Smoke and mirrors might be the physical manifestation of 2016. Deception and deceit is the order of the day, false equivalences and reflections stretch from one political issue to another and Truly Repulsive and Utterly Manipulative Politicians deny having said things that are then quoted, verbatim, straight back to them.
But sometimes there is light. And hope.
Hull City came to face Watford at Vicarage Road in a light purple kit and a 3-5-2 like some Bizarro version of their opponents. Immediately, I can tell something. I sense it. You’re wondering where this so-called ‘light’ and ‘hope’ are going to come into play when Hull are involved, and I’m here to tell you that it’s always been there, hidden. Or, rather, obscured.
It comes in the form of Jake Livermore. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering their almost complete lack of activity in the transfer window in the summer, Hull are not blessed with elite playing talent. They are, as we in the North like to say, bad. Almost, if not as, bad as the clash between the purple of their shirts and the orange of their badge.
But Jake, our Jake, sat beside fellow ex-Spurs man Ryan Mason and largely anonymous Markus Henriksen in central midfield and shone. Watford are largely well-drilled in defensive shape, but Livermore split them, bisecting busy bee-coloured bodies like he hadn’t just spent the first 9 games of the season filling in at centre-back.
Two moments in particular stood him apart. One, in the first half, reading a pull-back to intercept just inside his own box and jinking past a couple of Watford men to break their midfield line and drive into space.
The other, picking the ball up following a Watford corner and sending a good angled ball from right halfspace to left wing for Abel Hernandez to receive and hold up. A mere matter of seconds later, he was receiving the ball himself in the box, a pass from Mason.
Both attacks, of course, came to nothing – this is Hull after all – but it’s sometimes worth a pleasant but pointless diversion to observe a slice of surprising beauty.
Because Hull really are quite bad.
In a way, it’s interesting. For much of the match, the two sides were in truth relatively well-matched. Tactically, they were almost identical. A 5-3-2, with an emphasis on the long ball as a form of progressing the play after knock-downs or flick-ons are collected. Both sides protecting the centre of the field dedicatedly with their midfield and forward players, a tight trapezium ahead of their defensive line. When forced wide, both teams even favoured the right flank – particularly in the first half where 11 of 17 of Watford’s and 8 of 10 of Hull’s crosses came from that side.
But we must remember the primacy that deception has within society, that these sides are no true reflections of each other. For Hull are no tigers. Their natural instinct is to back off, to collapse backwards into a deep defensive shape, while their opponents sought to pressure higher and harry and chase more often.
The match itself followed largely similar patterns throughout. One side would have the ball with their centre-backs and, unable to advance, send a ball long. This would result, eventually, in the ball bouncing off some player and returning to the opponent’s defence, for them to send a ball long in return. Watford’s players were able to make the ball stick for noticeably longer than Hull’s.
Sometimes space would open up, or one side would back off a little, and the team in possession would be able to progress down the flanks (which, for reasons unknown and probably to do with some kind of tectonic magnetism, always seemed to be down the right) and a cross would be put in. More often than not these were bad, and for Hull this more often than not was more often than it was for Watford.
It was, for a good while, a slight mystery as to how these two clubs can have been set up in this match so similarly, yet now reside over 10 places apart in the table.
There were reminders of Watford’s superiority, though. The general way that the ball stuck to their players more than Hull’s; midfield splitting passes from Pereyra; the fact that Amrabat had the complete beating of Clucas on Hull’s left flank, even if the Watford man was generally fouling his opponent at some point in going past them.
The best chance of the match, inevitably, went to Watford too (and one which you’ve probably all seen on Match of the Day or some other form of highlights). Deeney and Ighalo were lurking near the far post as Amrabat took a shot from outside the box on the right hand side in what I believe is called ‘framing the goal’ (basically making the frame of the goal wider, as if it comes towards you, you can divert it back towards goal).
The shot, deflected upwards. Ighalo, eyes only for the ball. Deeney, best placed to deal with it. He did not seem impressed with the decision of his strike partner to jump in front of him at the ball, breaking his focus and obscuring his view and ultimately contributing to his miss. Deeney is a more intelligent striker than he’s perhaps given credit for, defending particularly well from the front for example, and this was not the only time that he looked unimpressed by the decisions of his teammates.
But don’t read too much into the fact that Watford had no shots on targets in the match. Hull blocked 7, and are generally a freakishly deep team, with around 61% of their tackles and interceptions coming in their own defensive third, against a league average of about 45%. One moment in the match saw Ighalo pull the ball back in the box for an oncoming midfielder to strike, but Hull had three defenders standing together to smother the shot eight yards out.
It, at times, looked promising for Hull against a decent side, having not picked up a point in 5 games prior to the match. But, again, this was all deception. Their tendency to retreat, enhanced in the closing 20 minutes, was always likely to lead to an unfortunate deflection, and this was their cruel undoing.
But, amidst it all, the disappointment, remember the light. Remember Jake Livermore.
FT: Watford 1 (Dawson OG 82′) – Hull 0