Nearly two months and 20% of the way through the season, Aston Villa is still very much a mystery. The wins over Arsenal and Manchester City were legitimately impressive as were the performances in a losing effort against Chelsea and Liverpool. The losses to Newcastle and Spurs were the very definition of dire, while the win over Norwich City felt very much like getting away with something undeserved. There have been many positive signs and a not-insignificant amount of frustration, and given the stage of a near total rebuild, that's to be expected. But it makes it more than a bit difficult to predict how Villa will fare against a Hull City side that's more than held their own early on in their return to the Premier League.
Steve Bruce's side comes into the day having won two straight, holding on for a 1-0 victory over West Ham at the K.C. Stadium last weekend and prevailing in a 3-2 shootout over Newcastle at St. James' Park on September 21st. Altogether Hull sit on nine points, one point and one place (8th) better than Villa. The Tigers' only losses have come at the hands of Chelsea and Manchester City, and though neither game was ever much in doubt it would be a stretch to say they made things easy for the opposition. Anyone that's ever seen a Bruce managed side won't be stunned by Hull's approach to the game, but it's difficult to argue with the results so far; Hull's been the best of the newly promoted sides, and though they're likely not going to keep up this pace all season long, their fast start has clearly given them a leg up on avoiding the relegation battle.
Given some the games Villa's managed to win this season, there's little reason to think they're not capable of beating Hull. Norwich City is the closest in terms of talent, and the edge their still comfortably belongs to the Canaries-though whether or not that talent will translate into a higher place in the table come June remains to be seen. But it's clear Hull is far from a pushover and given the quality they've shown thus far, this game looks significantly more difficult than it did when the fixture list was announced.
The greatest concern for Villa in this match will likely be the same as it was against Newcastle and Norwich; the manner in which they punished City on the break has shown that they can still be a very dangerous team on the counter, but when teams don't press high up the pitch (and that's not something Hull tends to do) those opportunities are less frequent. Villa's a threat from set pieces and isn't completely hopeless scoring from a more patient buildup, but fewer opportunities to counter means that precision in front of goal takes on even greater importance. And frankly, finishing is something on which it's pointless to speculate, especially with Christian Benteke out of action.
The back line has looked significantly better than the unit that was routinely thrashed last season, but that isn't saying a whole lot; Villa's still allowed more goals than six teams (including Manchester United, which is being mentioned only for hilarity's sake) and though they've also faced a schedule that's arguably been the toughest in the league to this point, they've had some legitimately shocking moments. It will be interesting to see how Lambert chooses to line up for this one; the 5-3-2 Villa played against City worked quite well in many ways, but it was clearly a strategy designed to counteract one of the league's best midfields while still giving the fullbacks enough cover to provide width in the attack. What's required to beat Hull is certainly quite a bit different than what's required to beat Manchester City, but depending on the fitness of Gabby Agbonlahor, Antonio Luna and Ashley Westwood a three-CB shape could still make a fair bit of sense.
This is a tricky fixture for Villa, but it could also reveal quite a bit about where they are in terms of finding an identity. There will always be subtle changes to a team's shape and tactical approach based on various factors, but good teams tend to have an approach that they consistently try to take. At their worst last season, and again against Newcastle this year, Villa looked to lose sight of their strengths in attempting to control possession, slow down the game and out-pass their opponents. But there's no shame in playing a fluid and dynamic counter-attacking game; some of the best teams in the world are taking a similar approach to Villa, but they're doing it at a much higher level. This team is still a long way from fixed, but when they're able to play the game on their terms, they tend to perform quite well. And if they're able to do that against Hull, it's yet another sign that this team has taken a step forward.