded in 2016-2017, one would have to wonder if the remaining defensive core of Hull are going to be able to once again adapt to the greasy and downright nasty pace at which balls are thrown into the box with regularity in the Championship. The 67 yellow cards by Hull last campaign also cannot be ignored, as disciplinary problems are usually the result of a players personal aggression more so than manager tactic.
Slutskys’ Hull City are looking like a side that needs to gel and get more acclimated to their new managers ways. Although their preseason was bright with promise, including a win over Benfica and a draw with Ajax, it would seem as if the pace of the Championship may be more on the side of the experienced Steve Bruce. If Bruce gets his tactics right and his players perform to their maximum ability, Aston Villa should be able to take maximum points at Villa Park on Saturday. With a few new faces in defense and on the wing, Villa will undoubtedly be looking to hit the ground running. With Jack Grealish out for the long term with an abdominal injury, it is a quite an ask for Bruce to modify his game plan moving towards the start of the campaign. As long as the centre-back partnership of James Chester, John Terry, and Chris Samba can keep things tight at the back, Villa should be off to a great start to the 2017-2018 campaign.
It goes without question that Villa supporters all over the world would like to get off the mark with a statement game right out of the gate. However, it seems more likely that a 1-0, or 2-1 win is the reality. With the key absences of Albert Adomah and Jonathan Kodjia, it would be a stretch to believe Villa are going to start banging goals in for fun in the opening stages of the season. Again, if the midfield could pot in a few goals over the next eight to ten games, it would be a real delight not only for the supporters, but for the overall club morale as well. It is believed that Aston Villa relied too heavily on Adomah and Kodjia last year, and it showed during the African Cup Of Nations break last season. With Ahmed Elmohamady crossing the line to Villa from Hull, I would look to him to be a prime contributor in this game and for most games moving forward if he can stay healthy and motivated for his new club.