Hull City only took a point from their home game against Crystal Palace on Saturday, but it was a much improved performance by Mike Phelan's men.
Given Hull City's recent form, one might suggest that Mike Phelan was a little slow to finally make the change to 3-5-2 ahead of the Tigers relegation battle with Crystal Palace on Saturday. Supporters breathed a sigh of relief when they saw the team sheet, which boasted three central defenders and three central midfielders, suggesting Phelan had finally made the tactical alteration many supporters have been demanding for weeks.
The difference between the Hull City team which drew with Crystal Palace and the one which lost pitifully at the Riverside a week ago today was gargantuan. The much-improved performance was down in no small part to the simple fact that the Tigers showed some ambition and a willingness to get forward, and their confidence seemed to grow as the game went on.
Confidence has been a precious commodity among Hull City players in recent weeks; players routinely looking on edge and as though they would rather not have the ball at their feet. That certainly wasn't the case on Saturday, and that dramatic change was encapsulated best by two men; Tom Huddlestone and Andrew Robertson.
Tom Huddlestone was excellent vs Crystal Palace
Huddlestone has been something of an enigma for a while now at the KCOM Stadium. The former Tottenham midfielders talent is unquestionable, but his effectiveness is not. His pace, or lack of it, can make him a liability in a two man central midfield, but back in a three, he brought a touch of class to proceedings, and there was probably only Wilfried Zaha who put in a performance as impressive as the England international on Saturday.
He dominated the midfield in a way Hull City fans probably haven't truly witnessed since the 2013/14 season, his first at the club, when he was unsurprisingly also playing in a 3-5-2. Huddlestone's central midfield partners Jake Livermore and Sam Clucas are among the Premier League leaders in terms of distance run on a football pitch, and as such, they provide the perfect foil for the less mobile but more technically gifted Huddlestone.
His range of passing is excellent and so too is his ball retention. At his best, he brings a calmness and a creative spark to the Tigers midfield. All too often Hull City fans have seen games pass him by though, as he drops deeper and deeper, often having very little effect on the game offensively and being easily bypassed defensively. If Mike Phelan sticks with 3-5-2, and Huddlestone maintains Saturday's performance level, the Tigers midfield should never be totally dominated in the way it was against Middlesbrough.
Andrew Robertson is an important player for Hull City
An outlet which Huddlestone's diagonal balls picked out time and time again on Saturday was Andy Robertson. The Scotland international only returned from injury for the Tigers trip to the Riverside last week, and he struggled to cope at left-back. Yet on Saturday, the left-back offered perhaps the Tigers greatest attacking threat marauding down the left wing.
Both Robertson and Ahmed Elmohamady seem more comfortable being deployed as wing backs looking to push on and offer pace and width to a Hull City team horribly devoid of both. Robertson's willingness to get forward was a constant thorn in Crystal Palace's side to the absolute surprise of no Hull City fan, having routinely seen Robertson and Elmohamady perform better when afforded a wing-back rather than a full-back role.
The 22-year-old only turned professional in 2013, but he was immediately linked with the Premier League's elite following a number of impressive displays in his debut campaign. A season in the Championship and the departure of Robbie Brady gave Robertson the chance to nail down that left-back spot and iron out the rawness of his game. His absence in the Tigers team was sorely felt following his injury away at Bournemouth, but he looks to be back firing now.
Mike Phelan has some big decisions to make on Wednesday night
Hull City fans will hope that the performances of Huddlestone, Robertson and the rest of the Tigers team can convince Mike Phelan to stick with a 3-5-2 formation which saw them show more invention and ambition in the opening 2 minutes against Crystal Palace than they showed in the first hour away at Middlesbrough.
The dilemma for Phelan comes in the form of Robert Snodgrass. Hull City's most dangerous and impressive player this season has to be shoehorned in somehow, and no position within a 3-5-2 truly suits him. He either has to be played in the midfield three as the most offensive of the trio or as one of the front 2 sitting in behind the striker in a free role, just as he did on Saturday.
The former seems unlikely given how vulnerable it would make Hull defensively, and the latter would mean two of Dieumerci Mbokani, Abel Hernandez and Adama Diomande not making the starting XI (once Hernandez and Mbokani return to action). It is a conundrum for Mike Phelan, but ultimately he has to persist with 3-5-2. The improvement was simply too great, and if Phelan returns to the incredibly negative 4-5-1 which appears to wave the white flag before a ball has even been kicked on Wednesday away at Spurs, he is likely to lose a lot of sympathy among the Tigers fans.
Mike Phelan has to find a place for Robert Snodgrass in a 3-5-2