Maddison finds avenues

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Individual errors, ruthlessly and gratefully punished by an under pressure and often under par Leicester side consigned Town to yet another defeat and the very real possibility of being overwhelmed by their lack of potency up front.

It was, perhaps, significant that the first two catastrophic errors were committed by 2 players new to the team – Durm, on an otherwise solid debut, and the raw Diakhaby made basic mistakes which doomed the game management which has gained so many points under Wagner.

In stark contrast to the insipid display at the same venue on New Year’s Day, Town took the game to their opponents from the off and were ahead within 5 minutes as the impressive Billing’s long throw in to the heart of the home defence caused enough confusion to allow Zanka to sweep in for a crucial lead.

A decent first half performance was ruined, however, when Town conceded a soft equaliser from their own corner. With men committed upfield, first Mooy and then, fatally, Durm, failed to deal with possession. The Australian couldn’t control a bouncing ball effectively but the threat of a breakaway was non existent when it broke to his German colleague. His attempt to sidestep a potential, rather than actual, challenge disastrously fell to a Leicester player who slipped to a team mate with a panorama of fast breaking options in front of him and defenders caught flat footed. Wisely, he chose Vardy whose first touch played Iheanacho in for a simple finish past Lössl.

To their credit, Town didn’t crumble with the setback though a careless tackle by Zanka gave Maddison the opportunity to craft an opening for Vardy from the free kick which the Yorkshireman snatched at and put wide.

For all their intent, the visitors’ attempts on goal were weak and speculative but, overall, they comfortably matched their hosts in an encouraging first half ruined by a single mistake, ruthlessly exploited.

Stout defending in the early part of the second half kept a visibly roused Leicester at bay, though a misplaced Mooy pass allowed Chilwell to release Vardy’s electric pace behind Town’s defence culminating in an easy save by Lössl.

The turning point came just after the hour mark. Van La Parra did well on the left, cutting inside and releasing a perfect ball in front of Depoitre who, inexplicably, failed to shoot before the ball was taken off his toes by the recovering Maguire (the same player he had memorably beasted in the home game last season).

The inability to take such an opportunity – Depoitre was also guilty of heading straight at Schmeichel later in the game – was hugely costly. Up to this point, Leicester had been largely unimpressive and receiving little support from a very quiet crowd; a second setback could’ve undermined them, allowing Town to take advantage of the discontent.

Instead, a naive foul on the edge of the area following poor control by Diakhaby sealed Town’s fate. The impressive Maddison evaded the top of the wall – why Billing wasn’t in the middle of it rather than at the edge may be something to consider – and his ferocious effort flew past Lössl who had little chance of stopping it, despite post match claims.

Deflated, the visitors became easy pickings for the revitalised home side and, yet again, moments had fallen badly for the strugglers. Van La Parra gave the ball away cheaply just inside the Leicester half, allowing Iheanacho to return a favour to the lightning fast Vardy, playing the ball perfectly behind Zanka for the now ex England striker to lift the ball over the exposed Lössl.

There was still time for Depoitre’s header in to Schmeichel’s grateful arms but the last 20 minutes were comfortable for the former Premier League Champions who must have been relieved that they had been let off an uncomfortable hook with Depoitre’s spurned opportunity.

Things are now looking bleak for Town. Even reasonably competent performances – and for an hour, one mistake aside, this was one – bring no reward and pressure builds on the obvious vulnerabilities of a team which finds it ever so difficult to score.

However, just as people drown because they panic rather an inability to swim, Town’s management have been adept at finding solutions in the past and cool heads are needed.

Wagner has been mocked for his comment about this squad being better than any he has had at Town, but he is right. Despite the ultimately disappointing result, his team were infinitely more effective than they were nearly 9 months ago even if it wasn’t good enough to gain a point.

Worryingly, however, the team still looks like a work in progress with little impact being felt by the genuinely new signings who have yet to integrate. Durm, error aside, looks promising on this showing but Diakhaby needs a lot of time and work, leaving us reliant on Kachunga who, sadly, is out of his depth.

Other results – including a worryingly emphatic home win for Burnley who represent the only realistic chance for points before the next international break – left Town rock bottom if not quite at crisis point yet. This will be reached if the chronic goal scoring problem shows no sign of resolution, and soon.

Billing remains the brightest positive of a difficult start to the season – comfortably Town’s best player, it is difficult to recall a single error in his game and he is a reminder that patience with talent is a virtue. There is more to come too; as his confidence grows with experience, he may be the player who adds the unexpected for a team which can be robotic and over drilled.

But it remains the fact that we are in a bad place right now, and it would be a brave man to predict anything but relegation on the evidence so far.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Going down like a Wilf

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With arguably the best performance of the season, Town succumbed to a seasoned, slightly cynical Crystal Palace side buoyed by their talisman Zaha, who appears to be the difference between comfort and struggle. Other than the Ivorian, the South East Londoners look very ordinary and the home side should have buried them in a game they largely dominated.

It is, however, becoming an immutable law that if the Terriers don’t open the scoring, points are not accrued.
These two theories, Palace’s inevitable defeats without their Wilf, and Town’s huge vulnerability to going behind gathered more momentum at the end of a feisty affair with the home side bemoaning their luck as, once again, they fell on the wrong side of wafer thin margins.
Playing with greater intensity and pace than has been seen for some time, Town found their wingbacks with refreshing regularity – Lössl’s distribution was excellent at times and Kongolo’s range was just as impressive – though it was down their left, with Löwe and Van La Parra that they created most threat. The right side had similar service but largely failed to deliver.
Kachunga’s inclusion at the expense of Diakhaby was presumably to negate the threat of Zaha, but along with Hadergjonaj, they allowed Palace far too much freedom down the left and all of the visitors’ threat came down their flank, and this wasn’t limited to Palace’s main man.
The back three coped with Palace incursions reasonably comfortably however and Town were largely ascendant in a decent first half hour and should have been ahead 17 minutes in when a sublime cross field ball found the impressive Löwe. The German, progressive and combative throughout, delivered a perfect ball which left Hennessey in no man’s land and defenders caught ball watching but Mounié headed over when a goal looked inevitable.
Strikers are allowed to miss chances, of course, but at the elite level at which Town are trying to compete, misses like this one are cruelly punished. A goal at that stage would have transformed the outcome – as Palace were to prove, getting the first goal allows you to adapt to circumstances far more easily than when behind.
The defining ten minutes came close to the half hour mark. Schindler made a rare mistake which left his central defensive partner Zanka in trouble. Zaha nipped in to intercept the pass which had fallen short, prompting the Dane to instinctively bring down the winger with a poor challenge which deservedly brought a booking. This was not enough for his opponent who proceeded to throw a ridiculous tantrum, beating the floor in frustration, and carrying a visible red mist around for the next few minutes.
The subsequent free kick was weakly wasted, going straight through to Lössl, and Town worked their way down the right to Hadergjonaj who was upended by a late Zaha tackle which drew another deserved booking and the Palace bench demonstrating to their only hope to calm down.
Shaking off his strop for a few minutes, Zaha then demonstrated his immense quality with a run which seemed to mesmerise Hadergjonaj and Kachunga, neither of whom put in a challenge. Their dithering encouraged Zaha in to the area, where he couldn’t be touched, and he curled an excellent finish past Lössl for the all important lead.
For ten minutes, Town disintegrated. Their shape was lost, their passing became negligent and within minutes Zaha should have put the result beyond doubt rather than shooting tamely to enable Lössl to make a routine save.
As they settled down, Town finished the half strongly but the lack of composure and instinctive finishing in decent positions let them down, as it usually does. One excellent incursion saw the impressive Löwe find Van La Parra free on the left of the area only for the Dutchman to kill all momentum by receiving the ball stood still and destroying the chance to create an opportunity.
Van La Parra had a good first half – if anything, he had far more reason to complain about rough treatment than Zaha – but most of his good work disintegrates on contact with the penalty area.
Billing was also subject to persistent fouling – one particularly egregious, late challenge was far worse than Zanka’s – but he was influential, composed and effective. Alongside Mooy, who played well but made a couple of potentially costly errors in the second half, he is growing in stature and maturity.
A frantic second half saw Town relentlessly pressing for the equaliser and increasingly threatened by Palace counter attacks. Dominating possession and, on the whole, using it with intent rather than having it for its own sake, the hosts battered on the door for long periods and delivery in to the box improved substantially over the first half.
On the hour, a brilliantly contrived attempt by Mooy, brimming with technique, hit the inside of the post but bounced out. It rather summed up Town’s fortunes during the game – whatever good fortune was available seemed to favour the visitors, though they could point to several dangerous counter attacks which could have sealed the points. One of them saw Kongolo being given the benefit of the doubt as his telescopic legs wrapped around Ayew to stop him in the area.
Town created several moments of bagatelle in the Palace area which brought Hennessey in to action and a late Billing effort cannoned off a defender for a corner when it could have gone anywhere. The same player found the net but play had been halted for a foul in the area.
In and amongst the waves of offensive play, Palace infringements – by the unpunished Milivojevic in particular, who committed two fouls in the space of 30 seconds at one point – started to mount along with some fairly crude time wasting. It would be hypocritical to complain about the latter – we are rather good at it ourselves when needs be – but the addition of only 3 minutes injury time was baffling and the leniency of an indecisive and rather weak referee is a different matter. McArthur piled up a dive in the area and a couple of fouls before finally making it in to the referee’s book, and all of this was completely overlooked in favour of Zaha’s self pitying interview after the game.
Diakhaby replaced the energetic but rather limited Kachunga after 70 minutes and again showed that there is raw talent and pace to be polished over time – if anything, his introduction was 10 minutes too late. The brief cameo by Mbenza on the other side – Van La Parra having faded as the game went on – provided rather less comfort. He looked a little lost in possession and has yet to demonstrate he is ready to challenge on the left.
The baffling substitution, however, was to pair Depoitre and Mounié as Town went to a back four for the last 10 minutes. The ploy has never worked – to be fair, this latest attempt to defy experience wasn’t as starkly useless – and it left the more subtle skills of Pritchard again unused. After the performance of the team at Everton – and Pritchard’s unsuitability for Wagner’s formation of 3 at the back – it was no surprise to see him on the bench, but his ability to unpick mass defences was surely a better option than another battering ram?
Overall, however, there were reasonable grounds for some optimism in defeat. Several players performed very well, there was significantly more pace and purpose in attack and despite being exposed more than usual, the defence coped well – particularly Kongolo.
We lost because of moments not going our way. Mounié’s miss, the Mooy effort and the general run of the ball in the area in the second half, but Wagner has to find a way to inject clinical action in to his team – the lack of goals from open play is now at crisis point, if it wasn’t before now. With Spurs and Liverpool up next at home, the drought in front of their own supporters looks likely to continue.
Tough times.

A Grand Old point

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After all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth over Town’s stuttering start to the season, we enter the infernal international break with one fewer point than could have been reasonably predicted (and out of the League Cup, as per usual) following a very good draw at a difficult venue. Ever so slightly below par.

It is not unusual for people to react, sometimes hysterically, to disappointment and defeat in the moment and the aftermath. Optimism dissipates quickly as context is temporarily overlooked or ignored completely; it is an entirely natural emotion, even if expressed with a lack of grace or gratitude.

A forgettable encounter at Goodison Park saw Town stifle their hosts all over the pitch and but for a single error by the raw but promising Diakhaby, the stranglehold they had over an admittedly depleted Everton would have garnered a first win.
Thoroughly disciplined, the visitors rarely conceded space, overcame a ludicrously early booking for Billing (made even more vexatious by the referee’s leniency towards Davies in particular) and worked hard with and without the ball to revive the spirit which has carried us this far.
Key players stepped up. Mooy, looking far more comfortable in a deeper role, provided the midfield anchor preventing Everton playing between the lines and he was supported by a mature performance by Billing which indicated he is coming of age. Despite the aforementioned early booking, the Dane glided through the game, scored his first top league goal and provided most of the, too rare, progressive impetus.
At wing back, Van La Parra put in a fine display. Error free, his role of getting the team up the pitch was carried out with relish. His faults have been debated long and hard, and remain relevant, but he continues to be a vital part of a team which needs breathing space.
Up front, Mounié‘s hold up play and aerial challenges were beyond reproach – despite Town’s underwhelming form, he looks to have improved and his further development will be interesting to see.
Not unsurprisingly, the home team saw most of the ball in a tepid opening twenty minutes but were restricted to two long range, off target shots. Tosun’s effort caused fleeting concern as it flew over the bar but Lössl comfortably allowed Zouma’s drive to pass harmlessly wide.
By frustrating the home team and fans, not allowing them to gain any sort of rhythm, either in play or song, Town built the foundation to attack with more purpose and after just a few minutes of a more expansive approach, they were in front.
Löwe, solid at left wing back, swung in a dangerous near post corner which was inadvertently flicked on by Calvert-Lewin, straight on to the immaculately coiffured head of Phil Billing who gave Pickford no chance.
Sadly, the euphoria was extremely short lived. From the kick off, the ball found it’s way down Town’s right channel and a weak, ill advised challenge by Diakhaby on Digne allowed the left full back time and space to cross. The French international seized on the rare commodity and swung in an excellent cross which Calvert-Lewin converted following a well timed run in front of the exposed defence. Lössl got a hand to it and may feel that it wasn’t as strong as it should have been, but it was a powerful, well placed header.
The goals enlivened a poor spectacle but failed to ignite the game which rarely rose above tedium thereafter, which is exactly what Town needed.
Everton’s pedestrian approach play and Town’s deliberate slowing of the pace at every opportunity eventually stirred the quiet home crowd in to whinging, which was music to the ears of a club in some need of a positive result. The visiting support was vocal throughout and appreciative of the destructive nature of the performance.
The final hour was a struggle between a home side failing to turn possession in to threat – only the introduction of Lookman for the injured but anonymous Walcott added anything resembling menace – and visitors comfortably adapting to the soft challenge. One decent ball in to the box by Lookman could have ruined the day, but it narrowly evaded Siggurson’s despairing back post lunge.
Otherwise, Town carried some threat at times with Mounié firing a decent effort straight at Pickford from distance and he was visibly annoyed with Van La Parra for trying to convert off his toes after he had skilfully worked a position from an aerial ball.
Durm replaced the dependable but non threatening Hadergjonaj for the last quarter of an hour and the German very nearly fed Mounié in the area following a good Town move down the right, only to be thwarted by a good interception.
If anything, Town looked the more likely to grab a winner on the break though this would be to over emphasise the actual threat they posed. As Wagner acknowledged later, the final third remains a problem with creativity at a premium but this game looked to be one where the team was getting back to basics and they succeeded in that limited but necessary ambition.
Throughout our short tenure at the top table, the balance between adventure and solidity remains the most difficult conundrum. Durm’s cameo hinted at one possible solution – if he can consign his injury problems to history, he looks accomplished and easily capable at this high level of providing the delivery we so often lack.
The game itself may have been a humdrum affair, but for the visiting support a return to the fundamental qualities needed for survival in an ever toughening division more than compensated. Perhaps, like Wagner, we can all leave the immediate past behind and see how he develops the team to meet the huge challenges ahead.

Stagnant, rancid stalemate

 

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Town’s dismal early season form continued as they failed to beat a limited, rugged Cardiff side in a contest barely befitting the top league. On this evidence, both will be back in the Championship next season and relegation may prove a blessed relief.

The hope was that Town would progress in their second season but, perhaps unsurprisingly with a team which, so far, has lined up with pretty much the same players as last season, the same failings remain at the fore.
Faced with Cardiff’s physicality, David Wagner left Pritchard on the bench in favour of a strategy apparently designed to test Cardiff’s stamina before introducing him later on. This is an assumption incapable of testing and proof as circumstances interrupted the presumed game plan when Hamer – a bold reselection having conceded 9 goals in two games – was injured early on, reducing substitution options and fatally compounded by Hogg’s dismissal.
For all his achievements with Town – and they are amazing, legendary achievements – Wagner’s meticulous game plans often fail to survive the setbacks which regularly intercede in a chaotic sport. There is a distinct lack of spontaneity – a quality Pritchard can bring – in and amongst the efficiency which can feel and look robotic, particularly when ball possession is held in higher regard than anything resembling risk.
The midfield 3 – Hogg, Mooy and Billing – were largely a cloying mess and simply not creative enough to unlock a solid Cardiff defence. Individually, for an hour, they did little wrong and Billing was at least influential at times and was one of the few to stand out, but the home team cried out for Pritchard’s unpredictability in front of Cardiff’s centre halves.
Far too often forward runs were ignored, particularly by Mooy, in favour of recycling and virtually nothing was of any surprise to the Welsh visitors. The exception was Kongolo who shone like a beacon amongst the dross. A rasping effort in to the side netting – the least said about his other shot which ended with a throw in the better – athletic raiding down the left which rattled Cardiff’s back line and a superb cross for Mounié in the second half were the highlights of an excellent individual performance which was depressingly out of place with the rest of the mess.
The right hand side, with Hadergjonaj having a particularly ineffective game offensively, was frustratingly poor. On the assumption that Diakhaby was bought for his pace, he was rarely set free to use it – the one exception saw him finish his run with a bemusing half pass/half shot which dribbled to the keeper. Billing broke forward down the right in a decent move, skipped past a defender and put in a poor cross which lead to Kongolo’s drive after a scuffed clearance but, generally, the home side avoided the byline in favour of hitting the first defender with crosses which would have been easy to defend had they travelled further.
Cardiff were similarly unthreatening in a hugely disappointing first half – after Mendez-Laing’s strong run and collision with Hamer after 5 minutes (both players brave in the challenge), the visitors’ limitations were exposed. In archetypal Warnock style, power over precision ruled with the ball spending a lot of time in the air to little effect. Sean Morrison’s long throws had the appearance of threat without actually delivering any.
A first half involving a team moving the ball far too slowly, against one with few pretensions of sophistication made for pretty desperate fare. Forgettable for all but Kongolo’s exploits, long on endeavour but short on quality the game felt ominous for the two relegation favourites, and it was about to get worse.
It could have been very different. Early in the second period, Lössl tried to emulate Ederson with a dead ball delivery directly to Van La Parra who, unfortunately, isn’t quite at the level of Agüero. The Dutchman brought the ball down a little too clumsily, allowing defenders to recover but, more crucially, allowing the offside Mounié to take the ball from him. Dumb.
Town’s best moment of the game came shortly afterwards. Billing burst forward to release Kongolo who delivered a sublime cross for the usually starved Mounié only for the striker to power his header too close to the keeper who made a competent if spectacular looking save. A goal at this point would have sunk Cardiff, who have even more problems – as would be proven – in front of goal than their hosts.
Just after the hour, a rare Cardiff corner was cleared towards Diakhaby who looked to be cynically fouled as he unleashed his pace at long last, but everyone’s attention was drawn to a fracas in the area and a prone Arter being harangued by home players. The linesman’s report to the referee resulted in Arter’s aggression being punished by a free kick against him and a yellow card while Hogg, who had pushed him over with head and hands was sent from the field.
The unprofessional actions of the on field captain should have proved disastrous. For the remaining half hour, the visitors played with considerably more freedom than they looked capable of against 11 men, it allowed them to introduce the more subtle skills of Bobby Reid and the commodity of possession, one which they had previously been severely restricted.
Before the sending off, we had been treated to the slightly bizarre sight of Danny Ward playing in the Premier League – to be fair to him, he looked far more effective than Zohore, even if the contest itself was a pastiche of a top level game.
Lössl had to make a decent save from the ex-Town man, whose diet appears to have improved, before seeing Morrison miss with a header when it was far easier to score and he was grateful for decent blocking of shots by Schindler and a lucky deflection off Zanka.
Cardiff really should have won the game with Town down to ten and conceding possession and territory but their inability to put the ball in the net, like ours, is going to be fatal for them. They will have few better chances to win 3 points than that last half hour, having largely suppressed their lacking in confidence hosts.
Towards the end, with Cardiff out of ideas, substitute Depoitre may have made more of a good opportunity but was thwarted by Samba.
At least the 11 v 10 circumstances provided a level of entertainment rather lacking in the first hour, but a scoreless draw delivered the damnation the game as a whole deserved, exposing just how much improvement both sides will need if they are to defy the opinions of the experts.
For Town, something of a sea change is required. Shoehorning your strongest players in to a team only serves to create duplication – Mooy spent far too much time too far back to be a true number 10 and was outshone by Billing’s willingness to burst forward to some effect at times, and his safety first orchestration of play slowed the team down to the point of hum drum.
Goals remain rare and elusive. The common consensus is that better supply to Mounié and Depoitre could solve the problem, but there is precious little evidence that a solution is near at hand. Kongolo’s adventures forward are promising, but the pace of Diakhaby was barely in play and Mbenza’s introduction when down to ten offered no clues to his ability either.
The much maligned Van La Parra – bar a near catastrophic short back pass to Lössl – tried to add threat and paired reasonably well with Kongolo, but, frankly, unless one of the three purchased wide men does not prove to be better, we are in a lot of trouble.
A dismal day which thankfully didn’t turn disastrous, did little to lift a now pervading gloom.

No Silva linings

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Manchester City systematically dismantled a makeshift Huddersfield Town side shorn of its midfield energy and nous through injury and paternity leave, while barely shifting out of cruise control.

Not a single visiting player emerged from the wreckage with credit, though some had the excuse of being demonstrably unfit to be sharing a Premier League stage with opponents oozing quality, control and class.
David Wagner’s strange but not wholly unexpected approach to two exceptionally tough opening games, which has seen his summer signings almost entirely mothballed, could come back to haunt him if the ultimate objective – taking points from teams providing more realistic competition – stumbles.
Adopting an entirely new defensive plan – weird Jon Stanković playing as a roving additional centre half in front of the back four as protection – along with an inexperienced and fundamentally lightweight midfield against the oil state funded superstars who will surely walk away with the title again was, to say the least, bold.
The line up resembled what you would expect in the second half of a pre season friendly in Austria; two full backs who just about cope with moderate opposition in the top league, a Wagner favourite (Stanković) making his full Premier League debut after a long injury break, two kids with talent and potential but hopelessly out of their depth in this company (Sabiri and Billing) and a second string keeper inexplicably retained after a less than commanding opening day performance.
Both the performance and result were eminently predictable – the eleven sent out to try to thwart an opposition brimming with talent lacked pace, cohesion and strength in vital areas. Unfamiliar with each other in a competitive game and trying to adapt to a new defensive strategy, the hastily assembled team looked perpetually on the edge of collapse and a snarling underdog display which would have at least salvaged a little pride, was entirely absent.
City could have been out of sight in the first few minutes with Aguero, Jesus and Mounié going close – Town’s striker shanked an attempted clearance on to his own bar – as the Silvas, David and Bernardo, tormented Löwe down Town’s left. To his credit, Hamer made an excellent save from Jesus, taking the full impact of the Brazilian’s strike in the unmentionables, and Stanković made a brave block on Aguero’s effort.
On the right, Town appeared to have decided to let Mendy roam at will. Tommy Smith occasionally ran alongside him but the mismatch was tragically comic. Throughout the game, the World Cup winner delivered crosses of variable quality – ranging from hitting the side netting to setting up goals – but the license to do so was handed to him far too easily.
David Silva, on the other side, was virtually unplayable. Poor Chris Löwe was turned inside out and anyone who came to help suffered a similar fate but the Spaniard’s creativity wasn’t capitalised upon as, to their credit, Town players restricted space in the area and blocked effectively.
For the first twenty minutes, the visitors saw little of the ball and invariably gave it back to the home side to maintain their dominant superiority. Aside from one crunching challenge on Silva by Kongolo, tackling was at an extreme premium as both Sabiri and Billing were bypassed with consummate ease.
The Terriers finally had a shot after 25 minutes with their first genuine foray forward – decent work by Mounié set up Stanković to fire high and wide, but it was, at least, something to become marginally excited about in the away end.
They followed it up with another attack, though this carried no threat and had sucked a few too many players forward. Ederson spotted Agüero moving near the halfway line and pinged a quick dead ball in his direction which the Argentine had under control in a flash. Inexplicably, Hamer, who had moved way too far forward in the first place to attempt to cover the threat, refused to retreat back towards his goal and let Schindler deal with the situation. This provided the perfect scenario for one of the world’s most lethal strikers; Schindler’s jockeying became redundant as Agüero had the simple task of lobbing the ball over the ridiculously advanced keeper and the by now covering Billing.
Town’s tentative flirtation with an attack cost them dearly, but Hamer’s mad wandering assured City of their deserved and bafflingly late opener.
5 minutes later, and slightly fortuitously, City doubled their lead when the Mendy menace was, yet again, ignored. Smith half tackled the marauding Frenchman only to see the ball rebound to Jesus. A poorly positioned Hamer couldn’t make up ground to his right and Town were sunk within half an hour.
Hamer’s third and worst aberration came soon after. A relatively soft cross by, you guessed it, Mendy was spilled in the vicinity of Agüero who beat two Town defenders to the ball and slammed home. He was second, possibly third, favourite to reach it first but his sharp instinct and desire brought him reward.
A mauling, which had been on the cards since the team selection, now became a distinct probability and thoughts of both sets of supporters drifted back to November 1987.
Out of the blue, however, and just before half time, Town found themselves up the pitch somehow. A Billing long throw was nodded on by Mounié and swept in by Stanković for the most unlikely of consolation goals masquerading as a springboard for recovery.
A first goal of the season was welcome, but nobody was fooled. To go in with just a two goal deficit defied the reality of a rampant City who could have scored 6 or more and had steamrollered their weakened and confused visitors to the point of submission.
The chasm in quality was frightening. As was the prospect of 45 more minutes with City being able to call upon a bench of seasoned, world class internationals and a wunderkind.
Sabiri, almost entirely anonymous in a bewildered midfield, was replaced by Depoitre at half time as Wagner decided to prolong the failed experiment of two big lads up front, though the Belgian did add more energy to the front line, even if it was all wasted.
The laughable notion that Town’s late first half goal would miraculously spur a revival was buried early in the second half. Billing brought down the irrepressible Agüero 25 yards out and with David Silva over the ball, there was a grim inevitability to its destination. Hamer stood motionless as City’s fourth curled in to the top corner.
The redundant Pritchard, who barely saw the ball in the hour he was on the pitch and whose only notable contribution was to occasionally and ineffectually try to stem the Mendy menace with Smith, was replaced by Diakhaby to no discernible affect.
The substitution had been preceded by more City chances, including a brilliant Agüero strike which slammed off the post and a rather more prosaic slash when he was clean through following a one two with Jesus.
City replaced the sublime Silva to give Mahrez his debut. And in that short sentence, the scale of the task facing everyone, not just an enfeebled Huddersfield Town, in the top division is encapsulated.
Agüero was also to be replaced – by Sané! – but not before he completed a deserved hat trick. By now, the provider should be obvious with the Argentinian meeting a perfect Mendy cross in front of Kongolo and flicking home past the beleaguered Hamer. Agüero’s striking masterclass rivalled Silva’s genius as the stand out performance in a home team studded with contributions to their easy win.
A reasonable Billing effort, blocked by Kompany, was the only interruption of note to City’s procession. One decent save by Hamer from an Agüero snapshot just before his departure, a woeful finish from Jesus when he should have scored and a slight drop in ruthlessness by the hosts saved Town from an even more humiliating score line, before Sané’s burst in to the box resulted in Kongolo inadvertently scoring an own goal off Hamer’s save.
By then, many of the visiting supporters had left (including this one).
The defeat can be rationalised, of course. Even a full strength Town side, without its spine being jellied through absence and injury, would have struggled to contain an imperious City – Mendy, Silva (D) and Agüero in particular – but there was an unpleasant stench to the capitulation which can’t simply be talked away.
Wagner teams have been thrashed by opposition far inferior to the reigning Premier League champions before, however, and he has shown that such results can be consigned to history. Nevertheless, it is not particularly comforting to look at the fixtures over the next few weeks – Cardiff aside, perhaps, unless we succumb to Warnock’s wiles – where points will remain very difficult to collect.
The first half hour of the season excepted, a difficult campaign has begun badly. The Etihad display was devoid of spirit, intelligence and even a sliver of competitiveness, qualities which can and should be displayed even in the face of overwhelming superiority.
History suggests that Wagner can and will meet the challenges ahead and he has earned the right to manage his resources as he sees fit, but this abject defeat must be redressed and quickly.

Navigating hazards

 

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Opening day shellackings can be portentous.

The idealistic but flawed Mark Robins was forced to accept he was out of his depth when his baffling team selection was systematically deconstructed by Bournemouth a few short years ago, ushering in Chris Powell’s dynamic era of narrowly avoiding the drop.
Brian Horton’s days were numbered after an extremely flattering 2-0 defeat at Oxford where he was seen berating any full back who got within 10 yards of the opponents half and Neil Warnock’s first season started with a 3-0 reverse against Reading, and considerable doubt about his suitability among fans for a long while.
This defeat, against a high quality Chelsea side who belied pre season turmoil, is not one of them.
Utilising a side of last year’s team bar the goalkeeper, Wagner’s pragmatism was on full display, and his insistence that new players be introduced when he feels they are ready was only strengthened by the nature of the opposition.
With Chelsea suffering from an interrupted pre-season, uncertainty over major players and a manager introducing a new philosophy in and amongst the disruption, it was reasonable to assume that their approach would be less clinical, potentially confused and vulnerable.
Rather admirably, the new man at Stamford Bridge – who appears significantly more likeable than some of his predecessors – has risen above the underlying problems and an opener against tricky but clearly inferior opponents provided a good opportunity to inject some much needed positivity, and he took that chance.
For half an hour, Wagner’s hope that the miracles at the Etihad and Stamford Bridge could be repeated with an identical formation and, largely, the same personnel, seemed to be justified, and it was being achieved a little more expansively.
Chelsea’s comfort in possession, finding space between the lines and calm defending was all in evidence – Kanté, Willian and Pedro shone on the ball, even if Town’s five man midfield made life uncomfortable for them at times – but debutant Hamer wasn’t being troubled unduly and the home side were able to apply periods of pressure in a first half which was encouraging despite a deficit which was not fully deserved.
Pritchard – sacrificed at half time for either injury or tactics – showed his quality on several occasions and will be key against the lesser sides. How he was penalised when Luiz climbed all over him in the area can only be answered by the generally awful referee, but you suspect such a challenge in the other area would have seen a different decision.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, what was a facsimile of last season’s team were unable to create chances and decent approach play floundered in the final third – the fear of Chelsea’s ability to punish any disruption of the defensive shape inhibits the midfield three getting far enough forward to any real effect.
As always with Town, the first goal is crucial, and Chelsea delivered the blow on 34 minutes with a move which was irritatingly banal. Missed tackles in central areas allowed Willian too much room down the left and the Brazilian picked out an unmarked Kanté (Billing was asleep) who shinned a bobble past Hamer to establish a lead they were unlikely to relinquish.
Three minutes later, however, a corner flicked on by Zanka was met by Mounié for what looked a certain equaliser but his header bounced off the post and the game was up.
It was probably a bigger turning point than the opening goal – against the highest opposition, Town must take the rare opportunities available to them.
Just before half time, the bulked up Barkley flicked a ball from Jorginho in to the path of Alonso. Schindler’s challenge was fractionally late and upended the Spaniard. In real time, the tackle looked fair but not on closer inspection. Jorginho left Hamer on his backside with deception and trickled the penalty in to seal victory.
The least said about the second half, the better. Chelsea assumed complete control as they took advantage of the visibly deflated Terriers. Wagner’s introduction of Depoitre to accompany Mounié worked as well it always does and without Pritchard’s invention, Town resorted to basic, fruitless strategies easily contained by the now hyper confident visitors.
With Chelsea slipping down a gear and having life far too easy, the second period was offering very little entertainment, as foregone conclusions tend to do.
The chasm between the resources of the two clubs was brutally emphasised with 15 minutes to go as the visitors introduced one of the world’s best players in to the game; replacing one of the world’s best players.
Hazard’s future remains uncertain and perhaps unsettling, yet he could have been mistaken for an 18 year old prodigy desperate to make an impression as he tormented the tired, demoralised hosts.
Within minutes, the Belgian was skipping past three attempted tackles before laying a ball through to Pedro to stick the dagger in with a clinical finish.
A reasonably encouraging first half hour, followed by a comprehensive undressing for the rest of the game could be dispiriting, but the familiarity of the team sheet – in hindsight – points to Wagner’s pragmatism against the top six while he saves his new weapons for more likely pursuits of points.
Diakhaby was given a run out for 20 minutes, replacing Löwe, but it seems unlikely that he will be trusted to provide the necessary defensive cover at the Etihad next Sunday where the same tactics will undoubtedly be used again.
Hamer’s distribution, which ranged from going far too long to the downright dangerous will see the return of Lössl now that the Dane has had a further week back.
The positives of the performance are a little difficult to find, but Kongolo again looked a fantastic addition. His challenge on Willian in the first half was reminiscent of the one he made on Sané to secure a point at City and he exudes a defensive authority which will be a major factor in Town’s fortunes. Hopefully, a rusty Zanka will improve next Sunday to make the back three idea a little more effective against even higher quality opposition.
Overall, though, Town’s supporters are going to have to be patient – there is a very slim chance that we can defy the odds next week, so, realistically, the season starts against Cardiff. A suspicion lingers that Wagner is treating the first two games as an extension of pre-season, minus the multiple substitutions; a suspicion perhaps confirmed by his holding back of the new talent. Given his record of achieving his objectives over the medium term, who is to argue?
Patience and faith needed.

Adieu et à bientôt

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A raucous celebration of Town’s pundit defying season and a respectful send off for Arsene Wenger at a sunshine bathed John Smith’s Stadium saw Town defeated with few caring.

Given the well publicised revelry that followed the events at Stamford Bridge midweek, it was assumed that Town would turn up and get the ninety minutes over with like a Sunday league team of folklore, and, frankly, who would blame them in a pretty meaningless encounter?
Instead, the home side harried and gegenpressed the Gunners in an opening 25 minutes which should have seen them comfortably ahead before the movement and quality of Arsenal undid all the hard work to hand Wenger a final victory and relieve him of the ignominy of serial failure away from home in 2018.
Perhaps because they were freed from the tension and fear of relegation, and maybe because the formation adopted by Wagner in the monumental performances at Manchester City and Chelsea has unleashed greater potential as a team, Town flew at the visitors from the off creating opportunities for Mounié from a Hadergjonaj cross and Schindler from a corner cleverly knocked down by the Benin striker before Ince blazed over when free in the area following great work by Pritchard.
Arsenal were barely in the contest at this point, but the miss epitomised Town’s ongoing problem of not taking opportunities when presented, a flaw which must be rectified in the close season, and poor Tom Ince’s as an individual. He played well, clearly has a good touch and a decent footballing brain, but his lack of goals is genuinely baffling. He ended his afternoon with a nice strike which was well saved by the excellent Ospina, and, hopefully, next season will be a happier one for him.
On 22 minutes, the stadium stood to applaud Wenger’s career in English football. The ovation was moving and respectful, though it was also refreshing to hear Town fans chanting about Arsenal fans’ hypocrisy and the comeback from the Londoners that Herbert Chapman’s departure was as a result of us being less than good. Both claims were flawed – you can simultaneously hold two thoughts in your head without hypocrisy and Town were very, very good when Herbert upped sticks, but irreverence punctured the sanctimony quite nicely.
With Pritchard buzzing around Arsenal’s suspect back 4, Mounié winning his aerial battles and the midfield coping well with the visitors more illustrious individuals, it was a half of no little promise for the Terriers ruined only by Arsenal demonstrating a rare moment of class with a combination which bamboozled the hosts and ended with Aubameyang sliding home the winner on 38 minutes.
If the goal was harsh on Town, it served to emphasise that shunning chances to score will almost inevitably cause you pain, particularly when the opposition features players of high quality.
The second half of a surprisingly entertaining game saw Arsenal create more chances with their movement and awareness of space only to be thwarted by a combination of excellent interventions and poor final passes.
In turn, Town continued to play with verve and spirit, comfortable in their relatively new formation, and had Arsenal under decent spells of pressure. Depoitre, the hero of Stamford Bridge came on for Ince to rousing acclaim and added a physicality up front to Mounié’s more subtle skills.
The change made Town more vulnerable to Arsenal’s swift counter attacking but increased the possibility of an equaliser they deserved. It nearly came in the final 5 minutes. A deft touch by Löwe set up Mooy whose dipping effort hit the bar before Depoitre’s header was saved to his right by Ospina to deny the hosts a fitting end to their remarkable season.
A good natured afternoon’s entertainment focused, rightly, on Wenger’s departure, but in and amongst the tribute to him, Dean Whitehead was afforded a well deserved ovation a few minutes from the end, the P4P9 cyclists were lauded for their considerable efforts and Dean Hoyle – a participant himself – addressed his adoring public with the class and humility we have come to know and love.
A second season in the top league is a great opportunity for the club to progress and the leadership of Hoyle and, hopefully, Wagner will be fascinating to watch. We have seen the demise of teams who somehow lose their identity – Swansea and Stoke, notably – a trap in to which these two are highly unlikely to fall.
Thanks for reading this season, and have a great Summer.
Until August then…

Class divide bridged

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Huddersfield Town stank the place out at Stamford Bridge last night. And we loved it.

Having smothered the state sponsored and petrodollar fuelled City on Sunday, it was a trip to the capital to engage with the oligarch.

Southampton’s win against Swansea, which sealed their survival barring an outrageous turnaround of goal difference by the Welsh club, who could have been playing until the weekend without scoring, meant that Town were faced with the considerable task of securing a point against either Chelsea or Arsenal.

The mitigating factors bestowed upon the Premier League Champions by the fawning media – Souness was a particular delight – largely suggesting that, somehow, their joyous mood and celebrations played in to Town’s hands along with the hot weather which strangely only impacted on the home side, where completely absent at the Bridge.

Chelsea had to win to cling on to their faint hopes of a top four finish and it was being played at night without that pesky sunshine.

Conté’s decision to rest Hazard and Giroud was retrospectively wheeled out in the Pensioners’ defence, and with their squad being thin in quality and without much depth, the criticism was obviously very well made.

For Wagner, the heroics at the Etihad meant juggling with a recovering (and genuinely thin) squad and three changes were made; Van La Parra, Depoitre and Billing were thrown in to the mix.

An evening of almost unbearable attrition followed. The defensive block was not so much deep as positively subterranean. In a first half where the visitors barely ventured out of their own half, they nevertheless managed to largely contain Chelsea’s rather laboured possession but they were grateful that Rüdiger snatched at a back post chance, blazing over the bar, and Morata took a touch too many when freed in the area allowing Lössl to smother.

For all their quality, penetration largely eluded Chelsea and the sea of red shirts weren’t for parting. The waves of attacks were relentless though – Van La Parra struggled to retain possession or carry the ball away from danger and became something of a liability. Depoitre battled manfully but in predictable isolation as the back nine plugged away to deny the hosts space and time whenever they tried to breach the final third.

The home fans’ annoyance with Town’s increasingly leisurely approach to taking dead balls, throw ins and free kicks must have been music to Wagner’s ears. A frustrated, impatient opposition plays in to his hands, just as City had 3 days earlier. Their vexation came to a crescendo at the end of the half. With seconds remaining, Chelsea were awarded a corner and Willian wandered over to take it – he took so long, that time ran out. With typical entitlement, the men in blue surrounded the meticulously timekeeping referee and Town were 45 minutes plus away from survival.

Within 5 minutes, Town’s cause was hugely boosted when Mooy took advantage of a loose ball following a crunching, fair challenge on Willian and played the ball over Rüdiger for Depoitre to charge on to. Caballero rushed out to try to intercept but, instead, met 200 pounds of Belgian muscle and came out distinctly second best and prone on the floor. Shrugging off the keeper’s challenge as if he’d been tackled by Dave Cowling, Depoitre lifted the ball in to the net before whirling away to celebrate with the incredulous visiting support.

The lifeline was huge but short lived. Chelsea resumed their onslaught, by now with Hazard and Giroud on the pitch, and equalised with a hugely fortuitous goal which cannoned off Alonso’s face from a Zanka clearance. The luck wasn’t misplaced – when you attack for virtually the whole game, chances are that you will get a break, but it was a bad time to concede when the Terriers had had little opportunity to increase the pressure and frustration on their hosts with the lead.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the game descended in to chaos for the last half hour. Ominously, Chelsea were finding too much space down their right and Hazard was on the ball far too frequently for comfort.

Despite mainly relieving pressure with hoicks up the field to no-one, Town had one or two opportunities to break and if Billing had been able to get the ball past Kanté, Pritchard would have been clear and likely to score.

The vast majority of the game was in Town’s half, however, and tackles, blocks and determined organisation was holding out the increasingly desperate Chelsea attacks. The pivotal moment arrived with just 7 minutes left. A corner caused mayhem in the box with at least two Chelsea players swiping at the ball before it looped up in the air for Christensen to head powerfully goalwards. His compatriot in the Town goal clawed the ball on to the post with a remarkable, defining save before a combination of Depoitre and Mooy finally cleared.

It wasn’t the last pinball moment in Town’s box, but it was the last with any real danger. Lössl made a routine save from Morata and Giroud looked momentarily threatening before scuffing a shot wide, but Town held firm with relative comfort.

To the indignant howls of the home fans, Town ate up time with injuries, long walk substitutions (Smith and Willian scuffling as the former ambled off) and painfully slow dead ball kicking by the eventually booked Lössl.

It was ugly and undignified but we hadn’t come for artistic merit points, rather an actual and hugely valuable one.

The last act of a tumultuous, historic and immensely brave evening was the sight of Malone’s unusual gait running at a Chelsea defender, then in to him and earning a free kick which Mooy floated in to the corner with the last kick.

With survival guaranteed, Town players rushed towards their 12th man – the magnificent support which has never waned through all the inevitable difficulties of hauling a fundamentally Championship squad over the line with one game to spare and with points at the homes of both the champions and the previous champions.

4 days of monumental effort and togetherness has brought huge reward – the finances are astounding for a club which, not that long ago, was simply existing to survive in the second tier. But the money wasn’t the story last night; the belligerent, down right ugly at times, battling spirit was.

Survival puts Town at another level. Much needed strengthening, particularly in wide areas to increase our often feeble threat, will surely come and it is to be hoped that Wagner can resist the lure of other clubs and lead us towards a future not wholly dedicated to scrapping for our lives, as exhilarating as that has been.

A massive celebration on Sunday will be just reward for everyone involved at Huddersfield Town and the vibrant, loud and inventive supporters.

 

 

 

Citizens arrested

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With dogged determination, fierce discipline and exceptional bravery, Town gained an unlikely but thoroughly deserved point against one of the finest teams in Europe on a stiflingly hot Manchester day to improve their chances of survival and give their confidence a much needed boost after the Everton disappointment.

Free scoring City will be provided with a plethora of excuses for not adding to their ton of league goals against their presumed sacrificial and lowly opponents, but this would be to ignore the visitors’ tactical excellence which subdued their undoubted talent and quelled their fluid, deadly style which has seen them score in every home game of their remarkable season.

On paper, Wagner’s selection of all four of the squad’s full backs, with Kongolo utilised as a third centre half, suggested an ultra cautious approach but, in reality, it brought together the imperious Schindler, the ever improving Zanka and Kongolo’s obvious quality in to a more coherent unit, added Hadergjonaj’s energy and talent in to the middle while removing Van La Parra’s propensity for error and irresponsibility and Quaner’s too frequent uncertainty.

Surviving a rather torrid opening ten minutes which saw Silva denied by a good save by Lössl and City playing with a familiar menace punctuating their dominance of early possession, Town settled well and Mounié and Pritchard’s high pressing started to bring the visitors in to the game.

Mooy, who had an excellent first half, put a long range shot just wide before the ferreting Pritchard’s disruptive determination won a free kick in a position ripe for a well delivered back post cross. City were obviously thinking along the same lines and were caught wholly flat footed by a clever ball in to space which Hadergjonaj sprinted on to with great timing. Unfortunately, the Swiss was unable to connect properly and his first time shot was easily saved by Ederson.

It was a clever ploy which seemed to ignite Town’s confidence though they could only look on as De Bruyne curled a shot past Lössl’s right hand post after a great cut back by Sané – the Belgian has scored so many similar goals in his phenomenal season and it was a relief and a surprise to see the ball skim wide. It proved to be his last significant contribution other than a shot straight at Lössl, and, indeed, City’s last golden opportunity other than a mix up in the second half between Lössl and Mounié.

Town’s growing belief and energetic high pressing saw them, remarkably, gain an ascendancy as the half wore on. Pritchard tested Ederson with a good strike which the Brazilian touched round the post for an unproductive corner, Mooy set up Löwe with a sweet lay off which the German rather lashed at to waste an excellent opportunity and the normally fluid Champions were looking a little viscous and forced.

The effort expended to subdue their opponents started to tell as half time approached with Mounié in particular looking heavy legged and the visitors began to retrench in to a deeper defensive block. However, just before the break, Mooy had a perfect opportunity to free Pritchard after winning the ball with City committed forward only to overhit his pass to his own, evident, annoyance.

City created moments of potential danger in and around the area but failed to capitalise with poor final balls – perhaps rattled by the upstarts not sticking to the script, there was a welcome uncertainty to their play and movement and their trademark instinctive style seemed to be largely absent.

Town saw out the half, no doubt relieved to get back to the cool of the dressing room, but an argument could be made that they had created the better chances and hope, while remaining slim and precarious, was far from extinguished.

The second half was a defensive master class from the visitors – nearly capped off with a minor miracle – as Zanka, Schindler and Kongolo combined to thwart the world class talent constantly probing for weakness. In front of them, Hogg came in to his own and provided an unyielding protection which gained vital breathing spaces as Town began to eye a prize.

With Mounié still struggling – it was a little surprising that he reappeared in the second half – Depoitre replaced him on the hour to provide any relief the visitors could find though his lack of game time was apparent for much of his half hour.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Town increasingly relied upon clearing the ball high and long as the fatigue of containing the home side began to take its toll. The home support, who had come to see a procession, became increasingly annoyed at Town players going down with injury and obvious, if understandable, attempts to run down a clock seemingly moving backwards.

With both full backs booked – Löwe for bringing down the underwhelming Sterling to halt a moment of genuine threat – and Depoitre as isolated as his French counterpart had been, Town’s defensive discipline tightened and the three centre halves stepped even further up with unflappable timing, great awareness and tenacious challenges. Kongolo made one on Sané which will be a highlight of the season.

City’s penetration and crossing was marginally, and sometimes wildly, off and with Town players smothering anything more intricate, the champions’ potency receded in the final quarter even if their overwhelming possession of the ball increasingly raised the anxiety levels in the – magnificently loud – visiting support.

4 minutes injury time was indicated (perhaps a little generously to the visitors); rather than spurring on the home side to greater urgency, it afforded Town two situations which could have won the game. Malone, on for the struggling Löwe, robbed Bernardo Silva just inside City’s half and sprinted in to unmanned space and the opportunity to end Town’s relegation worries opened up for the ex-Fulham man only for him to shoot at Ederson rather than take one extra step for a better angle. It should be said that Van La Parra may have been more aware of the opportunity to sprint forward in support rather than standing and admiring Malone’s attempted audacity.

Malone’s chance was reminiscent of Will Griggs’ winner for Wigan in the cup but, sadly, Town had to settle for the sensation of preventing City scoring on home turf for the first time in their hugely impressive season.

Depoitre also found himself in possession in the area with not a great deal of company, but he was unable to bring the ball under control quickly enough to deliver a blow.

The final whistle was delayed by an idiot running on to the pitch but relief came and the visiting fans were able to celebrate an excellent, brave and potentially valuable performance. Sadly, the players had to leave the pitch which was invaded by other idiots (no doubt our own will follow suit if the next 6 days secures our survival) and couldn’t come over to acknowledge the fantastic support.

However slightly tinged by Malone’s missed opportunity, the enormity of the challenge conquered could not be diminished – a fundamentally Championship squad had held a startling array of talent in their own back yard and, at the same time, continued the tradition of not allowing City a home goal since the November mauling of 1987.

There is also, perhaps, a question about Wagner’s insistence on playing often inadequate wide men this season when the 5-4-1 option has been so rarely utilised. The arrival of Pritchard could have been the basis of such a change much earlier, including at home, but any criticism needs to be heavily tempered after a game where he pitted his wits successfully against one of the best managers in the world.

It is to be hoped that the system is used for the final two games – though the next two opponents aren’t on the same level as City, they are likely to be more effective than the champions proved to be in this game. Chelsea, in particular, are in excellent form and they have incentive to win 3 points.

Town’s future, meanwhile, lies in the balance – Tuesday’s shoot out between Southampton and Swansea will provide more certainty about what Town need to achieve (and we can hope that City’s lack of potency was a mere blip as they condemn Southampton to defeat next Sunday).

Whichever way it goes, the performance at City will live long in the memory and will hopefully give the club renewed confidence to write the next chapter of a remarkable story.

 

 

No Toffee and no ha’penny

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Tom Ince’s winner in injury time following 90 minutes of threat free dirge against Watford provided a lifeline which may still prove to be the difference between survival and relegation, but with 3 huge challenges ahead – and, realistically, at least 2 of them are unlikely to garner the point needed and the final one could be played under enormous pressure – our fate rests predominantly with others.

Upon release of the fixtures, the last 4 games were identified as unlikely to yield a single point, a view which assumed that Everton’s spending would propel them in to the top six, or, at least, a challenge. Things haven’t quite worked out like that for the blue side of Liverpool, though under the much maligned and widely hated guidance of Allardyce their form under the old curmudgeon is top 6.

For Town to take a point or a win, as with most games during this relentlessly tough season, everything needed to go their way. Creating as few chances as they do – particularly in 2018 – the odds against them are stacked high and going behind almost invariably fatal with just 2 points rescued in the many games that this has happened.

For 40 minutes, Town matched the visitors and, arguably, were both the better side and in the ascendancy when the best chance of a cagey but reasonably entertaining first half fell to Van La Parra. Fed by the industrious and inventive Pritchard, the Dutchman was unable to control his first time shot which was powerfully hit but over the bar.

Growing in confidence, Town controlled possession for 10 minutes after the miss, though without causing much concern to Everton’s solid back four, and with excellent backing from the crowd, were providing hope that a valuable point, at least, was achievable.

Yet again, however, the wide players didn’t deliver, either in performance or service to the isolated Mounié – Ince’s injury forced Wagner’s hand to an extent but Quaner was barely a top end Championship player and useful, at best, only as an unorthodox attempt at change from the bench. Van La Parra’s obvious talent simply doesn’t get translated in to effectiveness anywhere near enough and it is a stark comparison when the visitors can not only play Walcott (the usually uber-confident Hadergjonaj looked terrified of his pace) but have Bolassie on the bench.

Town’s period of dominance was undone by an unforced error which was 75% Van La Parra playing a careless pass and 25% Zanka’s hesitancy, perhaps amplified by his own fear of Walcott’s pace and the realisation that the disciplined defensive structure employed to that point was extremely vulnerable behind him.

Grabbing his first opportunity of genuine freedom, Walcott burst forward and played an incisive ball behind Schindler for Cenk Tosun, whose early shot rather too easily evaded Lössl’s dive in to the corner.

From that moment on, Town rarely – never, in fact – looked capable of rescuing a point, never mind recovering for a win and an increasing gloom descended on the stadium as optimism evaporated.

Everton’s superiority was confirmed in a desperately poor second half for the Terriers and they should have doubled or trebled their lead in the opening 15 minutes which saw Town’s shape and discipline disappear with poor passing, stuttering attempts to get forward and desperate last gasp blocks and tackles.

Without Ince or Kachunga to offer something different to the ineffective Quaner or the over indulgent Van La Parra, Wagner’s options were limited – he had 3 full backs on a very thin bench – but the inability to recover from concession has been a feature of his whole tenure and what was manageable in the league below has become very damaging against significantly higher quality opposition.

The substitutions he did make – Billing for Quaner, Malone for Hogg and Depoitre for Van La Parra – failed to bring coherence to the mess, though Billing adds more forward momentum to a midfield which becomes far too bogged down and risk averse. Mooy’s lack of inspiration persists while Hogg, who started well, was prone to far too many passing errors.

There was an element of luck leading up to Everton’s second goal as Schindler and Kongolo’s attempt to close Niasse down conspired to deflect the ball perfectly in to his path but the cross and then lay off by Baines set up Gueye to finish very well.

It was no less than the visitors deserved and they had threatened to extend their lead throughout, including a bad miss by Coleman from a free kick where Town’s offside ploy failed.

Pritchard, who was the only positive of the afternoon, contrived to air kick an attempted shot following a rare incisive move but, on the whole, Town abstained from shooting after the break and with dead ball situations the only time they got bodies in the box yet another scoreless afternoon was pretty much guaranteed.

It is to be hoped that the toxicity surrounding Allardyce – which, given what he has achieved since appointment looks a tad ungrateful from the outside – does not affect Everton’s form next Saturday when they host Southampton. Without being anything like spectacular, they were very well organised and far too good for a Town side which worked hard but were catastrophically error strewn, confused and lacking in imagination or threat.

Now in the lap of the Gods, and a very possible Southampton resurgence, Town face the League champions on their day of celebration followed by a visit to Stamford Bridge with the home side still in with a chance of a top 4 finish. Daunting barely begins to describe these two games, and we can only expect an attempt to defend exceptionally deep to try to secure at least one, unlikely point.

Let us pray for another unlikely result – Arsenal at Athletico Madrid midweek.