Amidst the Sunday afternoon carnage in the Premier League, Aston Villa were probably none too disappointed to have conceded twice in their victory over Liverpool. One consequence of the reigning champions’ smallest of consolations, however, was that only one team in the top four English divisions was left with a perfect defensive record in 2020-21.
If you were pushed at the end of last season to provide a guess for who might have the last defence standing, Hull City would be one of the more outlandish suggestions. And yet, after sinking to some historic lows in their relegation from the Championship, Grant McCann can bask in some very different statistics: four games, four wins and four clean sheets.
It is Hull’s best start to a season since 1948-49, and only the second time they’ve ever opened with four shutouts, and it has hardly been a fluke with new first-choice Matt Ingram facing just eight shots on target. The whole team has played its part in establishing that kind of control over their opponents, but the central defence of Jordy de Wijs and Reece Burke are key and capable of being the division’s outstanding partnership.
The latest side tasked with finding a way through, over or around this mighty backline is Fleetwood Town, who have been surprise underachievers in the new campaign’s early throes. Joey Barton won’t be allowing the particularly jolting manner of their play-off exit in July to be used as an excuse, though after three League One defeats in a row can justifiably call for further reinforcements before the transfer deadline.
Their midweek win over Aston Villa Under-21s in the EFL Trophy provided their first clean sheet of the season at the ninth time of asking, and their youthful defence has been the biggest concern in the opening month. Their last league game against Rochdale saw 18-year-old James Hill and 19-year-old Morgan Boyes paired at the back, and the only other central option currently is Sam Stubbs, a relative veteran at 21, while there is no recognised right-back in the squad.
Ahead there is more than enough of the required experience between Glenn Whelan and Paul Coutts, plus attacking talents to rival the deeper pockets of sides like Hull. But as the Tigers are showing, a mean defence is the first requirement for a promotion challenge.
Harvey Saunders will hope to be in contention for Fleetwood after the forward scored a 15-minute hat-trick in the 3-0 win over Villa U21s, but there have been no new signings in the past week to bolster Barton’s hand.
Hull will be without their two top centre-forward options, with Josh Magennis on international duty with Northern Ireland and Tom Eaves suffering a setback in his return from a foot injury. Richie Smallwood is unlikely to be risked but Mallik Wilks could make his comeback.
Fleetwood: Cairns; Burns, Stubbs, Boyes, Andrew; Coutts, Whelan; Duffy, Camps, McKay; Evans.
Hull: Ingram; Emmanuel, Burke, de Wijs, Elder; Docherty, Honeyman, Batty; Adelakun, Lewis-Potter, Samuelsen.
What the managers have said
Barton’s focus has been on trying to get new players to Highbury, saying it will be difficult to compete with the inexperienced side he has been putting out in the early rounds of the season.
“It’s a tough league without a recognized strongest back four. It gets even tougher when it feels like you don’t have the correct components,” he said following three consecutive league defeats.
“We will get them. I keep saying it week-by-week but until I get them it’s difficult to win games with an 18-year-old and two 19-year-olds starting. You can’t afford that many young lads to be learning on the job. You’ve got to know your trade at this level.”
There are no such problems for McCann, whose biggest challenge at the moment is keeping things exactly as they are.
“You’ve got to keep on top of the standards,” he said. “You’ve got to keep on top of everything around the training ground every day. This group is doing that themselves, with the experience we’ve got, the characters. It’s about getting the tactics right on the day to try and win the game.”
On potentially equalling the club record for clean sheets at the start of a season, the head coach added: “It’d be a great achievement. It’s something we as a club wanted to do better and be more resolute in terms of our defending. But we don’t say, ‘make sure you keep a clean sheet’ – we want to try to score goals. We know if we press from the front, the more opportunities we’re going to get.”
The match marks the first-ever competitive meeting between the two clubs, with Fleetwood a ninth-tier outfit the last time Hull were as low as League One in the football pyramid.
How to watch
Sky Sports has selected the tie for live coverage, and it will be on Sky Sports Football on Friday night with a 7.45pm kick-off. As a result, the game is not available to stream on the clubs’ iFollow services.