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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Town widen the Gap

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A risibly turgid and eminently forgettable encounter managed to find a remarkable, tension destroying climax which could well secure Town’s unlikely survival in a league which continues to present huge challenges.

A bright start to a game of huge importance couldn’t disguise the fact that the Terriers’ ability to create and convert chances remained severely limited as promising situations invariably floundered once exposed to Watford’s resilient and packed defence. Lacking pace and incisiveness, the home side’s desperate probing failed to trouble Karnezis in the visitors’ goal and having comfortably survived the early onslaught, the Hornets slowly took control of possession but, like their hosts, their attacking carried little menace.

The evergreen Deeney managed a decent effort which was deflected by a fine challenge but the Hornets’ prowess in the attacking third – which was an absolute joy in the early stages of the season – was more prosaically summed up by Pereyra comically putting two consecutive corner kicks out of play. His dive not long afterwards was just as comical, and he was rightly booked for it (for balance, Pritchard was punished for a similar offence).

A first half of limited quality but lots of effort from both sides ended with an insipid free kick following a Zanka foul, rather epitomising the fare on offer.

Watford improved in the second half, taking more control of possession but remained as unthreatening as the home side. The dynamic Hughes – the pick of the visitors along with the elegant Capoue – tried to unpick the home defence on his own before a combination of Schindler and the otherwise under employed Lössl stopped him a few yards out.

When Town did have possession, there was little fluency and getting down the sides of their opponents was proving ridiculously difficult – Watford were serenely navigating a game where avoiding defeat would be a good achievement in the context of their travelling woes.

Change was desperately needed and the ineffective Quaner was replaced by the much maligned Ince on the half hour. Any impact of the substitution must have been subtle, though it should be said that the ex-Derby man brings more orthodox skills than the idiosyncratic Quaner. The German can surprise at times, though this possibly unintentional quality had been wholly absent in this game.

His next changes built the foundations for the win. Depoitre replaced the isolated Mounié and, with time running out, Billing came on for the spent Van La Parra.

Having feebly probed Watford’s back 9 for 80 fruitless minutes, Depoitre’s more troubling presence up front provided a little more discomfort for them, while Billing’s long throw weapon (which has been eschewed for much of the season) was deployed with obvious intent.

As crude as it was, the tactic of launching the ball in to the box gave the visitors something different to think about and led directly to a long awaited shot on goal by the indefatigable Hogg. Sweetly struck, it narrowly missed the target but gave the raucous crowd a sliver of hope to which they would cling as they roared on their underdogs for a final effort.

Another Billing throw was propelled in to the box – the tactic also allowed Zanka and Schindler to add their height in the box – as the added time board was being raised showing 3 minutes. The ball was cleared up to substitute Gray but the ex-Burnley man carelessly lost it to Kongolo whose lob back in to the box finally turned Watford’s rearguard. Depoitre’s hustling prevented a central defender getting to the ball and Zanka neatly played a reverse pass through Janmatt’s legs for the arriving Ince to slot home and (surely) repay his transfer fee with one sweep.

The explosion of relief was something to hear. The team may have been fortunate to find a late winner, but the crowd deserved it. They didn’t give up despite the toil unfolding in front of them and proved, yet again, that David Wagner’s constant praise and encouragement is genuine belief, not cliche.

We have witnessed many late winners under this manager and many times when he seemingly laughs in the face of the finest of fine margins – however fortunate this victory may seem (and none the less satisfying for it), his substitutions made the difference; not just the individuals themselves but the shape and tactics of the whole team.

If this game proves to be the one which secures survival – though all of us would welcome a triumph over Allardyce’s Everton to confirm it – the manner of it couldn’t be more apposite.

A team of lesser talent than their opponents – and the Watford manager really does need to be questioned about his failure to harness their quality more effectively but probably less urgently than their board for sacking Silva after their blistering start – worked relentlessly to bridge the quality gap, never gave up and grasped their opportunity when it arrived.

Should we survive, they (and we know who “they” are) will continue to patronise, under estimate and look down their noses at us – they still do it to Burnley despite their remarkable achievements, for God’s sake! – but they will never understand the feeling which arrived on 90+1 at the John Smith’s Stadium yesterday.

 

 

 

Lössl atones as Town creep forward

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Town returned from the south coast with a point from a performance which was equal parts encouraging and frustrating.

With both sides struggling in front of goal in recent times – and for the visitors, over a much longer period – it was heart warming for them to gift each other a confidence boost apiece, though Brighton’s failure to profit from poor Town defending after just 30 seconds when Pröpper failed to hit the target when clean through rather set the tone for a lacklustre display by the Seagulls and the day wasn’t going to get any better for the Dutchman.

The miss did set the tone of the game for a while though, with the home side exerting a lot of pressure on the rattled visitors, without Lössl being drawn in to the action. At the other end, a decent Mounié volley was routinely saved by Ryan as the visitors slowly got to grips with Brighton’s initial momentum, and showing significantly more ambition than they had at St James’ Park.

Crucially, Town largely subdued Brighton’s dangerous flanks. Kongolo marshalled Solly March well with help from the hard working Van La Parra who combined his defensive duties with his ability to take the ball up the pitch while on the other side, the returning Hadergjonaj and Ince were defensively disciplined but largely at the expense of genuine attacking threat.

Other than his shift as an auxiliary defender, Ince was almost entirely anonymous and spent most of the afternoon playing backwards. However, Brighton’s left side, with Izquierdo and Bong, always carried greater pace and threat and quelling them was a significant contribution to the eventual point.

Having survived the Seagulls’ initial flurry, Town assumed a level of control which saw them raid with more intent than most games on the road this season which brought Pritchard in to play. The ex-Spurs man, pilloried by the home support for having the temerity to turn them down in the summer, had his most effective game for the Terriers to date – he buzzed around with energy, a great touch and incision for most of the contest.

With Mooy finally finding something of a return to form, the visitors exerted a level of control over the middle of the park not seen for some time and it was a little against the run of play when Brighton opened the scoring. A well struck if somewhat speculative strike by March took a slight deflection which seemed to catch Lössl out and the Dane could only palm the ball feebly against the post only for it to rebound on to his head and in. The blunder possibly looked worse than it was given the deflection, and the keeper redeemed himself on several occasions later in the game, but conceding first usually ends in defeat for the Terriers and going behind was ominous.

Brighton, however, charitably handed Steve Mounié an equaliser within a few minutes. Duffy was pressed by Pritchard in to a horrendous error and his attempted backpass found the Beninese in front of goal and with Ryan flat footed, he took the ball around the keeper to score Town’s first goal for over 7 hours.

Though Brighton were to have much the better chances after parity had been restored – even when down to 10 men – Town played with greater authority in the final hour than they have achieved for much of 2018 yet the same old, probably unsolvable, problems with creating and scoring chances persist.

A couple of fairly weak efforts barely reflected Town’s dominance of the ball, while a lack of awareness following a decent near post flick on from a corner and a lack of composure at the death by Quaner meant there was to be no stealing of the 3 points from a home side which didn’t deserve to lose (the point snatched from Burnley at home when a late penalty should have been awarded remains the only truly undeserved reward for Town from the whole season).

The bigger chances fell to the otherwise spluttering hosts, with Lössl making two excellent blocks (one in each half) and a couple of good, if routine saves from long distance shots. A combination of Mooy and Lössl denied Dunk from a corner while Duffy failed to atone for his error with a free header from another corner with his effort going just wide. Thankfully, Murray had a poor game up front for the hosts and expended most of his effort trying to gain free kicks.

A tasty midfield battle ended with the sending off of Pröpper who clattered clumsily and dangerously in to Hogg, who struggled on before being replaced by Billing. The lunge didn’t appear to be malicious but the Brighton midfielder’s attempt at a challenge was too high and lacking in control to escape the sanction of dismissal.

It didn’t make a great deal of difference, however – if anything, Town played better against a full complement and their extra man seemed to inhibit movement rather than encourage it and the vulnerability to Brighton’s pace increased as they pushed further up the pitch. Lössl’s intervention to prevent Izquierdo’s offside beating run – he had intervened in a similar fashion in the first half – elevated him from villain to point saving hero.

Billing replaced the stricken Hogg and while he can’t provide the aggression the Teeside man brings, he contributes elegance, height and a range of passing which could be useful if his colleague’s injury proves to be as bad as suspected.

With time running out, Town showed a degree of urgency to grab a winner and a final free kick on the left gave Wagner the opportunity to throw Depoitre in to the mix. Unfortunately, the resultant chance from an excellent Pritchard delivery, flicked on by Zanka, fell awkwardly to Quaner (who really doesn’t need much help in the awkward stakes). It looked a bad miss at the time, though the angle wasn’t great and a desperate defending lunge was a major distraction. It was, however, the type of opportunity which could make all the difference at season’s end.

Overall, Town’s display was much improved over last week’s anaemic effort though they were grateful for Brighton’s wasteful efforts on big chances. The point gained after going behind – even if the equaliser was gifted – was unusual for this team and should be savoured ahead of two huge home games which, if others stop doing us favours week after week, will decide our fate.

 

 

 

Time to change the Toon

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When the highlight of an afternoon’s football is mocking 50,000 Geordies’ failure to understand the back pass rule, you know it has been pretty desperate fare.

A poor game, with two distinctly average teams, was settled by a scrappy, preventable goal saw Newcastle deservedly taking the points and likely survival. The home side were largely pedestrian but showed significantly more intent than their relegation rivals and really should have wrapped the game up by half time, only for their failure to convert chances at St James’ Park coming back to haunt them.

Town rarely threatened despite one or two promising situations until the final few minutes when their ultra caution was cast to the wind following Perez’s winner.

With the fragile plan of gaining a point and maybe sneaking a winner on the break in tatters, Wagner threw Mounié in to the mix and reverted to a 3-5-2 formation which, with the return of the impressive Kongolo, was surely a decent option from the start.

Depoitre battled well up front and was a constant thorn to the home side, but he can’t be in two places at once. In a game few expected to return 3 points, it is difficult to see the downside of an experimental formation – though Newcastle’s natural conservatism once in the lead was undoubtedly a factor, Town looked infinitely more adventurous in the new shape but it was far too little and undoubtedly too late.

Having survived the Toon’s first half assault, which featured at least two glaring misses, putting two up front would have been a brave move which may have unsettled the home side’s plans, though it should be said that the visitors improved in a second half where Newcastle were restricted to one decent chance. Unfortunately, they converted it.

A mess in the middle of the park finally allowed space for the home side to exploit and the stranglehold was fatally loosened. A cross should have been dealt with more assertively by Lössl (he had made a very good save in the first half to deny Ritchie) and his flap fell to the feet of Kenedy who found Perez to convert from close range.

Without a goal in four games now, the containment plan is completely over shadowing any attacking intent. Pritchard’s struggles, particularly away from home, continue but it is difficult to blame the diminutive number 10 when the ball is launched towards his head on so many occasions, though he did fail to provide much invention when allowed the opportunity.

So much of Town’s forward play ended with a poor pass or momentum stopping hesitation, and before the setback of Newcastle’s winner, they had one, wide, attempt on goal from the ever willing Depoitre. A promising, surprisingly incisive move in the first half freed Smith down the right but, predictably, he had few options to hit in the area and the moment passed.

The late change in formation provided a frustrating glimpse of what could be achieved with the impressive Kongolo in the team. His ability to recover – he made one fantastic challenge on the pacy Atsu to prevent danger – and his composure should allow Wagner flexibility which he could utilise without it being a reaction to adversity. Both Schindler and Zanka, after a nervous first 20 minutes, were solid and impressive – with a back 3 composed of our better personnel, a hard working 5 in the middle and the combination of Depoitre’s and Mounié’s contrasting qualities, Wagner’s in game options multiply.

Brighton offers another opportunity to try something different. It is another game with, realistically, a low percentage chance of points ahead of 2 home games which, along with the ineptitude of Southampton and Stoke, are likely to be the rope we will hopefully be grasping for survival.

The desperation formation created more opportunities in the final ten minutes than in the preceding 80 combined – while game circumstances contributed to this, it looked significantly more dynamic than the stifling strategy and caused Newcastle problems. Zanka and Malone had chances and only a fortunate defensive deflection prevented the ball finding Quaner at the far post as time ran out.

Through no fault of their own, one or two players are clearly out of their depth in this league – it isn’t a surprise, just a fact – but the rigidity of the current tactics and formation are exposing them more than necessary, while at the same time the better players are subdued.

Given a run of one point and no goals from 4 games, being outside the bottom 3 is a huge bonus, but we desperately need to show some bravery rather than relying on others. The final 10 minutes gave a glimpse of what could be.

Eagles take it easy

 

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David Wagner’s pre match suggestion that this would be a battle between a team and a collection of high quality individuals back fired spectacularly as Crystal Palace’s undoubtedly more talented players managed to pull together and overwhelm Town’s disconnected journeymen.

From the very first minute, the Glaziers took the game to their hosts, moving the ball with precision and speed, stretching Town all over the pitch and easily overcoming wintery and ever changing conditions without the allegedly necessary geographic advantage of being northern.

Dismal from beginning to end, the Terriers completely wasted an opportunity to put serious space between themselves and their opponents in the race for survival but, in truth and on this evidence, the chasm in quality was such that the South London outfit look far more equipped for survival and their Premier League status will be confirmed much sooner, if ours is confirmed at all.

Many players performed well below par, but the utter shambles down the left involving Malone and Ince in a genuinely shocking first half epitomised Town’s failings on the day. Malone was exposed defensively time after time while Ince barely put a foot right and lost possession to such an extent he may as well have been Palace’s twelfth man.

Not that they needed any help. Rendering Mooy and Hogg redundant in midfield, their scrappy, slightly fortunate, opening goal had been coming – they wasted several opportunities after isolating Town players with their incisive movement – and Tomkins took advantage of messy defending at a corner, poking home after his initial attempt had drawn a good save from Lössl.

A frozen gloom settled over the stadium. Town rarely recover from such a setback and the crowd were largely reluctant to provide the backing normally relied upon as the reality dawned that the visitors were simply more hard working, coherent and skilful than their own team.

Every so often, the crowd were briefly enthused by the idiosyncratic stylings of Collin Quaner down the right but as the threat evaporated, so did the support.

Pritchard’s foraging and intelligence was, at least, something to hang on the hook of optimism but his work was largely wasted as soon as he had created space for a colleague – why he himself was hooked in the second half to give Kachunga minutes was baffling, though the returning German at least added some spark to a lifeless performance.

Adding comedy to the tragedy of the first half, Mooy managed to injure Malone on the touchline in a joint challenge on Townsend, mercifully forcing the full back off for Löwe for the second half.

Thoroughly outplayed by an incisive and committed Palace, more change was necessary than the enforced one, but Ince remained on the pitch and Depoitre’s industry and ability to unsettle was ignored.

With Palace content to contain, Town enjoyed better possession in the second period but all the old failings emerged with sideways passing, first defenders being hit with regularity and creativity at a premium.

Down Town’s right, Hadergjonaj – wisely chosen as Town’s man of the match – at least ruffled the Eagles’ feathers with intelligent running and a determination to fashion danger, but his efforts were still largely thwarted by a disciplined Palace rearguard.

Despite their more conservative approach, Palace regularly created danger on the break and their incisiveness in attack was a stark contrast to the home side’s desperately laboured advances, not helped by a horribly ineffective Van La Parra cameo which barely improved upon Ince.

By all accounts, Benteke has had a poor, often disinterested season, but his selfless centre forward play allowed much of the visitors attacking play to flourish. Mounié, by contrast, was barely involved but the more robust Depoitre remained on the bench.

It was the Frenchman who had Town’s best chance, however, firing wide from inside the area just before a Palace counter attack saw Zanka put in an unnecessary and ill timed challenge on Townsend in the area and the game, already spluttering, was dead.

Milivojevic despatched the spot kick decisively and the points were headed to South London.

An epic blizzard introduced itself to the game shortly afterwards and the more cynical of us began to dream of postponement, a stroke of meteorological luck Town neither deserved nor received.

They could, however, have made much more of the advantage as snow whipped in to their opponents’ faces but managed to deliver pathetic crosses, corners and free kicks straight at defenders.

With the stadium emptying to the news that the ineptitude of others had somehow managed to leave Town unpunished for their ragged and unacceptable display, hope remains but the cold reality is that when the collective spirit goes missing, as it did in this encounter, Town look nowhere near equipped for this league.

Palace, however, looked the real deal. The horrible mess of Frank De Boer’s reign has been replaced by the experienced sagacity of Roy Hodgson and now that they have their stronger players back from injury and a comfortable fixture list, many may be surprised at just how high they will finish. Considering their disastrous start, even survival would be a great achievement, and they will do that with ease.

Town, meanwhile, face a worrying few weeks – two tough away games may plunge us in to the bottom three and heap on the pressure for the visits of Watford and Everton, or Wagner may use the break to reinstall the spirit so desperately lacking yesterday.

 

2 points down the Swanee

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A committed Swansea, who rode their luck a little at times, overcame the dismissal of their primary attacking threat after just 11 minutes to earn a point they would have been happy picking up with a full complement of players.

A delightful day for statisticians proved a horribly frustrating one for the Terriers who racked up impressive numbers apart from the one which counts.

Facing ten men is never the advantage it appears and Swansea have form for resisting the best of attacks – few blank out an outrageously talented Spurs, for example – and old foe Carvalhal not only knows how to organise a team to keep a clean sheet at Huddersfield’s home, he didn’t even have to change formation to achieve another one despite the reduction in numbers.

Sitting back and offering virtually no offensive threat, Swansea denied the hosts space in important areas which, in turn, slowed Town down for too much of the extensive power play.

Neither wide man covered themselves in glory with crossing which ranged from poor to negligent as the red wall in front of them seemed to attract whatever type of ball – low, high, driven or floated – they attempted far too often. Operating down the left, Van La Parra was at his frustrating worst. Other than a jinking run which earned a (wasted) free kick on the edge of the area, he often interrupted the flow of attacks as effectively as the Welsh rearguard and consistently failed to use Malone’s running ahead of him.

It wasn’t the best of days for David Wagner, either. 9 men behind the ball was always going to slow the pace of the game and while leaving things as they were made sense in the first half, his eventual changes were far too late. The game was crying out for Williams’ aggression and power over Mooy’s more considered style – the Australian’s ability to dictate an already determined tempo was neither necessary or helpful – and Depoitre’s unsettling presence would have given Swansea much more to think about.

Replacing Pritchard, who has the ability to unlock defences in tight situations was an altogether puzzling decision, particularly as Van La Parra’s wastefulness was blunting forward movement far too regularly.

None of this would have mattered had the chances which were created been taken. Malone, inexplicably, missed a straightforward contact with the goal in front of him, Ince should have fed Mounié for an easy chance before heading against the post late on and Fabianski pulled off a great save from a Mounié pile driver, deflecting the shot on to the bar.

Wave after wave of attacks floundered with poor decision making, ineffective crossing and over elaboration and it slowly dawned that the man advantage was something of a poisoned chalice which forced the visitors in to a deep defensive block which they executed with considerable effort. It is to their credit that the Welsh side didn’t tire under the siege and, indeed, on their only meaningful venture in to Town’s box in the second half they could have compounded their host’s misery but for some poor control.

The sending off itself looked a straightforward decision though Hogg – who had a good game – was fortunate not to be booked in the same challenge, and Ayew’s lunge didn’t appear malicious, more clumsy. It could have been worse for Swansea, however, as Mawson, booked for a wild challenge which failed to connect with Pritchard was also lucky that a colleague took a time wasting booking which had much more to do with the ex-Barnsley man.

Unsurprisingly, the Swans took every opportunity to waste time and with all the substitutions taking place in the second half it was genuinely baffling that only 4 minutes were added on. Not that there was any evidence that a few more minutes would have broken the deadlock.

Frustrating as it was, the contest was also fascinating and quite excellent sport which kept the loud and supportive crowd enthralled to the end. The effort put in by both sides was creditworthy, and though a huge opportunity was missed by the home side, another point towards survival and results elsewhere compensated a little.

Next up is Crystal Palace, a team in trouble but with players – notably Zaha – returning and Town face another formidable task in the search for the 6 points likely to be needed for survival. Let’s hope they don’t have anyone sent off.

 

 

 

Outclassed but not humiliated

 

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It was difficult to shake the feeling that Saturday’s game at the site of his greatest triumph was anything other than one to get out of the way for David Wagner ahead of back to back home games which are likely to determine Town’s fate in the top division.

With his counterpart picking a full strength and rather frightening team despite the small matter of Juventus on the horizon, Town’s pre match chances, already paper thin, took a nosedive and, realistically, leaving Wembley without injury or suspension complications and their new found confidence intact seemed worthy objectives.

Spurs are a fabulous football team. Of course, assembling such a team requires astonishing amounts of cash but Pochettino is far more than a cheque book manager – his team plays with unity, understanding bordering on telepathy and style. Like everyone else, they are behind Manchester City but their football can be just as thrilling to watch even when coasting.

Ever the pragmatist, Wagner knew that for Town to gain anything from the game, a hell of a lot would have to go right for his team and Spurs would have to be below par. As it transpired, a largely indifferent first half performance – occasionally illuminated by Spurs’ alumni Pritchard until he was forced off with a dead leg – allowed the hosts a single goal lead which should have been more.

The first quarter of the game, other than an initial Town flourish, saw Son shining. Combining energy and silky skills, the South Korean tormented Hadergjonaj and forced Wagner in to a humiliating substitution of Collin Quaner – who wasn’t at all happy – after half an hour, presumably for his lack of or ineffective support of the struggling Swiss.

Fortunately, and for all their possession and easy control of the game, Spurs’ radar was a little off in the final third. Their often devastating balls between the lines, finding colleagues in dangerous spaces, were imperfect and allowed Town off the hook on two occasions, Lössl made a decent, if routine, save from Kane and an Eriksen free kick ricocheted off Quaner’s head on to the outside of the post. The visitors, pulled and stretched all over the pitch, looked increasingly vulnerable and the breakthrough was inevitable.

Town lost possession in Tottenham’s half, the ball was played up to Kane who expertly chested it down to Deli Alli. With Son already bursting through the middle unchallenged, all it needed was a decent pass and Alli delivered. Taking the inch perfect supply in his stride, Town’s chief tormentor took the ball past Lössl with some ease before steering the ball home past Schindler’s despairing effort to block.

It was no less than Spurs deserved and by half time – despite Ince providing more stability down the right – the Terriers could cling on to the consolation that they had been let off the hook.

They weren’t particularly helped by the performance of substitute referee Kevin Friend. His eagerness to punish the visitors in favour of the home team was a constant annoyance, particularly when coupled with his leniency in reverse. Establishing any sort of rhythm against a team of such high quality is difficult enough without the assistance of an apparently star struck man in black. He was to deny Spurs a pretty obvious penalty in the second half to even things up a little, but that decision alone is testament to his incompetence.

A better second half followed, however. More organised, sharper in the tackle and the press, the visitors even looked occasionally threatening particularly after surviving several scares in the opening exchanges, including an excellent Schindler block at the near post from Kane and a bizarre attempt by Kongolo – who was less composed than normal in the face of the opponents’ quality – to impede Son from a prone position which should have resulted in a penalty.

Clinging to these lifelines, Town briefly sensed an unlikely opportunity to capitalise on their own good fortune and Spurs’ profligacy. Striding out of defence, Zanka lofted a great ball behind the home defence for Ince who tried his luck from distance. The shot was decent but the under employed Lloris – up to this point he had kept out a weak Van La Parra effort – was equal to it. The spectacular nature of his dive and save was a little over the top but, nevertheless, the visitors had, at least, given Tottenham something to think about.

A surging Danny Williams run created more excitement for the underdogs but as the subsequent attack broke down and the ball floated out to Van La Parra, the Dutchman failed to get it under control, was forced towards the touchline on halfway and his attempt to lay the ball back to a colleague only found Kane.

There looked to be little danger as the England striker collected the ball, but with outstanding vision, he curled a perfect, 50 yard ball directly in to the path of the onrushing Son, who diverted the bouncing ball past Lössl with aplomb.

It was a moment of sheer quality, emphasising the difference in class between Town’s spirited scrappers and an excellent Spurs side developed by Pochettino over the past few years, but hardly the source of any shame.

The goal pretty much ended the contest, and was particularly demoralising for the visitors coming as it did just as they were enjoying their best spell of the game. If Spurs weren’t relaxed enough before the second goal, they were able to slow the pace after it and ease their way to a comfortable victory.

Town had their moments as an attacking force without unduly troubling the home defence, particularly down the right where Hadergjonaj (who had a pretty horrible day defensively) linked neatly with Ince on occasion. Sadly, balls in to the box invariably hit the first defender and too much of the Terriers’ play going forward was rushed and forced, in stark contrast to Spurs effortless movement and passing.

From a corner, Kane uncharacteristically swept a good chance created by his own movement wide. The useless git. (Hopefully, he will have his shooting boots on in midweek).

While The Old Lady awaits for Spurs, Town can now focus on the next 5, crucial games which have probably weighed heavier in Wagner’s mind than the unlikely event of a Wembley upset, and despite being a long way away from their opponents in this game, he will be encouraged by a second half where Hogg and Williams pressed their more illustrious opponents pretty well, Schindler and Zanka impressed and Ince’s performance showed greater promise than of late.

Despite playing within themselves in the latter stages of this game, it has been a pleasure to watch Spurs in the two encounters. Their ease of movement, rarity of error and occasionally devastating, serpentine transitions make them quite a bit more likeable than the other big guns.

On to survival.