Men in the middle

Arsenal Analysis

Every Hull City player is determined to record a famous FA Cup upset at Wembley, but two players have added incentive to make Arsenal suffer.

Central midfield duo Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore both have Tottenham connections - the former moved from north London last year, while Livermore is on loan from White Hart Lane.

Steve Bruce has created an admirably flexible starting XI, capable of playing with either a back three or a four-man defence. Huddlestone and Livermore’s partnership is one of the few certain features of the team - their existing relationship has ensured the English duo have been among Hull’s best performers this season, and only Ahmed Elmohamady and Curtis Davies have started more matches.

"Almost everything goes through Huddlestone and stopping him is a large part of preventing Hull from creating chances"

Huddlestone is the more celebrated of the pair. He is a deep-lying playmaker boasting an extremely impressive passing range, capable of spraying balls out towards the touchlines or hitting more direct passes into attack. Almost everything goes through him - he averages 52 passes per game - and stopping him is a large part of preventing Hull from creating chances.

“I don’t think I’ve witnessed a performance as good as I’ve just seen from Tom,” Steve Bruce said after Hull’s 6-0 thrashing of Fulham at Christmas. “He gave a masterclass of how to play in midfield. He had the lot: free kicks, passing range, goals, a shot from 40 yards. He hit the post and the bar... he's just an outstanding footballer, absolutely outstanding… is there anybody in the country who plays off both feet like him?”

Arsenal faced Hull very recently, of course, and won 3-0 at the KC Stadium in April. That match was a fine example of Huddlestone’s playing style - he remained in deep, central positions and attempted to hit forward passes into attack.

It was telling that he only managed to play one pass to strikers Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long - but that created one of Hull’s best chances, with Jelavic forcing Wojciech Szczesny into a smart shot from the left-hand channel. Jelavic and Long are cup-tied for this final, but the lesson remains the same: Arsenal should prevent Huddlestone feeding the strikers.



Fig 1. Huddlestone’s passes v Arsenal; Fig 2. Huddlestone's defensive display

Fig 1



Huddlestone's mobility isn't as impressive as his passing range, however, and he can neglect his defensive duties when caught high up the pitch. In that 3-0 defeat to Arsenal, he committed more fouls (red pentagons) than he completed tackles and interceptions (blue triangles) combined, and the Gunners may look to break past him quickly to test his ball-winning qualities.

Alongside him, Jake Livermore is a more energetic player, in the side to facilitate Huddlestone’s game. While a fine footballer in his own right, capable of playing clever passes out wide and getting himself into the box, Livermore's major quality is that he's the ideal partner for Huddlestone. He gets through plenty of running, keeps his distribution simple to ensure Hull's passing moves are flowing, and presses opponents more diligently. As his average position from the Arsenal game shows, he (14) plays just ahead of Huddlestone (8), to the right.



Hull’s average positions v Arsenal




His distribution is interesting, too - particularly the balls he plays to Huddlestone. As the graphic below shows, Livermore's passes to his team-mate were always backwards and into a deep, central position. By receiving passes in such a manner, Huddlestone is already facing the opposition goal, and therefore can quickly decide which attacker he wants to find before the ball is even at his feet.



Livermore’s passes to Huddlestone v Arsenal




Arsenal have plenty of quality in midfield themselves, of course, and should be confident of dominating possession at Wembley. Without the ball, however, the task is clear - stop Huddlestone dictating play, and preferably stop him receiving possession in the first place.

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