STEVE BRUCE cuts a frustrated figure right now.
The 53-year-old manager has, by common consent, put together the best squad in Hull City’s history. Five games into the new season, his side are also sitting in the top half of the Premier League.
As pleasing as both those points are, however, there is a sense that things should be even better. An inability to hold on to a lead and a defence that has suddenly started leaking goals have seen the Tigers drop six points from winning positions in their last four league games and crash out of the Capital One Cup.
It means, as Hull prepare to host champions Manchester City at the KC Stadium, that Bruce has plenty to ponder.
“We need to find the right balance,” said the Tigers chief. “We kept a clean sheet when we won our first game of the season but haven’t been able to keep one since.
“Last year, we kept several clean sheets and if I knew the secret I would bottle it and then put it on the training ground for you.
“We can look at systems and who we play but against West Brom (in the Capital One Cup, when City led 2-1 with three minutes remaining only to lose 3-2) we conceded from a throw-in and a corner, which drives me nuts.
“We conceded against Newcastle (in last weekend’s 2-2 draw) with elementary mistakes.
“If we can get rid of those, we will certainly be better. But it is very difficult to just blame your back four.
“We have got to really tune in as a team. My growing thinking is that we have got to concentrate more to see it through.
“We have got to get the balance right. We could have been sitting here quite easily top of the league or certainly right up there. That is annoying.”
Bruce’s annoyance is understandable, as City’s defensive problems in recent weeks have been mainly self-inflicted.
At St James’ Park, a sloppy pass from Stephen Quinn and Allan McGregor making a hash of an attempted save handed Newcastle their first goal, and Andrew Robertson and Curtis Davies were culpable for the second.
Five days earlier, West Ham’s equaliser in a 2-2 draw was an own goal from Davies and it was a similar tale on the final day of last month when basic errors allowed Aston Villa to race into a two-goal lead that ultimately proved enough to claim all three points.
For Bruce, one of the defensive lynchpins on which Manchester United’s success in the early Nineties was built upon, City’s defence suddenly becoming porous is as annoying as it is frustrating.
Improving on that today will not be easy with the visitors arriving in the East Riding fresh from netting seven times without reply against Sheffield Wednesday in the Capital One Cup third round.
Asked if the undoubted attacking ability that the Blues possess means he will have to rein in Hull’s usual attacking instincts, Bruce replied: “No, I still think we have got to cause them a threat.
“Last year, I think we took four points off the top eight. We played very well against them but we would get beat. We want to change that.”
The Tigers will host the champions sitting in 10th place. However, had they been able to hold on to the lead against Newcastle, West Ham and Stoke City this season, Bruce’s men would be second and just a point behind leaders Chelsea.
For the Hull manager, this is frustrating. He is also, though, fully aware that his side are a work in progress.
“We are only 14 months into the Premier League and we’re disappointed that we didn’t beat Newcastle,” said Bruce. “We have to remember how far we have come.
“Now, we have got to make sure we find that resilience again and that concentration. No coach or manager can put their point across when individuals are making errors.
“Against a team like Manchester City, we are going to have to be at our best and a bit more. Even that might not be good enough and we understand that.
“But it is one that we should look forward to. We are 14 months into the Premier League and we have got the champions coming to our ground.
“Let’s put on a show and who knows? Let’s see if we can take something from what we know will be a difficult game.”
Last season, Hull put in a couple of decent performances against the Blues only to lose both games 2-0.
At the Etihad Stadium in August, the Tigers impressed hugely and things could have worked out differently if Sone Aluko had not missed an early one-on-one opportunity. Danny Graham also had an excellent finish chalked off for offside.
In the return, Manuel Pellegrini’s side had Vincent Kompany sent off for a professional foul on Nikica Jelavic and it took until stoppage time for Hull’s challenge to be killed off when Edin Dzeko made it 2-0.
Bruce will be hoping Jelavic can again play a big part today after enjoying a fine start to the season.
The Croat, signed for £6.5m from Everton in January, has netted three goals in five league games, the most recent being the acrobatic scissor-kick that put Hull in front at Newcastle last weekend.
City’s manager said: “He is a bit ungainly and untidy at times but he is doing everything that I thought he would do for us.
“He leads the line exceptionally well. He is strong and we always knew he was capable of scoring a goal.
“At this level, that is not easy. For him to have three in five is a good return. Plus, when he usually gets one he goes on a run so let’s hope it continues for a long while yet.
“Nik is a handful to play against. He is strong and aggressive. And, of course, when he gets a chance he likes to score a goal. In his mind he is one of these strikers that wants to score.
“Some people are quite happy to be a ‘number 10’ and give assists but he wants to be an old-fashioned ‘number 9’.
“He leads the line very well and he has got that selfish quality where he wants to score. He has got that in abundance.”