Indefatigable Town thwart Baggies

 

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Tony Pulis’s band of entertainers rolled in to town on the back of a poor run of form which, nevertheless, failed to persuade the survival specialist to deviate from his strategy of muscular containment, with most of the flair available to him sitting watching his animated arse for an hour.

His team, along with his former club Stoke, are synonymous with gritty survival which eventually turns to drudgery and fear as the joy of the sport is sucked out for the sake of a continuing presence at the top table – a flaw in the Premier League circus as the inherent inequalities between the truly global clubs and the strivers encourages extreme pragmatism and systematically quells adventure.

Should they survive – and 15 points from 11 games increases the possibility substantially – Town may well be forced down a similar path, but, for now, there is nothing but unbridled enthusiasm for a side which harnessed collective spirit, individual talent and dogged endeavour to produce an excellent home record upon which their fate will rest.

The understandable euphoria surrounding the victory over Manchester United was accompanied by the slight concern that the triumph would be the high point of the season but, if anything, there was at least as much to admire in this victory over a club with massive experience of gaining points from the less glamorous top flight fixtures and as the drama unfolded, all of the qualities created by Wagner in his 2 year tenure were displayed.

In the first hour, the Baggies were rarely allowed to settle despite the visitors having slightly the better of the opening exchanges. The best chance they had fell to Rodriguez but his effort was well blocked by Schindler and their threat receded as the half progressed while Town slowly took hold of possession.

With Van La Parra lively and productive, Town had the one player on the pitch with the ability to surprise – his equal ability to frustrate was largely missing, making him potent and the obvious key to unlocking West Brom’s disciplined defending. A decent effort which cleared the bar quite comfortably signalled the Dutchman’s intent to make his mark on the game while the hard working Ince blazed over when the ball fell to him in the area. A better effort was comfortably saved and the ex-Derby man’s hunt for a goal continues.

The visitors’ game plan – conceding possession and looking to free their two front men on the break – was largely thwarted by Town pressing back their two full backs and not allowing them to venture forward to any real effect, but a potentially dangerous break by Robson-Kanu was halted illegally by Schindler to earn the German a soft booking (his Welsh opponent was as guilty of holding and while the free kick was given the right way, the booking was ill deserved).

Up to that point, despite a bizarre denial of an obvious corner to the home side early on, the officials had handled a physical contest reasonably well but that was to change significantly for the rest of the game with Roger East’s inconsistent approach to punishment of foul play enraging the raucous home support (just minutes after the Schindler booking, Robson-Kanu was forgiven a cynical foul on Van La Parra) – as often happens, refereeing incompetence inadvertently assists the aggrieved and an already fully engaged home support ramped up the atmosphere to truly play a 12th (and then 11th) man role.

With opportunities at a premium, it took a moment of pure magic to break West Brom’s stranglehold on Town’s attacking intent. A dubious decision in Town’s favour following a tussle between Hogg and Rodriguez allowed Mooy to release Van La Parra. Despite over running the ball, possession was retained by Malone who found the Dutchman in a little space. Few in the crowd were urging the previously misfiring Van La Parra to shoot but he curled an absolute beauty past a planted Foster who could only watch on as the ball found the top corner.

Momentarily stunned, the crowd’s disbelief turned to joy – as any fool knows, when Town score first, they almost always win.

The goal was just reward both for the player, by far the most progressive on the field, and the team, who had played with great energy and far more adventure than their opponents and coming just before half time, it was psychologically important too.

A low key opening to the second half augured well for the Terriers – Pulis’s conservatism was unchanged and, bewilderingly, so was his team as he continued to leave more talented individuals on the bench.

All was about to change however when the impressive Hegazy slipped past a couple of challenges as he brought the ball out of defence only to be clattered by Schindler on the halfway line. A second booking was inevitable and even the softness of his first does not relieve the normally unflappable German of responsibility for leaving his team a man down, but the enormous amount of goodwill the man has earned over the past year and a bit precludes too much admonition.

Not surprisingly, Pulis turned around to summon his spurned talent – the visiting support must have felt huge frustration that it took his opponent going down to ten men before deciding a little “bravery” was in order.

With Phillips, Rondón and McClean replacing the ineffective Robson-Kanu and a couple of more defensive players, the game took on an entirely different hue. Wagner responded with defensive substitutions – Cranie and Williams replacing Kachunga and Van La Parra – while Schindler was replaced with 3 and a half stands full of enraged Yorkshire men.

Immediately reverting to the deep defensive block which had been so effective against Manchester United, but one man short, the last half hour plus 6 minutes injury time saw Town exhibit enormous resilience to restrict the Baggies to a rather mechanical dominance. Despite the concession of too many free kicks and corners which could have played to the visitors’ obvious strengths, the defence, brilliantly marshalled by the ever improving Zanka, held firm with blocks and clearances while occasionally breaking forward using the strength and deceptive skills of Depoitre.

If they could be criticised, Town should have made more of the couple of times they exposed West Brom’s new found attacking intent, but that would be slightly churlish given the circumstances.

In normal time, the closest the visitors came to an equaliser, and a platform for all 3 points, was a Rondón header which flashed just wide but their dominance was not translating in to genuine chances on the whole.

The atmosphere in this desperate period was scintillating and drove the team in their endeavours. With a referee seemingly determined to assist the away side – only he can explain how McClean’s attempted assault on Ince was not a red card offence and his other decisions were determinedly in West Brom’s favour – and incessant, if rarely penetrative, pressure, the support was ramped up to insane levels and, unprovable as it is, must have given the players added resilience and desire.

As the minutes crawled by, the admiration for Wagner’s adaptability and his players’ bravery grew. Every single one of them strained every sinew to keep the opponent at bay and it rarely looked excessively desperate until natural fatigue set in during the long injury time as minds yearned for the final whistle.

At this point, the previously untroubled Lössl stepped up to make two outstanding saves; the first to his right and the second, even more impressive stop, to his left. After his Anfield penalty save and his heroics to achieve a 5th clean sheet to preserve 3 points, the aberration at Swansea can be consigned to history.

The final whistle brought more than 3 thoroughly deserved points, it brought immense pride in a squad which responded magnificently to adversity – for all the brickbats West Brom are attracting, they remain a hugely experienced team in the Premier League with not a little talent (even if criminally under used by Pulis in this encounter), and Town’s suppression of them was masterly.

The collective effort, from the stands, to the coaching staff and the players made for a memorable experience every bit as important and thrilling as the previous home victory and Town go in to yet another international break in a much stronger position in their quest for survival.

Irrepressible at home, Wagner will no doubt be aware that he needs a better formula for away games and we need to create more and better chances to improve our goal tally, but this was a hugely important victory over a struggling but dangerous outfit.

These are the days.

The Disneyfication of football

 

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A far from unexpected reversal at the hands of 5 times European champions Liverpool was still tinged with disappointment and regret following the taming of double European champions Manchester United just 7 days earlier.

It is not wrong for Town fans to hope that huge chasms can be bridged every week, and even when stark realities are confirmed, their support remains constant for a club which continues to strive to punch way above its weight and a management team on a steep learning curve.

Anfield, possibly the most anticipated away day of the season, provided perhaps the greatest disappointment. Like their great rivals down the East Lancs road, Liverpool is now a global club attracting bandwagon support in their millions and the impact is painful.

Gentrification appears complete with a staggering amount of fresh out of the bag scarfs and other merchandise adorning wide eyed, selfie taking occasional or first time visitors creating an insipid audience soaking up an atmosphere they simply can’t create.

Between a relatively stirring rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone and celebrating their first goal in the second half; nothing.

It should be said that the apparent high proportion of experience seekers was probably exacerbated by the attractiveness of the fixture. A likely win against the unlikely newcomers wasn’t going to over excite their regular support and the secondary market for tickets would have been more active than normal, but those images of a swaying Kop bristling with humour and vocal support are from a very different age.

Outside the ground, an urchin of around 7 was carrying a teddy bear in a shoebox and asking for a penny for the guy outside the Arkles pub – probably the most authentic sight of the day.

The travails of the home side in the Premier League of late made this a good time to play them. Shorn of two world class players in Mané and Coutinho and the artistry of Lallana, central defensive frailties and goalkeeping doubts suggested a more level playing field for the Terriers though this did ignore Liverpool’s home form which had only been disturbed by Burnley – the only side to score at Anfield so far.

Having subdued Manchester United with a deep defensive block, it was hardly surprising that David Wagner would adopt similar tactics against his friend’s team and replacing Kachunga with the more expansive Van La Parra offered the opportunity to counter with pace.

For much of the first half, the plan worked very well though the counter attacking fizzled out after the first, rather encouraging, 10 minutes and disappeared entirely once Van La Parra had to be withdrawn with injury. With Depoitre left as the only outlet and quality on the ball at a premium for the visitors, Liverpool took complete control.

Despite their overwhelming dominance of the ball, the home side lacked pace and creativity, allowing Town to cope easily with the wave of attacks mounted and restricting their more illustrious opponents to a couple of tame efforts on target. The normally excellent Mohamed Salah was subdued on the right, the Moreno/Milner axis on the left was mundane to say the least and Sturridge starved of service.

Admirable as the visitors’ discipline was, the first free kick of any note was only conceded late in the half (to dramatic effect), offensive threat was non existent. Depoitre won many aerial battles but all were pointless with no team mate far enough up the pitch to capitalise once Van La Parra had gone.

When Town finally conceded a free kick, Kachunga hacking Moreno down on the left, a potential turning point of the game ensued. A floated cross to the far post looked innocuous enough but Kevin Friend saw Tommy Smith tugging at Firmino’s shirt – an event which eluded everyone else in the ground – and pointed to the spot.

The largely disappointing Salah stepped up only to fire his shot too close to Lössl who beat the ball away. Henderson shot the rebound narrowly wide and Town had escaped.

Uninspiring when in possession and unthreatening on the rare occasion we crossed the halfway line, Town’s resilience and organisation was, at least, something to cling to, but the weight of Liverpool’s possession was bound to tell unless the visitors could improve their ability to retain the ball and somehow create problems. The complete absence of away goals since the demolition of Palace on opening day did not augur well.

With the game settling in to a familiar pattern early in the second half, perhaps the hope was to turn the crowd against them but this rather ignored the soporific support attracted to the game and our own offensive frailties.

As it was, the inevitable mistake arrived early when Smith inexplicably headed a nothing ball in to the path of Sturridge. As poor as the erstwhile England man had been, he could barely fail to score and lifted the ball over the exposed Lössl to finally animate Anfield.

Going behind to a soft goal, Town disintegrated rapidly as the Reds found their fluency. Unable to relieve pressure, the rearguard action became increasingly desperate and desperate out balls to the tiring Depoitre were never going to provide breathing space.

Zanka, who was excellent and clearly now finding his feet, had to intervene to prevent a second goal with a marvellous last ditch clearance for a corner only for the set piece to lead to a second and game ending goal for Liverpool. Firmino, who had been largely anonymous in the first half, escaped the attentions of Mooy (who had one of his least influential games for the Terriers) and stooped to extend the home side’s lead.

From that point, it was only a question of how many for the home team who rediscovered their confidence and exposed the (understandable) gap in class between the teams.

Wijnaldum provided the class to finally put Town to the sword as he worked an opening in the box despite the attention of half of the visiting team and slammed an unstoppable shot past Lössl in to the top corner to complete a routine victory.

Mounié was brought on to accompany Depoitre up front to no great effect while the performance of Hadergjonaj when he came on for Smith offered a little positive amidst the gloom. He defended well, attacked with pace and looked a very good back up for his captain and, possibly, a replacement.

The positives were massively outweighed however and the lack of adventure and goal threat on the road is becoming an urgent issue. While a result at Anfield was always unlikely, to barely trouble a vulnerable home defence was disheartening, brave as the first half defending had been.

Thankfully, a traditional English atmosphere will return at home to West Brom next week – results at the John Smiths Stadium will be the key to our survival or otherwise but it is to be hoped that the lacklustre away performances will be tackled by Wagner and maybe the return of Palmer after the international break will give us the opportunity to turn dogged defensiveness in to more expansive displays.

An afternoon to forget, though the Scandinavians can cling on to the memories for a long time to come.

 

 

Town slay giant and stun the world

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A routine victory over an error strewn and off colour Manchester United brought Town 3 valuable points and a third victory of a season which had turned slightly sour over recent weeks.

As expected, David Wagner learned quickly from the drubbing handed out in the last home game by a frighteningly superior Spurs side and, assisted by the availability of more midfield options, set up a team brimming with energy, commitment and bravery.

From the very beginning, the illustrious and storied visitors were knocked out of their usual swaggering stride as the Terriers maintained a solid defensive shape and found a near perfect balance between aggression and discipline, even if they collected a couple of early yellow cards which could have proven costly against a side containing an abundance of tricky, pacy players.

Deliberately conceding possession and abandoning the habit of knocking the ball around the back which had undone them at the Liberty Stadium, Town’s rope a dope strategy worked perfectly on an afternoon where the synergy between crowd and team reached new heights.

Up top, Depoitre discomforted the visitors’ back four with a rampaging display which planted seeds of doubt amongst their ranks and those seeds flowered quickly once Manchester were deprived of the services of Phil Jones who succumbed, yet again, to injury.

Despite the probing of Martial, Lingard and Valencia down the flanks, all of United’s play floundered in the last third with Lusaka shackled by the blossoming Schindler/Zanka combination and the tenacity of those around them. Attempts to play through the lines were even more easily rebuffed and opportunities to break began to emerge.

A 3 on 2 break following a Town corner caused the greatest alarm only for the alert Kachunga, whose day was to be curtailed before half time with a back injury, to sprint back and intercept the danger.

Coping comfortably with their opponents’ often crude attempts to break them down, Town always looked capable of springing forward with purpose and the visitors looked unusually vulnerable at the back, particularly with Jones’ withdrawal, and Mata’s uncharacteristic sloppiness in control finally opened the door.

Mooy, playing in a very deep 10 role, intercepted the Spaniard’s attempt to recover from a poor first touch and, easily shrugging off Mata’s attempt to pull him back, burst forward with menace. To his left, Ince had bust a gut to get alongside and was released by the Australian. Twisting substitute Lindelöf one way then the other, Ince’s shot was parried by De Gea but only in to the path of Mooy who swept home the opener.

If Town are extremely vulnerable once they go behind, the opposite is true if they edge in front with exemplary game management allowing them unprecedented numbers of single goal victories. Minutes later their lead doubled when a long clearance was comically cocked up by the hapless Lindelöf allowing the lurking Depoitre to take a fine first touch which rounded the stranded De Gea and the less illustrious Belgian on the field stroked the ball in to an unguarded net.

Town fans were now in dreamland. The manager, rightly, favours vision over dreams, but for folk who have witnessed 1-0 defeats to Orient or Hartlepool on miserable Tuesday nights, relentless ineptitude in seasons of struggle and days where hope appeared extinguished, leading the behemoth of English football by 2 goals, and deserving it, was barely within the realms of possibility.

Manchester United were severely wounded by the self inflicted setbacks and their global fan base must have been rubbing their eyes with disbelief as a club many have barely heard of dismantled their team of elite talent. In this, they had something in common with 20,000 plus Yorkshiremen looking on in awe.

Late United flurries were dealt with comfortably as half time approached and a score line reverberating around the globe was maintained.

Grit and determination, combined with guile at the right times, had created an intensity which the Old Trafford outfit could not match, but the sanctuary of the away dressing room and an angry José Mourinho offered the chance for them to plot redemption.

Slightly improved in the second half – the celebrated if unloved Portuguese withdrew the petulant Martial and the ineffective Mata for Rashford and Mkhitaryan – United still struggled to make an impression on a superbly marshalled home side featuring a defensive midfield duo in Hogg and Williams who broke up the visitors’ best intentions with disciplined aggression, superb awareness and unbridled energy.

Smith and Löwe, with their best displays of the season by a distance, assisted by Ince and Van La Parra (on for Kachunga shortly before half time), coped with United’s wave of attacks down the sides despite the introduction of the excellent Rashford while Lukaku’s influence continued to be suppressed.

Half time had also seen the weather worsen as the outer edges of a storm caused a little bit of a wind and some driving rain, though it is difficult to rationalise how a team that plies its trade in Manchester could complain of disadvantage.

The magnificent Depoitre continued to bully defenders and provide the perfect outlet for his team but, wether planned or in recognition of his extraordinary exertions, he was replaced with 20 minutes to go by Mounié. While it was good to see the Frenchman return from injury at last, he couldn’t perform the same role to the same effect and his languid style had a detrimental impact on the pattern of the game.

Thankfully, Van La Parra, who mesmerised at times without creating enough real danger for the visitors, was a reliable out ball for an increasingly exhausted Town rearguard. His ability to get us up the pitch was invaluable as pressure relief – another feature of Wagner’s remarkable game management since he has transformed the club.

United’s quality had rarely been in evidence, though the touch and pace of Rashford caused occasional palpitations, and Lössl had not been called in to action until he repulsed a Herrera header fairly late on, but was finally seen in the 78th minute when Lukaku, rather than let a ball go out for a corner, chased it down, created half a yard of space and delivered the type of cross he himself must have been yearning for all afternoon. Deep, swinging and undefendable, Rashford couldn’t miss as he arrived at the back stick.

Manchester United’s propensity for late goals, stretching way back to the Ferguson era, should have set alarm bells ringing but, spurred on by a crowd which subdued red celebrations as they sensed the team needed them more than ever, Town found another level of resilience to resist the visitors’ increasingly crude assaults.

Hogg and Williams’ protection of their back four intensified with the former making crucial tackles and interceptions and the latter carrying the ball away from danger with power and grim determination. Van La Parra continued to run down the clock with mazy runs and trickery and could even have set up others for a third and decisive goal had he looked up earlier once or twice.

There was one, final, scare in the four minutes added time the referee had found from somewhere. Yet another cross in to the box evaded defensive head on its way to Smalling, by now playing as an auxiliary front man, only for Zanka to haul his injured body in front of the shot and Town’s historic and hugely significant victory was confirmed.

Mounié’s largely ineffective 20 minutes aside, every player excelled in a monumental performance. A deep midfield trio suppressed United at source, Zanka put in his mot accomplished performance to date alongside the ever superb Schindler, Van La Parra excelled in his role (as had Kachunga), Ince offered pace and defensive discipline and the full backs came of Premier League age.

It is difficult to choose between the performances of Williams and Depoitre as the most influential, surrounded as they were with examples other outstanding achievements, and it is perhaps more pertinent to reflect upon the combined efforts of a magnificent team effort against an elite club brimming with talent.

The discipline required to deny quality players time and space cannot be over emphasised – United were shackled by Town hunting in packs but with discipline and an ability to restore shape effortlessly.

Wagner’s ability to learn lessons, leave the past in the past and create solutions for increasingly difficult challenges remind remarkable and, yesterday, he went toe to toe with, whatever people think of him as a person, one of the finest coaches in the world. Visions, not dreams.

For us mere mortals, and a fair few in attendance could remember United’s last visit including 2 of the 3 scorers on that day, defeating an institution on our resources remains barely conceivable – Wagner will already have moved on to plotting how to outwit his friend next week.

Whatever happens this season, the euphoria of yesterday will be remembered and relived for many, many years to come.

Swan dive

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It seemed as if Town had got away with a generally poor first half performance before Lössl presented Swansea with the lead by making a mistake which will be punished at Premier League level. It would also be punished at Championship, League 1, League 2 and all the way down the pyramid.

The Swans, more progressive, aggressive and penetrating deserved their half time lead and would have gone in front much earlier but for an excellent Lössl save down to his right after Zanka had given the ball away to Abraham.

Sorely missing Mooy’s ability to dictate play and retain possession, Town strained to contain their hosts threat down the flanks – the widely touted Malone, in for Löwe following a couple of mistakes by the German, was regularly bypassed with balls behind him and his positioning looked on a par with Jason Davidson while his attacking forays rarely threatened.

For 25 minutes, the home side pressed relentlessly – Hogg was typically combative in response but evergreen Leon Brittan totally dominated to build a platform for his side’s first home win.

Leroy Fer was slightly fortunate only to see yellow after crashing in to Lössl very early on, but the aggression should have served as a warning to the visitors who simply couldn’t settle. Passing was either sloppy, too short or inappropriate with players regularly putting team mates under pressure and errors began to flow. Lössl got away with two poor attempts to find a red and black shirt before his costly error, Billing seemed half asleep and was caught in possession too often and the midfield battle was lost.

Perhaps frustrated that their control had not brought the goal it deserved, Swansea began to run out of steam after 25 minutes and Town stepped up their game for quarter of an hour and missed the best chance of the game when Ince, desperately needing a goal, fired well over from 8 yards from a Van La Parra assist. Taking the lead at that point – Ince also had a chance when put through by an excellent Lössl clearance but went down under pressure – would have entirely changed the complexion of the contest against a side who would have begun to feel the pressure of disgruntled home support.

The minimum requirement was to get to half time level, but Lössl’s brain fart – his decision to try to pass out was not only badly executed but unprofessional – robbed Wagner of the opportunity to change things and introduce Mooy’s qualities to a game rather short of composure.

As it was, Mooy replaced Hogg (who had been booked and always liable to attract a second) and one of his very first acts was to put in a tremendous challenge on Fer, only for the ball to bounce kindly for the Welshmen and Ayew lobbed Lössl with some aplomb before Abraham finished from close in and the contest was, effectively, over.

Mooy exerted an element of control over proceedings without reaching his normal heights, but Swansea were able to contain the visitors with increasing comfort. Smith and Van La Parra managed to get round the back to put balls in to the box but they were largely harmless. Van La Parra’s deflected shot rattled the top of the bar, but a goal never looked likely.

Depoitre battled away throughout against a solid home central defence, Kachunga was probably the pick of a disappointing Town side, but most will not look back on their efforts with much pride.

Despite the late first half error, the real turning point was Ince’s miss. Town rarely recover from conceding first but, conversely, they are good at seeing out narrow wins if they score first. The worry, of course, is that goal scoring is becoming a major problem and this needs, somehow, to be fixed.

Still, only Manchester United and Liverpool next.

Reality bites

 

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A mixture of individual mistakes, some top quality opposition and a rather large dose of naivety condemned Town to the first, and probably not last, heavy defeat of the season.

The visit of Spurs, boasting fine players in all positions and exceptional ones in some, represented the toughest assignment by far of a campaign where challenges come in all shapes and sizes. Town’s first steps have been promising if not wholly assured against largely mundane opposition and built on defensive resilience in the absence of offensive threat.

Moving Ince in to the number 10 role instead of the inexperienced Sabiri, with Van La Parra restored on the left was a fairly obvious choice for David Wagner, but the injury to Palmer is beginning to hurt his plans as neither understudy possesses the Chelsea loanee’s power and, hard working as he is, Kachunga has so far failed to convince on the right where Ince should be.

Tottenham’s system of 3 central defenders and two highly mobile wing backs presented the home side with conundrums they were never able to adequately resolve and with Mooy being largely neutralised from influence, it proved to be a long, often chastening, early afternoon for the Terriers who, nonetheless, did contribute to an entertaining first half.

The visitors started strongly, forcing a corner from their very first attack but gained nothing from it nor from a free kick following a Zanka foul on Eriksen.

Town also imposed themselves on the game early with a good effort by Smith beaten away by Lloris the high point of some promising attacking. The pressure produced a corner on the left following an Ince shot taking a deflection, but, rather cruelly, this was to eventually lead to the Londoners’ first goal.

There seemed little danger as the ball came back to Lössl to clear, but the Dane’s attempt to avoid offside players on the right saw him rather shank the reverse ball he intended for the left wing. A straightforward header by Trippier should have been comfortably dealt with by Löwe, but he misjudged it dreadfully and Kane was in the clear behind him, marginally onside.

The in form (to say the least) England striker strode in to the box and beat Lössl with some ease to extend his remarkable scoring run and all of Town’s early promise was upended by one error and the marksmanship of Kane.

To their credit, Town continued to take the game to their illustrious opponents and strong appeals for a penalty when Kachunga seemed to be pushed in the back in the area were waived away. More joy down the right led to crossing opportunities which were woefully spurned or misdirected and the contrast between the two teams in the final third couldn’t have been more stark.

Spurs’ second goal owed something to fortune but the crisp interplay which unravelled their hosts in the space of seconds between the halfway line and the edge of the box before Löwe inadvertently directed the ball towards scorer Davies was of the highest quality.

Demoralised, the visitors should have gone further in front when Lössl, whose previous assurance seemed to desert him throughout the game, kicked fresh air as he attempted a clearance under mild pressure from Kane and was hugely fortunate that the centre forward’s poise temporarily deserted him allowing the Dane to smother his attempt at rounding him.

Spurs threatened to run riot at this point and stripped their hosts bare again before Dele Alli hit the post when appearing certain to score and the Premier League newcomers were in severe danger of being badly embarrassed.

The third goal arrived before the half hour mark as Kane produced a solo goal of stunning beauty and simplicity. Effortlessly rolling the attentions of both Zanka and Schindler, he curled a perfectly executed shot past Lössl, doubling Town’s goals against column

With the ball, however, the Terriers were still capable of decent play but without asking enough serious questions of their opponents’ back line and delivery in to the box continues to be a major issue for all of the wide players with some sailing behind harmlessly. With the massive frame of the impressive Depoitre to aim at, the profligacy is becoming unforgivable.

The highlight of the whole game for comprehensively outplayed Town came from a surging and powerful and run by Depoitre, reminiscent of Kindon at his finest before the Belgian fired a mighty shot against the bar with Lloris beaten.

Coming just before half time, a goal may have changed the tenor of the contest though this would more likely have resulted in Spurs slipping in to a much higher gear than the one they adopted in a largely pedestrian second half.

Though thoroughly chastened by the manner of the goals conceded, particularly the first two, Town had contributed positively to an entertaining 45 minutes which had seen class prevail over honest endeavour. The crowd seemed to accept the limitations of their team in the face of such superior quality, applauding the effort if not the execution. While some unrealistic souls may wonder how Town failed to quell a forward line valued in the hundreds of millions, most accept that a team destined to finish top 4 would have to be seriously under par not to put a relative minnow to the sword.

Kane’s majestic strike and menacing threat was a privilege, if not entirely pleasurable, to witness. Eriksen was also sublime – his awareness of space and teammates were an education to see live – and Pochettino’s trademark style hugely attractive even at a lower tempo than his team usually achieves.

The second half was pretty forgettable in comparison. Town tightened up and were more effective in denying space but at the expense of producing any threats of their own, while Spurs contented themselves in easy possession with the occasional flash of flair – to the credit of Zanka and Schindler, they acquitted themselves much better and the learning experience should be valuable.

An injury time fourth was a little rough on Town but the type of error made upfield by Kachunga, who had a day to forget, will be punished by a team with Tottenham’s ability on the break. To his credit, Kachunga chased back all the way to help out but Sissoko scrambled the goal in via Schindler to put a gloss on a comprehensive victory.

In between times, Alli dived and was booked (his attempt was possibly more laughable than Van La Parra’s at Burnley), Kane left the field to applause form the home side – a rare event which has riled some but delighted others as an expression of sportsmanship and the home crowd continued to enjoy themselves defiantly in the face of a heavy defeat.

Decent cameos by Billing and Malone may hint at changes for the next game, with the former looking assured in possession and progressive in style.

David Wagner’s teams have never been immune to the odd hammering – when the plan goes awry it can fall apart pretty spectacularly – so it wasn’t a great shock that a highly talented team could emulate Fulham and deliver a beating.

Lessons need to be learned, and they will be, as it will not be acceptable to capitulate so easily in the face of high quality from the top 6 every time we face the challenge, but despite the score line, despite some disappointing performances – Löwe appears to be in a slump and Mooy was unable to dictate play for all but a few moments and the wide men simply failed to do their jobs properly – and despite cruel reality finally hitting home, the experience was still (sort of) enjoyable.

Hopefully, the enforced break will allow Wagner and his staff time to get some players fit for Swansea away – a game, in the scheme of things, of more significance than the glamour on show against Tottenham.

 

 

A Mill Town tale

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For some years now, our envious eyes have stared over the Pennines at a club built on spirit, togetherness and bloody minded grit under the guidance of a tough, honest manager and without the need to spend obscene amounts of money.

Burnley’s wholly admirable rise, which included a relegation which strengthened rather than weakened them, gave hope to smaller clubs and while Town’s path has been stylistically different, the core elements have been identical.

For several decades, a top flight clash between the Clarets and the Terriers was laughably fanciful. Both have spent time in the bottom division – Burnley nearly went further down than that – and the stench of failure hung around clubs built on distant glories.

The carefully packaged and sanitised Premier League and the global following it seduces may have shivered at the very thought of such a fixture, and the largely rudimentary contest which ensued will only increase their disdain, but people who understand and appreciate the history of the English game will applaud the gatecrashing it represents. If nothing else, football fans are iconoclastic in nature.

A tough, uncompromising battle was hugely predictable. Since the unusual opening day results for both teams, scoring has become more difficult and commendable and identical points tallies have been built principally on defence.

At Turf Moor, Burnley have coped with the loss of Keane to Everton relatively easily while in Christopher Schindler, Town have a central defender for whom hyperbole is becoming increasingly redundant.

With both sides keenly aware that the fixture represented an opportunity to gain advantage in a likely scrap towards the bottom of the division (even if this proves not to be the case, it would be ridiculous to ignore the strong possibility), free flowing football was necessarily at a premium and, too often, both sides resorted to inelegant clearing of danger and too many simple errors were made for a classic to ensue.

Two early bookings for Sabiri and Cork set the tone of the game, with no quarter asked or given. With Town hungry to wrestle the title of pluckiest team in the League from their Lancastrian neighbours and the home side jealously guarding it, the first quarter passed with little incident. Setting a standard which would be maintained throughout, Burnley were caught offside from the delivery of a free kick and both sides were awarded corners from which no danger was created.

On Town’s right, however, Wood was winning every duel with Zanka and the home side were targeting the weakness relentlessly without developing the play further. However, it was the right side of Town’s defence which was bypassed too easily by Scott Arfield combining with Ward to supply a great cross for Wood. Fortunately, the Kiwi – playing the useful role of pantomime villain for obvious reasons – mistimed his header when in front of goal. He really should have scored.

Without threatening the goal further, Burnley were on top in the first half and Town were grateful for a magnificent clearance from the imperious Schindler following another dismantling of Town’s right sided defenders.

Much of Burnley’s other offensive efforts floundered when confronted by the omnipresent Schindler. If there has been a finer central defensive performance by a Town centre half (going all the way back to Cherry) it is very difficult to recall. Magnificent both in the air and on the floor, Zanka could afford to have an indifferent 45 minutes – he was much better after the break – and the €1.8M paid to 1860 Munich has to be the most ridiculous under valuation in Town’s history.

A long range shot from Kachunga was all Town had to show for a first half when promising play invariably dissolved in the final third. Sabiri shows a lot of promise but his probing came to nought as Burnley defended threats with some comfort.

The intensity of the midfield battle muted Mooy and Ince made too many simple mistakes to exert any influence, though both were defensively sound, along with Kachunga.

Devoid of artistry or inspiration, the contest was nevertheless reasonably absorbing if only to see if the home side could lay a glove on the outstanding Schindler. They couldn’t.

A much better second half saw Burnley regress and Town find their attacking feet. Wood was largely anonymous, poor passing increased and they began to wobble a little defensively as Ince exerted more influence and Mooy found more space and time.

An early corner saw Smith shoot over before an excellent and penetrating run at the heart of Burnley’s defence saw Ince releasing Depoitre to his left only for the Belgian to hit a side footed shot too close to Pope who saved easily. Last week’s scorer could have taken another stride or two in to the box but, at least, the visitors had recorded the first attempt on target by either side.

Town took a stranglehold on proceedings for sustained periods but still struggled to trouble the home defence often enough. Burnley, hardly irresistibly progressive in the first half, mustered a couple of weak efforts towards the under employed Lössl, and a goal seemed as far away as ever.

On the hour, Town replaced Sabiri with Van La Parra who brought an extra dimension to the attack, particularly for Mooy who used him both directly and as a decoy. Feigning to progress an attack down the left, Mooy switched inside to find the increasingly influential Ince, who had been moved to the number 10 role, and his shot went narrowly wide having beaten Pope.

Minutes later, Van La Parra broke in to the area, skipped past Lowton and inexplicably and unforgivably fell over when barely touched, to provide the pundits with a talking point for the post match deliberations (and in the absence of much else).

Having righteously poured down opprobrium on Forestieri over the years for his antics, it was enormously disheartening for Town fans to be confronted with the cheating by one of their own. It was impossible to disagree with Sean Dyche’s angry assessment of the act (as opposed to the player himself) after the game and it was far from lost on the visiting fans that Van La Parra could easily have set up a goal had he stayed on his feet with both Depoitre and Kachunga in the box.

That an act of dishonesty sullied an otherwise hard but fair contest between two teams who make a virtue of their humble status was sadly ironic. Wagner is a man of transparent values and will deal with the situation internally. Hopefully, we will not see a repeat.

Van La Parra made the last meaningful contribution to the game with a run and shot – inevitably, he was supplied by a great cross field ball by Mooy – which Pope made a meal of and nearly spilled to Kachunga.

With Burnley shut down by Schindler and his defensive colleagues – in the second half, we also saw the quiet, strong efficiency of Hogg mopping up all over the back line which augurs well for when he gets back to full fitness – Town should have made more of the opportunities they created and the lack of goals is a worry in light of the formidable opposition lying in wait.

However, and for all the mockery the game will attract, there were moments to admire in and amongst a dour battle even if the dive left a sour taste.

But most of all, the game will be remembered for the sublime Schindler. Rarely hurried, the German tackled and blocked with effortless efficiency, snuffed out Burnley’s aerial threat and commanded the back four with supreme authority. Add his intelligence on the ball and the fear that predators may well be watching starts to grow – ridiculous prices have been paid for centre halves in recent times (Stones, Keane and the aborted bids for Van Dirk) – and for a newly promoted club to keep clean sheets in two thirds of their games will increase curiosity and scrutiny.

With Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester United on the horizon, Town face a daunting task to maintain their elevated position in the League but a point at Turf Moor could prove vital in the longer run and the so called “purists” can sod off.

 

 

 

Debutants have a ball

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2016 Premier League champions Leicester City provided the latest challenge to a Town side which emerged a little chastened from their clash with West Ham having failed to match David Wagner’s high standards though, on reflection, the performance perhaps didn’t merit as much vitriol as it received.

Of the 3 changes made for the visit of the Foxes, Depoitre’s debut was enforced by the injury to Mounié while Van La Parra’s relegation to the bench was tactical, allowing Sabiri to take his bow in the 10 role and Ince move out to the left.

In the least surprising change, Billing made way for the more industrious and powerful Williams to add greater urgency against a side noted for their tenacity.

The debuts ranged from very good to excellent. Sabiri has great potential – while not everything he tried came to full fruition, he looks elegant, quick and skilful and looks very capable of filling the hole left by Palmer’s hopefully short term injury.

Depoitre bullied Leicester’s central defenders from the off, particularly Harry Maguire, scored an excellent goal and bustled around like a latter day Kindon before fading a little towards the end.

The laurels, however, belonged to Williams. Covering huge acreage, his tackling and aerial challenges contributed significantly to subduing the visitors’ obvious threats while, on the ball, his carrying in to opposition territory was often incisive and allowed the excellent Mooy more freedom to dictate play.

Town started brightly and a good move, instigated by Depoitre’s tenacity just inside Leicester’s half ended with the Belgian heading in to Schmeichel’s hands.

In the face of Town’s energy, Leicester struggled to make an impact on the game for long periods though the home side had to be ever wary of Mahrez’s sublime artistry (once he looks interested) and Iheanacho’s awareness of space.

In and amongst Town’s domination of an exciting and breathless first half, Vardy’s only contribution of note was an attempted lob late on which went wide while a free kick from a dangerous position following a Schindler transgression was wasted by Mahrez.

For the majority of the half, Leicester had to defend with increasing desperation though Town couldn’t find another attempt on target after Depoitre’s early header despite some eye catching build up play orchestrated by Mooy, who was everywhere around the pitch.

Yet again, the atmosphere was superb. For all the chagrin about clappers, all four sides of the stadium join in the beat of enthusiasm and add hugely to the enjoyment of the spectacle. The visitors were clappered to their 2016 triumph, and will probably empathise with Town’s initiative.

Town had rediscovered their pressing mojo and lesser sides than Leicester – and there will be quite a few – will buckle under the intensity the Terriers can create. More and better chances need to be fashioned when on top, which was also the case against Southampton, but if there were legitimate concerns that the usual qualities of Wagner’s sides were largely missing on Monday, the first half swiftly dispelled them.

The second half was less frantic though no less enthralling. Leicester kicked off but were soon pressed out of possession with the ball reaching Sabidi, who hooked the ball forwards towards Depoitre. It wasn’t his most subtle intervention during the game but proved his most effective as the Belgian let the ball run down the side of him, shrugged off the attentions of Maguire and swept an excellent finish past Schmeichel’s despairing dive.

After all the huffing and puffing of the first half, compelling as it was, the direct route unlocked the visitors’ defence with some ease and Depoitre’s run and finish were executed with precision and strength.

The relief at the goal turned to despair minutes later, however. Imbibed by a new sense of urgency, Leicester responded straight from the restart and Town’s focus seemed momentarily lost. A ball reached Andy King who pushed it past a slightly mistimed Löwe tackle which he willingly fell over, just inside the box. It was a massive shame for the much improved German who had put the tribulations of the Olympic stadium behind him, but there was no argument about the decision.

Vardy, who had been well shackled by the ever excellent Schindler and Zanka, blasted the penalty past Lössl for an ill deserved equaliser. Rather oddly, and in the place of celebration, the England centre forward got hold of the ball and smacked it skyward, earning some boos from an unimpressed home support.

To their credit, Town quickly regained composure. A good run by the much improved Kachunga, another under performer against the Hammers, lead to a snap shot from Zanka which Schmeichel turned over the bar, before the provider was denied a goal by a desperately marginal decision by the linesman.

It was Zanka again who had shot goal ward following a weaving run in the box by Ince which Kachunga nudged in from close range. Video evidence suggested that Kachunga was level and should have been given the striker’s benefit of the doubt, but in real time and with the naked eye, the linesman’s spontaneous reaction was wholly understandable, if hugely disappointing.

Leicester got back in to the game after their close call and Vardy was guilty of a shocking miss when in front of goal, alone but unable to connect with a low cross from the increasingly influential Mahrez.

The Algerian is a joy to watch when he decides to play. A magician with the ball at his feet, he regularly eluded Town challenges with feints and movement that are mesmerising.

His growing presence may have influenced Wagner’s substitutions with Quaner replacing Kachunga and the welcome sight of a Hogg return to replace the highly promising Sabiri adding some steel.

Despite a more conservative line up – Mooy was pushed further forward – Town had two further chances to take all 3 points. A great cross by the Australian maestro found the space between defenders and goalkeeper only for Quaner to contrive not to connect by trying to let it run on to his right foot rather than strike with his left.

A curling Ince effort had his childhood friend in the Leicester goal scrambling, but a winner was not to be.

Leicester, whose performance was largely lacklustre in the face of Town’s persistent pressing, were much improved after the break but will feel that the point they took back down the M1 is a good one. A late penalty appeal when Gray fell over when nudged by Zanka caused some momentary consternation, but Jon Moss waived it away.

Mooy and Mahrez apart, the contest lacked genuinely high quality but engrossed to the end as Town, once again, showed that they can compete against established Premier League sides – entertaining as it was, the day was also tinged with a little regret that the home side didn’t get the 3 points they probably deserved.

However, there were big positives to be taken. The team had bounced back from their London travails, the debutants were all effective performers who can be fully trusted to play their part during the season and a capacity crowd left happy with the endeavour, entertainment and energy of their team.

A bruising, tough and important Turf Moor date is on the horizon; a game which presents an entirely different set of challenges to work upon but Town can go in to the game with confidence (as Burnley will after their excellent Anfield point).

 

 

 

 

 

Hammers burst Town’s bubble

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The Olympic, or London stadium is a magnificent sports arena. Filled with people cheering on athletes running, jumping and throwing in 2012, and since, the hairs at the back of the neck quotient is off the scale.

Set in a magnificent East London space – the walk up is genuinely impressive – the possibilities of it as a Premier League stage must have been enticing to the owners of West Ham United, irrespective of the controversy surrounding the public’s benevolence, but it simply doesn’t work.

Other than some PA inspired chanting, the home supporters – probably sensing the discordance of their new amphitheatre – were largely subdued despite a rugged and committed display by their under pressure heroes.

What makes it easy to tie the venue to the lack of atmosphere is the well earned reputation of the Hammers’ fans who are undoubtedly passionate, rowdy and proud; who can forget their performance when 5-0 down to Forest in a FA Cup semi final all those years ago?

The visiting support did its very best to create noise, relentlessly cheering on their misfiring team despite the shortcomings and defeat. It should be said that these are extraordinary times for Huddersfield Town – if we can’t be excited in current circumstances, it’s hard to know when we would be. Nevertheless, under Wagner, the connection between club, players and supporters is exceptional, even when things don’t go our way.

Despite West Ham’s problems, and this game may, and only may, be the beginning of resolving them, they retain significant talent in their squad and some pre match musings by pundits and fans alike seemed way over the top and ignorant of the fact that Town’s unexpected early success included more than a few slices of good fortune.

One of these was playing opponents in varying states of distress. While this also applied to Monday night’s opposition, the context of the Hammers having to play their first 3 matches away from home – that damned stadium being the cause of the problem – was too often lost in the anticipation. The result in the North East was, admittedly, a little alarming for East Enders, but many teams will suffer as badly at the hands of Manchester United and the Southampton reverse was more than a little unlucky.

A disappointing first half saw Town fortunate to still be level. With the aerial threat of Carroll – often performed with unpunished over physicality – the pace and power of Antonio and the poaching threat of Hernandez, the hosts tested the Terriers defence to near destruction but failed to capitalise on their overwhelming control.

Löwe, so impressive in Town’s early season success, was tormented by Antonio who stripped the German with alarming ease at times and posed a recurrent and potent threat which kept the visitors under huge pressure for much of the first 45 minutes.

Zanka and Schindler, at least as dependable as Löwe in the opening three games, strained to control Carroll’s menace. Unimpeded by a hugely tolerant and laughably one sided referee, the Geordie front man provided a massive focus point for the Londoners, while his counterpart Mounié was starved of service and isolated to the point of anonymity.

In rare periods when the hosts’ pressure eased, Town’s possession was laboured and often inaccurate. Mooy provided some moments of customary elegance but was largely subdued and Billing, while providing decent defensive support never found his passing range and was hounded far too often – while the Dane has shown he can add a touch of quality when Town control a game, the visitors needed more steel in the face of West Ham’s energy.

With the home side failing to convert superiority in to a deserved lead – an early Carroll cross, all be it possible after a clear push on Schindler, narrowly evaded both defenders and attackers when just a touch was needed, Hernandez crashed a shot against the bar after being found by Antonio who had cruised past Löwe and a miscue by Kouyaté – Town extended their perfect defensive record beyond 300 minutes.

While the block outs have been occasionally charmed, it is, nevertheless, a huge achievement and towards the end of a torrid first half, Town began to twitch in to life with Ince being freed to shoot only for an additional, unnecessary, touch allowing a defender to block his effort.

The visitors improved in the second half, spending a little more time on the front foot, but were unable to sustain any sort of intensity. West Ham looked less dangerous and hope flickered that under increasing psychological pressure they may buckle enough for the Terriers to take advantage.

It wasn’t to be as fluency largely deserted the Yorkshiremen, and the previously redundant home defence barely looked troubled.

Löwe’s night of torment was cut short when he was replaced by the more progressive Malone, but not before he made a hugely important tackle on the halfway line to halt a dangerous counter attack. It should also be noted that the left back departed the field when the game was goalless.

Malone did, however, add impetus to attack and by the time the home side took the lead with a huge slice of fortune, he had helped Town look slightly more threatening. As we have seen in the past, if a Wagner team stay in the game they can be very dangerous as time goes on and there was a perceptible shift in the balance of power after the hour mark.

The admittedly mild resurgence came to a halt on 72 minutes. Obiang found himself in a little more space than the visitors had generally allowed in the second half and swung a boot for a shot that was either going wide or relatively routine for Lössl only for it hit Zanka’s back, take a huge and wrong footing deflection and turn in to a perfectly placed strike beyond Lössl’s fingertips.

After over five and a half hours of Premier League football, the Dane was finally beaten and by a huge slice of misfortune. 5 minutes later, substitute Ayew (who had replaced Hernandez to the loud disapproval of the home support) doubled the lead when Town failed to clear yet another corner.

Town’s largely unconvincing second half revival was halted before it could, perhaps, have gained momentum though a snapshot from Ince following good work by Mooy rattled the bar late on.

With the game in the bag, the home support, bizarrely, started to disappear. Swathes of empty seats perhaps pointed to the problems of getting home from the stadium, but those who had much longer journeys in front of them stayed to applaud the efforts of a team suffering its first top flight setback.

In contrast to previous regimes, Wagner refused to hide behind excuses for his team’s display. He could have followed the anodyne reactions of his predecessors with talk of a brave battle or point to a very home friendly referee who indulged Carroll while punishing every minor Town transgression to aid the home team’s momentum, but concentrated on his own team’s evident shortcomings. Even had Town’s insipid resurgence in a better second half resulted in a point or, less realistically, a narrow win, his message would have been similar. The man doesn’t suffer fools or allow his charges off the hook when the occasion merits.

Vulnerable down the flanks, particularly against the stand out home performer Antonio, Town were indebted to their central defenders – Schindler in particular who compensated for Carroll’s aerial superiority after the first quarter of an hour – for a fortune laden clean sheet in the first half.

Up front, Mounié was isolated and entirely ineffective, though he had precious little service. It is becoming worrying that since his opening day brace, the record signing has barely had a chance to add to his tally.

In midfield, Town needed a more physical presence than Billing. It was a little surprising that Williams stayed on the bench, and the return of Hogg can’t come soon enough to revive his partnership with Mooy.

West Ham thoroughly deserved their win, as Wagner acknowledged, and while drastic surgery isn’t necessary just yet, changes to the team at the weekend seem likely as Town face recent fairy tale champions Leicester in another tough assignment.

With Palmer injured, it wouldn’t be surprising if Sabiri gets a run out, while Tommy Smith hasn’t recaptured last year’s form and may be vulnerable to a debut from Hadergjonaj.

Whatever the line up, Wagner will demand a significant improvement and a return to the level which made his team competitive – if this is achieved, a scrappy midweek defeat will soon be forgotten.

 

Town test the patience of Saints

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A pulsating, thoroughly entertaining encounter with a talented, if slightly underwhelming Southampton side, ended goalless as both sides missed out on very presentable opportunities in stifling conditions at the JSS.

The south coast club, who have graced the Premier League since their rise from League 1 with no little style, represented a significant step up in quality over Town’s previous two opponents, even if their early season form seems to have been affected by having to adapt to a new manager as they try to rediscover their customary flair.

A messy and very fortunate League cup win over Rotherham by the shadow squad – ultimately pushed over the line by the introduction of Billing – gave David Wagner few reasons to change the eleven who beat Newcastle, and with the two new arrivals still to be bedded in, there were no changes to the bench either.

A relatively mundane opening 10 minutes saw the two teams sizing each other up, but the tone of the match was set by the visitors after the initial sparring when the excellent Davis set Redmond away down the left behind a square Town defence playing him just onside. Perhaps aware of Lössl’s size and reach, the ex-Norwich man curled his shot past the far post, and Town were let off the hook.

Roared on by a raucous, almost hysterically excited home support, Town then largely took over with their trademark aggression and intensity.

Prompted by Mooy and Billing, Town took the game to the Saints down left and right and opportunities began to flow. Kachunga, hard working as ever, and Van La Parra, mercurial and occasionally frustrating as ever, stretched Southampton down the flanks and dangerous balls in to the box seemed certain to open the door.

A combination of excellent blocking by the stretched Saints’ defence, Forster’s enormous frame and slightly tentative finishing kept the visitors’ goal intact. In a single minute, first Kachunga and then Mounié were denied as Town’s crowd inspired intensity strained the resilience of Southampton without breaking it.

The best chance fell to Kachunga, however, when Forster weirdly spilled a routine cross in to his path. Sadly, the ball fell to his weaker left foot and the idiosyncratic England understudy was able to deflect his effort for a corner.

Tom Ince, slowly increasing his effectiveness game by game, brought another, rather odd, save from Forster as he cleverly hit a Smith assist first time and by the end of the half, the southerners had been comprehensively rattled and fortunate to be still in the game, Redmond’s miss notwithstanding.

Faced with a clear step up in class of opponent, Town had met the challenge with gusto if not goals. Defensively sound – the early scare aside – and thrillingly offensive, the Terriers harnessed the exceptional atmosphere to rattle a team who will, if their supporters give the new manager time and resolve their obvious scoring problem, challenge at the top of the Premier League’s unofficial second tier.

Pellegrino, who angered the visiting fans by withdrawing the ineffective Gabbiadini halfway through the second half, reacted positively to the problems Town were causing his team by reducing Mooy’s influence and his team were much improved after the break, causing Town problems with smart possession and better transition.

An injury to Van La Parra eventually forced him from the game, allowing Palmer to take over the number 10 role with Ince moving wide and the Chelsea loanee added more power in the centre in an encouragingly improved display.

Danny Williams replaced the fading Billing shortly afterwards – on the hour – and positively contributed to a game which had changed at the turn around as Southampton began to assert their quality more effectively.

A weak attempt by Gabbiadini, who shot straight at Lössl when in a good position, encouraged the visitors who began to control the game through possession.

Town were far from out of the contest, however, with Mounié heading over from a good Smith cross and shots from Ince and Mooy being blocked and wide respectively.

The visitors brought on Shane Long to try to add some guile up front, but Town defended well as the pressure increased – Zanka and Schindler’s partnership continues to flourish, even if the former’s longer attempts at distribution remain wasteful, and Löwe was, yet again, outstanding.

With the game ebbing and flowing between two determined sides intent on snatching victory, good build up play by the home side could not repeat the quality of their first half chances while the visitors’ menace was less than frightening until the final 10 minutes as home legs wilted in the heat.

First, Zanka stopped substitute Ward-Prowse in the area without appearing to touch the ball – penalty appeals were waived away by the excellent referee, Atwell, and subsequent viewings showed it to be a good decision.

Then Redmond spurned another shooting chance by curling his shot too close to Lössl who competently saved to his left, before the best chance of the half was thankfully spurned by the visitors.

Long, who had substituted Gabbiadini to the boos of the visiting supporters, got behind Town’s defence and picked out the raiding Bertrand, only for the full back’s poor header to be cleared off the line by Tommy Smith.

The full time whistle couldn’t come soon enough for the home side who, nevertheless, were entirely deserving of the point which took them, if only for a couple of hours, back to the top of the table.

The influence of the home support, which was astonishingly loud throughout, should not be underestimated – the energy emanating from the stands both in response to events on the pitch but also as encouragement when things (inevitably, given the quality of opposition) start to go awry, is an extra dimension we have rarely witnessed at the stadium and an essential factor of the Wagner revolution expertly harnessed by the man himself.

Southampton, despite being a little under par in this particular period, represented a huge challenge to a largely reconstructed Town side who have plenty of room for improvement themselves.

A relatively kind fixture list has helped Town to enter the international break in a Champions League spot (!), but the efforts of the management and players to take advantage have been phenomenal and barely believable.

With two new additions to bed in, the break has come at a good time and with the next opponents in some turmoil, the opportunity to take a further stride towards safety is immediately available.

These are the halcyon days.

 

Schindler reigns supreme

 

 

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A fabulous Arron Mooy goal illuminated an otherwise scrappy game of few chances, giving Town a deserved and important victory over a resilient though largely mundane Newcastle side.

The Australian, who rarely seems short of time or space, added phenomenal work rate to his more obvious talents – at one point popping up in the right back position to thwart a Geordie thrust – and his surgical opening up of an efficient and solid visiting defence proved the difference.

As he moved forward with calculating menace, defenders became immobile waiting for him to unleash a long range effort which allowed him to feint, play the ball through to Kachunga then curl in the return ball past Elliot.

His imperious performance was matched by a sublime display by Schindler who dominated in the air while purring through a ground game which was near perfect. Always available, aware and commanding, his fellow defenders responded appropriately and while Newcastle had some half chances, a second consecutive clean sheet was fully deserved.

Lössl, who was only called upon sporadically, was faultless, and his magnificent save from Ritchie in a first half where the Magpies were the slightly more dangerous side, proved crucial – an easier save in the second half was smartly executed and his distribution continues to be an effective weapon, allowing Town to vary their style from playing the ball out from the back.

A full house contributed massively to Town’s win – even when the game became tense in the final 15 minutes as Newcastle searched in vain for an equaliser, the atmosphere didn’t dip with all four sides urging their Premier League fledglings to victory, and the unity between fans and the team was loudly emphasised.

Carrying on from their opening day triumph at Selhurst Park, Town again combined fierce aggression with high intensity to quell the natural talents in their opponents’ ranks. Dominating the first 25 minutes, Town’s possession was patient but occasionally laboured as the visitors – like last season – were content to allow the home side control in unthreatening areas, leaving numbers to defend any breakthrough.

A snapshot by Ince following a Geordie error flew straight at Elliot and despite having some success down the left with Van La Parra and the quite excellent Löwe, the end product was lacking with Mounié well shackled.

The dominance faded as the half went on though Newcastle’s increasing influence yielded no opportunities of note for the visitors as both defences remained firmly in command and the contest became increasingly physical.

Gayle, so regularly a scorer against Town, was easily subdued which may have provoked his attempt to win a penalty by theatrically going down under an excellent Schindler tackle – simulation which, arguably, should have been punished.

At the other end, Kachunga exchanged errors on the halfway line with a Newcastle player and found himself with a direct route to goal with Mounié and Van La Parra either side of him and a back pedalling defence outnumbered. Unfortunately, his pass to Mounié was fractionally too late and the danger cleared for a corner.

While the first half was devoid of much good play, the contest was absorbing with battles being fought hard all over the pitch in front of a raucous crowd eager for the home side to unpick the stubborn rearguard of the visitors.

They didn’t have to wait long for Mooy’s moment of inspiration before the second half reverted to the prosaic pattern of the first as Town worked hard to maintain their lead. Rafa Benitez made changes to try to revert his conservative approach and, in fairness, new signing Joselu was a little more effective than the replaced Gayle. Unfortunately for the Magpies, Town’s central defensive partnership (Zanka improved markedly after a nervous first half undermined by poor distribution forward) remained dominant.

Joselu brought a routine save from Lössl in a rare moment of freedom but as the game entered its closing stages, the visitors became more and more rudimentary in their approach which, combined with Town’s natural aggression, saw bookings mount up though some of them – on both sides – were harsh.

A feature of last year’s success was Town’s ability to see out single goal victories, and that experience in a game which bore a lot of resemblance to a Championship fixture was invaluable.

Tension built among the crowd willing on the Terriers to a second Premier League win, but Newcastle’s desperation rarely translated in to guile with their best chance being thwarted by a great block by Löwe to crown a fantastic afternoon for the full back.

While the achievement was more thrilling than the execution, back to back wins give Wagner and the team an excellent foundation for a tough season. The fixture list has been kind to throw up two opponents with inherent problems but Town have taken full advantage and imposed their unity and strength on likely bottom half rivals to boost confidence for greater challenges to come.

If one thing is certain, Wagner’s men will be no pushovers for any team and, home or away, the enormous goodwill earned from supporters can continue to be leveraged – the crowd played a full part in the defeat of Newcastle and is now rewarded with the sight of Town in second place in the nascent league table.

A more expansive Southampton are up next which should produce better entertainment, but few left the ground complaining about quality in this one, we were too busy feeling the width.