Hammered

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Town’s first home game of 2018 always felt like something of a barometer. Before his demise, Mark Hughes proffered the view that Town would find the second half of the season much tougher than the first and while it was easy to dismiss the thoughts of a drowning, rather charmless man (in public, anyway), there was an uncomfortable truth in his words.

A worrying home defeat against an admittedly rapidly improving opponent featured naïveté, below par performances from key players and a rare tactical failure from the manager.

In a devastating second half, a confident and assured West Ham put Town to the sword and inflicted a potentially damaging defeat in front of a home crowd who were, for the first time this season, driven to passive support.

The game had started reasonably well with Town on the front foot without creating much threat but the Hammers slowly took control of affairs and while their passing failed on several occasions in attack, their power in the middle of the park was ascending and the quality of Arnautovic and Lanzini began to blossom.

Nevertheless, there hadn’t been a great deal between the sides before Lössl and Lolley handed the visitors the lead. The Belgian’s decidedly risky pass out to the ex-Kidderminster man was ill advised and not particularly well executed. While Lolley is culpable for a poor piece of control, his keeper had put him in an invidious and unnecessary position – the excellent Noble robbed him with ease and then finished in style past the guilty custodian.

To their credit, Town didn’t crumble but things rarely turn out well when they go behind and the visitors looked more than capable of hurting them between the lines as their formidable front two, assisted by a physically imposing midfield, grew in confidence.

Intermittently, the home side sparked in to life and on 40 minutes, Joe Lolley atoned for his earlier error with a wonderful goal, receiving the ball from the alarmingly under par Mooy before cutting in and curling a great effort past Adrián.

Finishing the half strongly, the hope was that the equaliser would simultaneously deflate the Hammers and provide a solid foundation for the second half. Sadly, nothing could have been further from the reality.

Within 15 seconds, West Ham exploited a sleepy home defence with a simple long ball. First, Zanka reacted too slowly to the threat and was beaten in the air by Kouyaté who flicked on to Arnautovic. The Austrian bamboozled Smith and hit a perfect finish past the exposed Lössl.

15 minutes of disarray ensued, in which West Ham scored twice more and could easily have doubled that tally.

The lively Lanzini and Arnautovic threatened constantly, Town’s tormented defenders looked ever more fragile and a shambles ensued.

Smith inadvertently played Lanzini onside from an Arnautovic through ball and the Argentine’s powerful finish left Lössl with no chance and Town bereft. The fourth, another fast break finished again by Lanzini finally extinguished the already less than faint hopes of recovery.

It was a comprehensive demolition with the visitors exploiting the Terriers’ weaknesses with cruel efficiency.

Not unnaturally, the Londoners appeared reasonably content with the scale of the defeat they were inflicting on their traumatised hosts and, coupled with a long overdue tactical change by Wagner which saw Kongolo replace an out of his depth Smith and the adoption of a back 3, the game meandered to its inevitable conclusion.

It is hardly surprising that Town would suffer reversals such as this in an exceptionally challenging first top flight season, but this one felt a little different and the drying up of the normally raucous support (even in comprehensive defeat) was telling. As it proved, expecting to beat a resurgent West Ham as something of a formality was foolish – the visitors were very, very good for significant chunks of the game and recalibration of expectations may be helpful for the future.

Neither is it surprising that some of the current squad are being found out. It is no disgrace for example that Tommy Smith is struggling, or that Joe Lolley doesn’t have the touch, strength and awareness of Arnautovic. Building a truly competitive squad will take time and the addition of Kongolo and Pritchard – who looked lively, inventive and, crucially, very positive, is a good start.

With class being permanent and form temporary, Town will be hoping that Mooy recaptures the quality which has orchestrated their rise and promising first half of the season – the addition of Pritchard may well instigate that revival.

The defeat, and the nature of it, was ominous but the impact of Kongolo and Pritchard offers some hope. The defender adds much needed power either at left back or the left side of a back 3 while the ex-Canary should provide greater creativity, shots and effective dead ball delivery.

While it was not much of a surprise that Pritchard’s single day of preparation consigned him to the bench, Kongolo’s omission looked, in hindsight (the amateur scribbler’s friend) a significant error on Wagner’s part.

Up next, Stoke away presents an opportunity. Unlike yesterday’s impressive opponents, the Potters are not in a good place and with reports that their target for manager has developed cold feet, Town would do well to emulate West Ham’s ruthlessness and recover the ground lost.

 

 

 

Town trot on

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Despite fears to the contrary, David Wagner selected a relatively strong squad for a competition which has, arguably, even less importance to Town than in recent years. He was helped by the return from injury of Billing (on the bench) and Hefele and the opportunity to give Kongolo a debut, but only 4 or 5 regulars were rested.

Bolton Wanderers’ fall from grace over the past few years culminating in huge financial problems and a brief spell in the third tier allows Phil Parkinson a much reduced ability to successfully rotate but good recent form after a horrendous start to their return to the Championship gives them a realistic chance of survival which has to be the priority.

An achingly dull first half saw early Bolton flurries fade very quickly as Town seized control of possession with the home side sitting back rather than pressing.

The possession was almost entirely pointless, other than starving Bolton of opportunity, with few balls played between the lines and far too many launched in to touch while trying to find width.

Retention and recycling of possession is a hallmark of Wagner’s tactics but it can induce a lack of imagination, bravery and penetration. An already sterile atmosphere – not unsurprisingly, the Bolton public were not seduced by Town’s new and unusual status – was further depressed by the visitor’s inability to progress much beyond sideways passing, safe balls backward and fear of risk.

Depoitre, who had a good first half but a quieter second, managed to bully his marker on one occasion but couldn’t find a team mate with a cutback while a couple of speculative shots were the meagre return on the possession investment.

Other than Depoitre’s presence, the only bright spot for Town was Sabiri. The forgotten number 10, who Wagner rates as a poor trainer, is surprisingly good in the air, has a good touch and that hint of maverick which may be the missing ingredient in a side which creates far too little.

Having dominated a game that barely reached the giddy heights of banal, Town should have been undone shortly before the break when Wilbraham, all alone, met a good cross only to see his attempt skew so wide of the target you would be forgiven for thinking his head was threepenny bit shaped.

The missing Madine would have buried it.

It would have served the visitors right had Wilbraham scored. The lack of adventure, which should flow from long spells with the ball, may be excused by the lack of familiarity in a team including a new signing – who played very well himself – and various fringe players, but the spectacle was pretty dreadful.

After the break, Town improved and added some much needed pace and movement to their play which, surprise, surprise, created momentum, pressure and a goal.

First, Sabiri had a good effort from range saved, resulting in a couple of corners, Depoitre and Lolley saw further attempts blocked and more corners were won with the final one finding its way to Van La Parra who flicked in the opener from short range.

Within a minute, Town were two up. A run by Sabiri was halted illegally and he stumbled in to a challenge with Wheater – an event ludicrously blown up by Parkinson post match – and the ball fell kindly to Williams. Advancing with menace, the German American’s shot was wildly deflected past Howard.

Upping the pace and applying sustained pressure won the tie. To their credit, Bolton didn’t crumble and began to cause problems, particularly down the right where Ameobi caused Malone significant problems. Parkinson’s decision to withdraw him later seemed a little odd.

Just after the hour, the home side were rewarded when Town didn’t get away a second time with an unmarked player arriving at the back post to meet a deep corner, and Derik ensured that the Premier League side wouldn’t have a comfortable ride in to the 4th round.

The Trotters created several mild alarms as they pushed for an equaliser but didn’t really test Coleman and Town’s opportunities to break began to open up. Immediately after the home goal, Williams had an excellent long range effort saved but most of the effort reverted to dominating possession again and for a while the horrors of the first half were revisited.

Town should have wrapped the game up in the final ten minutes. A midfield mix up allowed Sabiri to be freed in to the box and he looked to be fouled as he shot. The ball squirted out to Williams whose shot was saved at the near post.

Predictably, the Terriers had to deal with aerial assaults as time began to run out for the hosts which they achieved reasonably comfortably. As the minutes ticked by, more and more control was established and the rather skimpy 4 minutes of added time – Coleman was booked for persistent time wasting which, as ever, wasted even more time – were seen out professionally.

The second half had been more entertaining – which wasn’t much of an achievement – and, overall, Town deserved the win.

On the plus side, Sabiri showed he can add an extra dimension to the team and it is to be hoped he makes the match day squad more regularly, new signing Kongolo played well and looks a good addition, Hefele’s return was a success and the ignominy visited upon one or two other Premier League sides was avoided.

Quaner’s apparently minor injury aside, the players came through unscathed and a tricky assignment was negotiated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Terriers hunted down by Foxes

 

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It may be a case of projection to suggest that David Wagner didn’t hold out much hope of points for his stretched and fatigued squad against a Leicester team free of their early season trials and performing to a standard more in keeping with their talent.

His rotation was fairly light, however, certainly in comparison to his reaction to playing 2 games in 3 days last year when wholesale changes were made to scrape a win at Wigan, and rather surprisingly did not involve a rest for the over worked Mooy while Hogg sat on the bench.

A deserved start for Joe Lolley was well signalled and a reversion to the traditional, and clean sheet keeping, back four was sensible.

What the manager appears unable to change, and given his remarkable abilities in planning, man management and strategy it is truly baffling, is the propensity of his charges to collapse away from home (and sometimes at home) once the opposition take the lead. This has been a rare negative feature of Wagner’s otherwise fabulous tenure.

When Mahrez’s wonderful strike flew past the blameless Lössl, there were 37 minutes, at least, left to play in a game where Town had largely subdued the home side and, if anything, they had looked the better side in an encouraging first half.

Rather than accept a brilliantly taken conceded goal – all be it aided by a weak clearance following a corner – a sense of panic and doubt swept over the visitors which destroyed their shape, saw them commit too far forward and disintegrate as a competitive force.

A calmer response would have been to play as they had been doing in the first half, wait patiently for opportunities and ensure that the boost given to the Foxes was fleeting not fatal.

As it was, Town were easy game for the home side who simply had to wait for the spaces to open up and, if they have any regrets, it will be that they were unable to punish their quarry even more convincingly.

The disintegration of passing, movement and shape was in stark contrast to a creditable first half performance which, while not rich in goal scoring opportunities, established a control over the game for prolonged periods.

Leicester’s flair players were largely contained – and it was a pre match boost to learn that Vardy’s pace behind would be absent – and the home side were made to look rather pedestrian by an energetic Town performance.

A first minute effort by Löwe, straight at Schmeicel, augured well (but proved to be pretty much the extent of the Dane’s afternoon exertions) and the visitors were noticeably brighter in possession than their hosts, particularly down the right where Van La Parra and Smith were combining well without creating much in the way of threat.

By far the best chance of the half fell to Williams. Put through by Mounié, the German American seemingly slowed down as he reached the area in an attempt to draw a foul rather than carry on or shoot. His indecision earned neither a free kick nor any sympathy from his manager post match.

Town’s pressing and teamwork ensured that Leicester’s shining lights flickered only intermittently and to little effect, and genuine entertainment was at a premium. It should have provided a solid base for the second half, particularly as a hushed home support seemed to be waiting for something to become enthused about.

Industrious team play with a solid shape, decent movement and togetherness equalised a contest against a team with better individual talent and quality – only Lolley looked somewhat out of his depth but contributed defensively – and after 45 minutes, a valuable stalemate looked more than possible.

The shambles of a second half where those principles seemed to be abandoned with recklessness is difficult to explain or fathom.

As the team ethos broke down, individual performance levels plummeted. Mounié suffered the most of the visiting support’s ire and while some of it was deserved, particularly his commitment to pressurising Leicester’s central defenders, he is a player who will only thrive if the component parts around him are functioning well. He contributed fairly well to the first half effort, including creating Town’s best chance, but faded badly as the tide turned against Town.

Ideally, Mounié should have given way to Depoitre on the hour to give the Belgian chance to disrupt Maguire’s increasingly serene afternoon as he had done in the home encounter. This would have given Town a little more hope of recovery while saving the young Frenchman from over the top abuse in the aftermath. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it did seem a fairly obvious substitution at the time.

Once the ridiculously talented Mahrez produced the first piece of genuine quality to give the home side the lead, the belief of his team mates grew quickly and, sadly, devastatingly.

Town’s reaction to going behind, unlike their calmer response at St Mary’s against an admittedly inferior opposition, proved suicidal.

Pushing forward, a laborious attack ended when an attempted through ball by Mooy was blocked. Within half a minute, Leicester grabbed their second as Mahrez put a perfect through ball in to the wide open space created by Town’s over eagerness to Slimani and the game was over.

Dispirited even further, Town’s passing faltered, forward momentum was stilted and unthreatening and the defence looked increasingly vulnerable to be picked apart. Leicester should have capitalised more comprehensively than they eventually did, mainly because Schindler remained resilient and aware.

The descent from the thoroughly professional, though rarely thrilling, competence in the first half to the disarray of the final half hour was spectacularly depressing.

A third finally arrived at the death – Albrighton all alone to beat Lössl – but the only surprise was how long it had taken.

A heat of the moment error – Mounié clearing with his head rather than leaving things to the better positioned Mooy – had led to the opening goal, however superbly taken, but the scale of the subsequent collapse was all too familiar. This mindset has to change if Town are to collect the points on the road they will need to supplement their decent home tally.

Losing away to Leicester is hardly the end of the world, and most expected it following a reasonably productive festive effort. The FA cup break – what a depressing admission – has come at a good time for the squad to recover from a brutal December schedule in time for the West Ham game which is more important in the scheme of things, but a return to the old away game habits was unwelcome to say the least.

 

Clarets turned sour

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A momentous 2017, packed with memories for the ages, finished with a tired, dour performance which, somehow, gained an undeserved but welcome point against a tough, uncompromising Burnley side enjoying their own golden age.

Other than the first 10 minutes and a brief second half spell of rare clarity, Town were made to struggle by a Clarets side which never looked like conceding, such was their ability to retain and regain impregnable shape at the hint of danger.

Town were handicapped by an unusually subdued Mooy – the FA cup break cannot come soon enough for the Terriers’ talisman – an inability to turn intermittently decent forays in to chances and perceptible fatigue.

Burnley’s incessant aggression undoubtedly played a big part in the home side’s struggle – the dropped two points owed as much to a lack of cutting edge as the failure of the referee to award them a clear penalty – and it was not difficult to see why they have enjoyed so much success so far this season.

Early on, the home side made some inroads as the Clarets began slowly and Quaner’s burst through the visitors lines and firm shot produced a good save from Pope and a couple of successive corners gave Town initial ascendancy.

It was to prove to be the falsest of dawns, however, as the momentum was lost in a first 45 minutes where Town failed to learn some simple lessons; notably that the advantage of a strong wind at their backs was a fallacy. Long balls sailed past Depoitre on an all too regular basis and even when the Belgian came in to play, any support he had struggled to catch flick ons zipping away.

The same problem afflicted Burnley in the second period, though they fell in to the trap rather less regularly, but the Lancastrians dominated the first with superior passing, movement and organisation. Dominating midfield and forcing error after error, the visitors translated their primacy in to several decent opportunities including a disallowed Hendrick effort which was clearly offside, a superb run and shot from the impressive Gudmundsson which went just wide and a good effort from Defour.

Up front, the irrepressibly irritating Barnes was causing Town’s central defenders constant problems with clever movement, excellent linking and free kick inducing falls. A nightmare to track, the veteran brought his more talented team mates in to play and the home side were in a state of significant discomfort for long periods.

Town’s sorties upfield were rare and fruitless and Pope spent more time collecting the ball from over worked ball boys than having to bother with actual goalkeeping. Sloppy passing – Mooy had an unusually high failure rate – was a mixture of forced and unforced errors and, coupled with their inability to cope with the wind, the home side somehow managed to escape unscathed to the blessed interval.

Wagner replaced Hadergjonaj with Smith at half time. The Swiss youngster’s inexperience was rather exposed in the conditions and while the captain was to perform to an average level, his greater nous was welcome in a second half where the game became more equal. Regrettably, the new balance was created more by a drop in Burnley’s levels than any improvement in the home team’s.

A largely forgettable second half saw the visitors struggle, like their hosts in the first, to manage the windy conditions but they were more adept at playing through the lines occasionally and created whatever opportunities punctuated the grim fare.

Town intermittently broke free from their shackles only to find a Claret wall blocking everything with some comfort. One decent move after another faltered at the penultimate stage – Van La Parra taking one touch too many, crosses finding the first defender, and lack of awareness of movement around the ball carrier – but Burnley’s natural ability to regain defensive shape even when looking stretched is immensely impressive and very difficult to counter.

For all their overall superiority, Burnley did appear to run out of ideas in the final third in the second half but they spent 30 minutes of it rightfully aggrieved that their one incisive break in to the area – a one two between Arfield and Hendrick after capitalising on some slack defending – did not result in a penalty as Lössl took the ex-Derby man’s right leg as he shifted the ball around the Dane.

People in the Riverside stand had a similar view to the referee of the incident and it did appear that Hendrick rather stumbled in to the challenge, but this illusion was incontrovertibly disproved from other angles. The referee was also handicapped by not having an assistant nearer the incident but Sean Dyche’s anger could, on this occasion, be understood (his objection to every other decision which went against him precludes much sympathy, however. He is an excellent manager but his constant whinging does him no favours).

After this turning point, the game descended in to attrition and mediocrity. Wells, who received a warm welcome as he came on as substitute, nearly broke the deadlock late on but Lössl made himself big to thwart the Bermudian.

A promising run from Quaner (one of few home players to come out with credit) was cynically ended by Mee and the German had to be replaced soon after. Joe Lolley, the replacement, played quite well again to provide another little positive.

Overall, however, Town were second best against an impressively strong Burnley side who will not only rue the referee’s denial of an obvious penalty but also their lack of potency – Wood may have made a difference if fit – which is clearly the area they will need to address if their good season is to turn in to an excellent one.

As David Wagner said in his refreshingly honest post match comments, until this game Town had earned every point which sees them sitting mid table but this one was a steal. It provides a decent haul from the Christmas period, but he will need to do something very special to get his clearly weary squad up for a very tough challenge on New Year’s Day. Given the progress they have made in the first half of their inaugural Premier League season, the players can be cut some slack for the performance.

We enter 2018 with a good chance of survival, the opportunity to add to a stretched squad and, mercifully, the chance, after Monday, to give key players a decent rest.

Happy New Year.

 

A Christmas Cracker

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An incident packed and thoroughly entertaining Boxing Day encounter saw Town pick up another vital point to consolidate their mid table position in the penultimate game of a momentous 2017.

Better decision making in the final third would have trebled the reward for an often pulsating display, but it is difficult to begrudge the visitors, who rather belied their reputation for dull pragmatism, a share of the spoils and they will feel that their efforts could have seen them record a rare away win.

Restoring Smith and Löwe in to the full back positions reunited a back four with a penchant for clean sheets, Hogg returned from suspension to partner Mooy and Depoitre was given a well earned rotational rest as Mounié was chosen to lead the line.

The last of these changes was, perhaps, the most controversial but Wagner has to manage thin resources in periods of intensity and deserves the utmost respect and leeway for the decisions he makes given his past successes.

It must be said that the Benin international had an inconsequential first half, including an air shot when put in a good position by the resurgent Quaner, which was out of step with an otherwise excellent 45 minutes by the home side, presenting Wagner with something of a Catch-22. An extended run in the team would help Mounié but that would be at the unthinkable expense of the more convincing alternative.

From the off, Town pressed their opponents effectively and, with the ball, regularly threatened the Potters with flowing moves, intelligent possession and aggressive intent while the visitors, when they could shake off the shackles, looked to the experience of Crouch and Joe Allen, the mercurial Shaqiri and the guile of Choupo-Moting to counter.

An early effort from Ince rounded off an incisive first attack but his 45th attempt of the season flew wide. His 46th was to finally shift the monkey off his back, but not before the visitors created two presentable chances on the break. Shaqiri capitalised on a rare Zanka error and forced Lössl in to a decent save. The attack wasn’t over, however, and Joe Allen poked an effort from a tight angle for Lössl to gather comfortably.

Quaner – who has seized his opportunity in the starting line up with excellent displays – fired well wide after a strong, purposeful run which he would repeat all afternoon, and the tempo of the game had been set very early.

Minutes later, Quaner was at it again. Riding his luck in a tackle, the German pounced on the space which opened up, played a one two with Smith and somehow swivelled under pressure at the near post to set up Ince for his first goal in Town colours.

The delight and relief of Ince was reciprocated by a crowd who have never lost faith in him. Recognising his hard work, undoubted talent and perseverance, they have longed for his luck to change and more will surely follow.

Stoke responded with a high ball to beanpole Crouch who beat Schindler in the air and headed towards Shaqiri. Zanka failed to cut it out only for the recovering Schindler to put in an excellent block to deny the Potters an equaliser.

Following that scare, Town took control. Hunting in packs, they hounded the visitors in to error, repeatedly picked up second balls and threatened down both flanks. Quaner, who menaced the visiting defence all afternoon, fed Mounié in for the air shot mentioned previously and just failed to find him in the box again following another pacy run which, perhaps, he should have taken on himself.

Another Zanka error allowed Shaqiri another opportunity which took a slight deflection on Löwe’s block and creeped past the far post with Lössl beaten. The scare was a reminder to Town that despite Stoke’s indifferent season to date, they possess significant talent in their ranks; it is the ineffective marshalling of that quality which is annoying the good citizens of the Potteries.

Shaqiri’s effort resulted in a corner from which Town somehow resisted a siege on their goal. Lössl made a good save from a Shawcross header, Zouma’s follow up was hacked off the line and Choupo-Moting was crowded out as he tried to force the ball in. The danger wasn’t over, however, as Wimmer recovered the ball before it went out of play and laid it back for Shaqiri to cross. Zouma headed toward goal, Schindler intervened but only to loop the ball backwards and Choupo-Moting executed what appeared to be a perfect overhead kick only for Lössl to make an outstanding double save, first pushing the ball on to the post, then recovering as Stoke forwards tried to pounce.

The gloriously named Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, along with every other person in the stadium, could barely believe he hadn’t scored with goal line technology denying him by a minuscule margin.

The remarkable escape spurred Town in to dominance for the rest of the half and they established control with good possession and pressure on the ball when out of it. Van La Parra brought a good save from Butland and also shot wide when played in by Hogg as Town turned the screw.

Mooy, who had a mixed game in a hugely competitive midfield, had a great opportunity to shoot late on but chose to try and play in Van La Parra – he was to repeat his reluctance to try his luck in the second half and had been similarly shy at Southampton, suggesting he is either over thinking or slightly jaded as the games mount.

Stoke ended the first half proceedings with a disallowed goal – the unfortunate Choupo-Moting had drifted marginally offside – and while they were outplayed at times in a pulsating 45 minutes, they always looked capable of scoring through one of their higher quality individuals.

The second half began brightly for the hosts and Mounié, who had been a little lost in the opening period, executed a nice overhead kick which just cleared the bar. The effort seemed to give him a confidence boost as he improved from there on in.

Stoke’s first corner of the second half saw Town adopt an interesting tactic to counter the visitors’ obvious threat from set pieces by leaving 3 men up field. This was a radical departure as the Terriers always bring everybody back and crowd the space in the area. This had been more of a problem than a solution in the first half and the innovation worked; Stoke failed to create any direct danger from several second half corners, though Shaqiri fired over when Quaner was unable to clear the first one cleanly.

Continuing where they left off, Town dominated the opening quarter of an hour of the half with Ince, Van La Parra and Mounié having strikes at goal. Butland dealt comfortably with the first, smartly with the second and watched the ball sail high over for the third.

The dominance was to come to an abrupt end however as Mooy lost the ball under considerable pressure just inside Stoke’s half. Allen sprung forward with menace and was brought down by Schindler who earned a booking. From the free kick, Stoke worked Joe Allen free down the left and the Welshman fired an excellent and pinpoint ball across the back of Town’s retreating defence for Sobhi to convert at the back post.

It was a simple but very well constructed goal with the interplay between Choupo-Moting and Allen leaving Town defenders bemused and exposed as they were stripped bare.

The bemusement seemed to spread as Town suffered a nervous period where Stoke got on top and Lössl, who had an excellent day, had to save a decent Choupo-Moting effort before they gradually regained control.

On the hour, Mounié (who was actually growing in to the game) was replaced by Depoitre and Lolley was introduced for Van La Parra.

The big Belgian had an immediate impact, releasing Quaner for yet another powerful run at the Stoke defence – Butland saved his slightly weird shot disguised as a cross (or vice versa) and Town’s quest for a winner was underway.

Taking a short corner, the hosts were denied what looked like a pretty obvious penalty as Mooy was barged off the ball by Allen on the touch line. Success from the spot at that point would have been the perfect platform for victory given Town’s ability to manage games in the final quarter but may have influenced the referee’s decision 5 minutes later when Diouf was taken out by Schindler after being put through by a Crouch header.

If anything, Stoke’s penalty claim was even stronger than Town’s and referee Taylor’s thought processes on both defy rational explanation. Unless you consider the possibility that he is a schmuck.

Reacting to their disappointment, Stoke rather retreated in to their shell and Lolley and Quaner worked tirelessly in tandem with their full backs to create opportunities thwarted by a lack of decisiveness, a packed defence and Butland who had to make a few, all be it comfortable, saves.

If the last 20 minutes were slightly overshadowed by fatigue on both sides, the game was a great spectacle. Town looked the better side on the ball but Stoke have genuine quality in some of their players and it is a little surprising that they have struggled to such an extent so far – they never looked less than dangerous going forward and, all in all, both clubs could be satisfied with their performance and point.

Lössl, Quaner and Hogg were excellent throughout while Lolley’s half hour was promising after so many setbacks for the ex Kidderminster man. While Mooy was fairly average by his standards, they are pretty high standards and his workload has been heavy in December.

At the back, Town rather strained to contain Stoke’s flair players and Crouch with Zanka being far less assured than in recent games and Schindler fortunate to get away with both his challenge on Diouf and another red card had it lead to a second yellow.

Two more games in this intensive period before the second string go to Bolton for the cup and, hopefully, new recruits appear to relieve the pressure on the more regular performers.

Burnley’s heroics at Old Trafford only emphasise the challenges which come thick and fast in the rarefied air of the Premier League, but results elsewhere on Boxing Day maintained Town’s healthy gap over the relegation zone.

 

 

 

Thug

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The despicable Charlie Austin left his odious mark on a game long on endeavour and rather shorter on quality, but a deserved point could prove invaluable for Town in the final analysis.

It is worth getting Austin out of the way early. Why this idiot felt it necessary to goad Huddersfield Town supporters after poaching the lead for the Saints when stooping to head in from close range is beyond comprehension. Joined by the ear cupping Ward-Prowse, the ex Swindon and QPR striker celebrated for an inordinately long time in front of the visiting fans and the provocation was genuinely baffling – the only history he has with Town is his Trevor Senior like ability to score against us.

His assault on Lössl, however, placed him way beyond the pale. With the ball safely in his arms, the Dane should have been easily avoided – indeed, it was Austin’s responsibility to ensure a collision didn’t occur – but the Saint left his foot high and seemed to flick it in the direction of the keeper’s face.

It was a cowardly challenge, violent and deliberate which should have seen him dismissed. Probert, predictably, took no action but the FA surely will.

Picking up from where they left off in the hugely encouraging win at Watford, Town started brightly and created good chances in an opening 20 minutes which saw them subdue the home team and their almost silent crowd.

Mooy saw a decent opportunity blocked and Van La Parra, who was largely anonymous on a day when Town’s threat came mainly down the right, miscued when free in the area before Schindler forced a very good save from Forster who touched away his headed effort on to the bar.

Town’s intensity harassed the Saints who couldn’t find any sort of rhythm and it was much against the run of play that the hosts took the lead on 24 minutes. A rather cheap corner was lofted in to the apparently unmarked Hoedt whose flick found Austin a yard out. The striker, rather appropriately, stooped low to give the home side an undeserved lead.

Despite one or two flurries, again mainly involving Ince and Hadergjonaj down the right, Town struggled to reassert their previous authority and Lössl, carrying on despite the ugly challenge, had to save smartly from Tadic before nearly presenting thug Austin his second with a mishit clearance before recovering to deal with an attempted chip with some comfort.

Buoyed by their lead, Southampton changed the momentum of the contest and Town needed to see out the second half of the first 45 without further concession. It was slightly uncomfortable at times, but the visitors remained solid.

An uneventful start to the second half saw Town struggle to create and Depoitre became too isolated. A Mooy free kick which sailed over the bar from 25 yards was the only effort of note from either side, and Wagner withdrew the quietly ineffective Van La Parra on the hour for Lolley and Smith replaced Hadergjonaj.

In between the substitutions, the football gods delivered some karma for Austin. Redmond outstripped the Town defence and squared to his unmarked colleague only for the gams miscreant to fire wide from an excellent position and an opportunity to seal the points was forsaken.

It was a pivotal moment as within a few minutes, Town worked the ball well to substitute Smith whose cross found Depoitre unmarked and able to direct a powerful header past Forster. Despite being a little fortunate not to be 2 down, Town nevertheless deserved their equaliser and none more so than the now free scoring Belgian whose movement in the box created the space between the central defenders.

Shortly afterwards, Ince narrowly failed to connect with an excellent Quaner ball in to the box – the goal simply won’t come for the ex Derby man but his performances continue to make up for his frustration.

Karma returned for Austin on 80 minutes when Lössl’s slip handed the miscreant another chance to seal the points but a rushed volley allowed the keeper to atone with a decent save and, simultaneously and deliciously, caused what can only be hoped is serious damage to Austin’s hamstring.

Lössl is performing well – and should be commended for carrying on after a painful injury – but his propensity for making a hash of clearances (twice in this game alone), really needs to be eliminated.

With 10 minutes to go, Depoitre was withdrawn as Town looked to secure a vital point. His unstinting work up front is crucial to the Terriers, particularly away from home, and it was another excellent performance from the Belgian. Sadly, his replacement, Mounié, in contrast, put in a pretty awful, listless display making little impact. His failure to release the hard working Lolley – who was effective and rather good on his first meaningful appearance – breaking menacingly on the left epitomised the striker’s lacklustre cameo, as did his failure to put any pressure on the home defence in the air.

With four minutes injury time to go, Town looked good value for their point but Smith gave away a cheap free kick to present the Saints with a final chance to grab all three points. Yoshida met a great delivery by Ward-Prowse only to see his header hit the post, rebound on to Lössl and finally cleared.

Despite riding their luck on a few occasions, the visitors had contributed well to a lively 90 minutes and with 22 points accumulated by the halfway stage, look well placed to avoid what many outsiders considered an inevitable drop back to the Championship.

The performance was far from flawless but every positive result on the road after the terrible away record after Palace is to be cherished.

Despite winning yesterday, Town’s next opponents Stoke remain fragile (highlights suggest their 3-1 win over West Brom was a little flattering) and Burnley’s admirable progress towards European qualification may be hitting something of a bump with goals drying up and the loss of an important defender. Opportunity knocks for the Terriers to turn two festive home games in to maximum points.

 

 

Deluge ends long drought

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An incident packed game at Vicarage Road finally brought Town’s away day travails to a thrilling end. Scoring first with a goal assisted by some terrible officiating was, nevertheless, reward for a bright opening to the game by the visitors who exploited Watford’s vulnerabilities from the off and provided a platform absent in all but the first game of the season.

As disappointing as the Chelsea game had been, the overwhelming impression given by David Wagner before and after it was acceptance of the unlikelihood of success in return for bigger goals. Resting Depoitre and Van La Parra, who may have made a small, but probably not decisive, difference against high quality opposition proved to be, of course, absolutely the correct call. You can add to that the manager’s prescience in giving Hadergjonaj an encouraging cameo to anticipate Tommy Smith’s weekend illness, confirming his genius.

Targeting a Watford side shorn of key players through injury and suspension, suffering from the distractions of Everton trying to prise away their young, talented manager and a slump in their exhilarating early season form, Wagner clearly felt confident enough to commit his team to the front foot and, other than a second half wobble of around 10 minutes, the Hornets were subdued in to submission.

A dominant first half hour saw the visitors play with no fear and no little bravery as they pressed the home side in to error and doubt. Watford’s sleepy start to the game, from which they never really recovered, hinted at a complacency from which they were to be rudely awoken.

Despite multiple disappointments away from the comfort of home, Town’s raucous and magnificent support has rarely faltered throughout their team’s goal drought and their patience and understanding was rewarded with two in the first 25 minutes.

From the away end, it was impossible to see just how far offside Kachunga was as he forced in Quaner’s doubly deflected shot and, frankly, neither would the assembled hoard care after witnessing plenty of poor decisions against Town through the season – including a bad offside call on Kachunga against Leicester.

In the opening 5 minutes, Town had won three corners, with the second a direct result of Kachunga’s determination to keep possession despite the attention of a defender, a fall and Gomez forcing him wide. The third lead to the goal as a deep delivery found Mooy who lofted the ball towards the back post. Quaner just about got the ball under control before taking a swing which hit a defender’s hand near the line, deflected off Depoitre and fell to Kachunga to score from a foot out.

However fortuitous, the goal was massive. Despite Wagner’s sensible philosophies about leaving the past behind, the players – and, indeed, the manager – wouldn’t be human if the drought was not playing on their minds and whatever the size or perception of the burden, it was lifted.

To their immense credit, Town thrived on the breakthrough. Rather than retreating in to a defensive shell, they continually pressed high and disrupted a potentially dangerous opponent to the extent that they had very few opportunities to hurt the visitors – Richarlison snatched at one chance under pressure and a couple of corners caused momentary concern but for the most part, the Hornets’ sting was easily avoided.

Town’s second owed much to the impressive Quaner’s persistence. Zanka played an apparently aimless ball in behind Watford’s left back but the spin on the ball kept it in play allowing Quaner to profit from his decision not to give up what looked like a lost cause and deliver a cross which was poorly defended and fell on to Mooy’s body as he made an excellent run in to the area.

At 2-0, Town’s resilience in defending a lead, which is as predictable as their lack of recovery when going behind was strengthened further.

Delight in the away end was unconstrained; after weeks of waiting their songs were celebratory rather than just defiant and an impressive repertoire was unleashed on the Watford public.

The advantage was fully deserved and, on the half hour, Troy Deeney gave the visitors another lift by flying in to the back of Quaner with a reckless challenge. It was also a completely needless challenge – the Town winger was going nowhere and had two other Watford defenders around him. At best, Quaner may have won a throw in but Watford’s captain decided that a lunge was a good idea. The referee, who got a lot wrong had little option but to reach for a red card and the home side’s lacklustre performance was now hampered further.

The hosts had the ball in the net from a free kick conceded by Hogg with a barely noticeable pulling back of Carillo which somehow deserved a yellow card. Town’s defensive discipline caught most of Watford’s offensive line offside as they often do (the only worry, in light of the Bournemouth debacle, is the quality of the assistants which had already been found wanting in the game).

Quaner, the indisputable star of the first half continued to cause Watford problems down the right as Town finished the half strongly and in control. An Ince free kick over the bar had been the only further opportunity, but Town had had much the better of a feisty and entertaining first half.

Injuries to Kachunga and Löwe took a little shine off the delight at being 2 to the good, with the former worryingly stretchered off the field only for him to return for the post match celebrations.

Town’s superiority continued in the second half. Quaner and Depoitre were combining well and causing problems for the home team and one strong run by the German could have resulted in a third goal only for his pull back to be intercepted before it could reach Ince.

Quaner had a good headed chance which he put wide with the goal at his mercy following a raid by substitute Ince who had forced Gomez in to action.

Within minutes, Town were three up and cruising as the same right side combination saw Quaner burst in to the area only to tangle with Holebas who half cleared before mysteriously falling down clutching his face. As everyone stopped, Depoitre took the loose ball in to the area and smashed it past Gomez from a fairly tight angle with Holebas still writhing on the floor.

Town, it seemed, were home and dry with the home side struggling to achieve any sort of fluency, but on the hour, Hogg’s entirely unintentional kick on Richarlison (who had nipped in on Hogg’s blindside) lead to the ex-Hornet receiving a harsh second yellow and the numbers were evened up.

The midfielder’s trademark harrying had been hugely influential in the visitors’ display, though Wagner was left to rue delaying replacing him with Williams, precisely to protect him from a second booking.

Sensing opportunity, Watford then enjoyed their best spell of the game as they attacked with energy and purpose. With the ball resolutely in Town’s half, the home side sought to exploit the changed shape of Town, and with some success.

Lössl was forced in to a good save as Town failed to clear effectively from a corner and Quaner fouled on the right of the penalty area as pressure increased. Despite clearing the free kick delivery, the ball fell to the lurking Doucoure who hit a wonderfully sweet shot from 20 yards past a motionless Lössl.

With their tails up, the game was back on as the home side suddenly sniffed vulnerability in the visitors’ ranks and for 10 minutes they laid siege.

With the backing of their newly nervous but continuously loud following, Town survived and blocked out the home side’s desperate pursuit of a second and probably game changing goal.

Slowly but surely, the frenzy calmed and Town regained control with Malone (who had replaced Löwe) making good runs down the left to alleviate pressure and by the end, Town looked more likely to extend their lead than concede. With a renewed grip on midfield, Town took several opportunities to run the ball in to corners as their renowned game management abilities kicked in.

They weren’t just holding the ball in the corners however and twice broke out from them to firstly create a chance for Ince which was saved by Gomez. From the subsequent corner something of a nothing ball forced Doucoure in to a touch, by which time Depoitre got in front of him and brought an inadvertent foul by the Watford defender. A rare, if fairly soft, penalty was awarded which Mooy converted with the same aplomb as he had at Wembley in May.

With the win confirmed to unbounded joy behind the goals, Town could even have added to the margin when the ball broke to Quaner in the area following a swift counter only for the games man of the match to see his effort cleared off the line – it would have capped a great day for the affable, unpredictable German.

Tuesday’s rather anaemic capitulation was forgotten as Town had regained all the elements of their identity in a marvellous, important win and both the team and their patient, rowdy following were rewarded on the road at long last.

Targeting a vulnerable opponent at the end of a busy, challenging week made complete sense of Wagner’s approach to the Chelsea game and every player came out with credit. Apart from the influential and delightful Quaner, the back four were solid – Hadergjonaj coped more than admirably with the dangerous Richarlison and is growing fast – Mooy pulled the strings with calm authority, Hogg was, of course, everywhere before his unfortunate sending off and Depoitre’s presence caused massive problems all afternoon to the beleaguered hosts.

The fans were superb.

 

 

 

 

 

Frail Town mugged by Pensioners

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From his pre match press conference to his substitutions via his starting selection, David Wagner could not have signalled his thoughts on Town’s chances against the current Premier League Champions much more clearly.

Following a comfortable victory over a mediocre Brighton, which provided a little breathing space after a difficult period, the manager’s acute pragmatism when faced with a fixture pile up came roaring to the fore.

It is beyond serious question that playing both Van La Parra and Depoitre would have increased the admittedly slim chance of gaining 3 points – the Dutch winger would have provided pressure relieving trickery and pace, while the rambunctious Belgian would have been a more disruptive choice up front.

Difficult away trips to Watford and Southampton clearly offered greater prospect of points to the strategic mind of the German, even considering Town’s horrible away form, and trust was placed in the side from Saturday but with Williams in for Quaner.

Conté, similarly challenged by the rigours of an even more crowded schedule, was able to rotate his squad with significantly superior footballers – he was able to rest the “tired” Morata, bring in the tireless Brazilian international Willian, World Cup winner Pedro and the experienced Moses.

To the surprise of no one, Town adopted the deep block which had seen them run Manchester City close and provided the basis of their home win over Manchester United and, for a while, the home team seemed to be building a decent foundation. For all their possession, Chelsea found their route through the middle – where they often excel through the genius of Hazard – hideously congested and unyielding while their attempts to spread the game wide was thwarted by inaccuracy.

Sadly, the outlet of Depoitre was missing for the home team. Mounié doesn’t look suited to the role and Town’s forays in to Chelsea territory were rare and unsophisticated – while comparisons with the visitors’ array of talent may be cruelly unfair, the Terriers were lacking in composure, basic passing ability and guile. Some of the skills on display in the home side were more akin to a plucky lower league side in the cup and rather embarrassing at times.

Mooy proved the exception to the rule with some rangy passing to the right wing partnership of Kachunga and Smith (so dominant against Brighton but rather easily subdued against much higher quality) – resulting in a blocked effort from the German and a corner won by the Englishman making his 150th appearance.

Such play offered rare relief for the home side as Chelsea’s effortless control of the football, somewhat marred by their inability to make use of a pitch they had stretched wide with Alonso and Bakayoko (Moses took up the wide mantle once the youngster had messed up some opportunities on the right), gave them almost complete control.

For 20 minutes, Town’s defending was relatively comfortable and, like City and United before them, Chelsea found space difficult to find, other than out wide, and the objective of frustrating illustrious opponents was being achieved only to be undone by the naivety of Lössl and Zanka.

With Williams chatting to Wagner on the half way line, getting some instructions, Town’s custodian took a dead ball to Zanka only for the Dane – who was otherwise one of Town’s better performers – to put Lössl in a little difficulty compounded by a slip. The keeper’s weak clearance was picked up by Willian and Chelsea’s ruthless edge clicked in to gear; receiving the ball, Hazard smartly moved the ball back to Willian with a deft header and Willian fed Bakayoko to lift the ball over Lössl and past the desperate clearance attempt of Löwe in to the net.

The game was up. Although the crowd tried to urge Town on, as usual, the night’s plan, already fragile through team selection, was shattered and, rather disappointingly, self inflicted. The recriminations continued for a long time as Löwe was treated for injury.

Although Town continued to frustrate the visitors, they looked increasingly fragile and devoid of threat. By this point, they seemed to be being held together by the energy and commitment of Hogg – made all the more remarkable as the aggressive midfielder was revealed to be suffering from migraine which prevented him returning for the second half.

Any residual hope hinged on restricting Chelsea to a one goal lead – though seasoned Town observers knew that we rarely come from behind, even against massively inferior teams than Chelsea – and that was extinguished just before half time as, finally, Chelsea’s exploitation of width paid off. A superb cross by Alonso was met by the unmarked Willian and it was now a question of how heavy the defeat would be, and how damaging.

The sight of Whitehead replacing Hogg hardly inspired confidence of restricting the damage Chelsea could inflict on their lacklustre opponents and confirmed Wagner had pretty much turned his thoughts to Watford. As it happened, Whitehead performed reasonably well in an uninspiring second half display which only perked up for a very brief period when, presumably, Chelsea took a breather.

Buoyed by the near certainty of victory, the Londoners played with a freedom which threatened to overwhelm their hosts and some of the slick movement and awareness of space was breathtaking.

Within 5 minutes, Chelsea trebled their lead with their best goal of the night and humiliation became a distinct possibility. Less than robust defending allowed the irrepressible Willian to set up Pedro for a clinical and easy on the eye finish past Lössl.

Suffice to say, Chelsea’s comfort reached a serene level. The utter implausibility of a comeback allowed them full license to practise one touch football in and around Town’s area which sometimes bamboozled deflated Town players and should have resulted in a much bigger winning margin.

The Pensioners’ ability to pounce on the smallest of errors by their beleaguered opponents was impressive but rather undermined by a lack of ruthlessness in front of goal which kept the score line respectable if not reflective of the huge gap in ability.

Perhaps indicative of a thus far under achieving Premier League campaign, considering the depth of talent in their squad, there was also an air of complacency about the visitors which Town briefly, and none too convincingly, exploited for a short time towards the end. Ince made a couple of promising runs, including forcing Courtois in to his first meaningful action of the night, coming out to halt his progress, Zanka fired a decent effort over the bar from range and Hadergjonaj had a decent cameo on the left in place of the harassed Löwe who struggled all night to contain Moses.

Even during this period, Chelsea had the better chances – both falling to Pedro who couldn’t hit the target with either of his efforts.

As the game petered out to a conclusion determined within 20 minutes, Chelsea were content to see the game out while Town’s forlorn efforts to reward the crowd for their support was characteristically tepid.

The referee – the second decent one in the space of a few days – took some mercy by only adding two minutes on but, out of the blue, Town grabbed a consolation when an excellent Hadergjonaj cross was excellently headed home by Depoitre (perhaps Town will take note that the Belgian could thrive on such service).

The goal put an undeserved gloss on a disappointing night. While it is difficult to compete against Chelsea’s riches and abundance of talent, there is a big difference between honourable defeat and this display. It may have been different had the first goal not been handed on a plate but this seems fanciful.

David Wagner faced some rare flack over his team selection and tactics. The latter, however, have been reasonably successful before but the margins involved preclude major errors handing control over technically superior opponents.

In his defence, Wagner has been known to play the long game before – Town could have gone to Derby and won last year but the fixture was used to practice the deep block needed in the play offs, for example – and harnessing of relatively limited resources becomes a greater burden when games are coming thicker and faster than normal.

There is a danger, however, of losing the crowd with a philosophy of pragmatism which invites defeat at the hands of hugely experienced Premier League teams. With plenty of good will in stock – and deservedly so – Wagner’s approach will be tolerated, but it is to be hoped that he and his team will make up for this capitulation in the face of overwhelming might by storming the citadels of Watford and Southampton, rather than produce more tepid football on the road.

 

 

 

 

Town throttle Seagulls

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Fearless Town swept aside a distinctly moderate Brighton side who were harassed in to oblivion and pointlessness as the hosts once again harnessed the energy coming from the stands to record a vital win in their quest for survival.

With four consecutive defeats behind them, the Terriers had to seize this opportunity – they couldn’t allow rot to set in, the opposition was reasonably modest and home comforts a significant advantage. It should be said that the preceding defeats need some context – they included one set in train by an incompetent referee, a brave home display against a formidable opponent, a far from unexpected defeat at the Emirates and an admittedly poor display against Everton. The sequence was disappointing but hardly season defining.

The absence of Knockaert, for disciplinary reasons, was a boost before the game – the Frenchman has the talent to win games – and few in the home camp would have been disappointed to see Solly March and Izqueirdo on the bench as Chris Houghton signalled a conservative approach to the contest.

With Palmer failing to make Town’s match day squad and Van La Parra serving the final game of his suspension, however, the home side were relying on the idiosyncratic Quaner and the so far less than impressive Kachunga to provide the spark for ever elusive goals, which demanded a little optimistic imagination.

On a bitterly cold, grey day with occasional snow flurries, Town’s identity came roaring back. The hesitation and trepidation of much of November was banished as the home side, finally, attacked their challenge on the front foot with intensity and energy nullifying the opposition so comprehensively that they not only failed to register a worthwhile attempt, they rarely got near the last third; when they did, Murray – who spent the game complaining to the excellent referee – was invariably offside.

The incessant and highly effective pressing, the key feature of Town’s success under Wagner, can mitigate against quality of play by forcing long balls, misplaced passing and poor judgement, but it was a delight and a relief to witness Mooy’s mojo returning as the Australian maestro controlled the tempo on the back of the tireless work of his team mates.

Without the quality to resist the pressure and turn it back on their hosts, Brighton looked vulnerable from the start and Mounié forced a decent save from Ryan with an effort from outside the area to signal the start of a devastating period for the visitors.

With Smith and Kachunga finally gelling on the right in the Premier League as they had in the Championship, the home side were turning the screw very early and the dominance of possession was building the type of foundation for a win we have seen so many times before and the prerequisite of an opening goal was not long in arriving.

From a Löwe corner, Schindler – or, to give him his full name, the awesome Schindler – made his now trademark run to the near post and flicked it on. In a change to the normal routine, the ball found an unmarked Mounié on the back stick rather than forcing an own goal and the French striker became Town’s top scorer by allowing the ball to hit his thigh.

With the all important lead, Town strangled the Seagulls without creating much further threat but with Hogg, who was everywhere, and Mooy controlling midfield the home side were seeing out the half with increasing comfort.

Izzy Brown, who received a warm welcome on his return, was largely anonymous in his role on the left and found it hard to escape the attentions of the Smith/Kachunga combination – his threat would surely have been more potent from the middle of the park but as it was he looked unhappy and ineffective.

Just before half time of a game with a Championship feel, Town had Ryan to thank for a second goal which pretty much secured the points. The Aussie custodian misjudged a Mounié header – the returning front man generated as much power as he could after Zanka had headed the ball back in to a dangerous area, but Ryan’s misjudgement was a poor effort.

Despite the gift, few could argue that Town were not good value for their lead. Feeding off the apparently limitless enthusiasm of the home crowd – even the disappointments of the last few weeks have failed to dim them – the Terriers sensed the opportunity in front of them, believed in themselves and nullified Brighton’s threat almost entirely.

It hadn’t been particularly pretty, but they had gone back to basics and delighted the crowd with their commitment and passion. They were rewarded with two goals, dominance and the prospect of a comfortable second half. This needs to be translated away from home, but the freezing stands had warmed to the effervescence.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that the final margin of victory could and should have been much greater. If the first half had been characterised by effort and destruction, the second added much more quality to the mix.

By not succumbing to a drop in performance at the start of the second half which has blighted them in a couple of recent games, confidence grew. Hogg and Mooy continued to dominate – the former with incessant tackling, intelligent interceptions and excellent passing to get the team going forwards and the latter with his sublime vision and range.

Out wide, the Smith/Kachunga partnership blossomed and flourished creating constant danger for the south coast team while Quaner produced probably his best performance in a Town shirt on the left. Mounié’s hold up play and linking is a little more subtle than Depoitre’s, but his much improved performance augurs well – adding 2 goals to his total after his injury will hopefully increase his confidence.

At the back, Zanka and Schindler had a straightforward day but did everything with consummate control and effortless efficiency. It shouldn’t be overlooked that 4 of our 5 clean sheets have been achieved with yesterday’s back four – Löwe was excellent too.

Which brings us on to Tom Ince. And scoring goals.

Tom’s commitment to the cause, ability and value to the team are pretty unquestionable – a couple of misplaced passes and a period of relative anonymity in the first half aside, his performance was good, approaching very good, particularly in the second half when all of his chances presented themselves.

He was a little unlucky when he connected with an excellent first time ball from Smith which hit Ryan at close range and he saw a couple of attempts blocked but his big chance came late on as Bruno (who must hate the John Smith’s stadium) misjudged an attempted interception, setting the Town man one on one and on his left. Ince’s shot was hit well but too close to the keeper and a glorious chance to break his duck, after many, many attempts.

Tom is a very good footballer, he contributes a lot to the team wether we win or lose and has a natural elegance which makes him good to watch but the failures in front of goal are becoming a huge burden and you sense the crowd’s longing for him to score and throw off the enormous monkey on his back.

Other than Tom’s efforts, Smith curled a left footer just wide, the hugely influential Kachunga had a shot saved from a tight angle and couldn’t quite control a header at the back post following a deep Mooy cross and there were times when the visitors were besieged by a home side throwing off the shackles.

The number of chances and opportunities created outweighed the disappointment of not adding to their tally in a wholly convincing win which also enhanced the hope that home form will see us through.

Overall, it was a vibrant display against a comprehensively demoralised side who rarely escaped Town’s suffocating game plan.

Next up is a hugely talented Chelsea side who will present an altogether different challenge but a similar commitment to Town’s core values will give us a chance before less daunting opposition appear on the horizon.

Rinse, repeat…

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Town’s away form is becoming, or has already become, tedious. The travelling support remains loyal and loud even as the hours between goals on foreign soil grows inexorably, the creation of chances remain few, far between and unconvincing and going behind is an inevitable precursor to defeat.

The backing given to the team is admirable but now demands reciprocation before that loyalty starts to feel like naive foolishness, which never ends well.

Losing 5-0 to Arsenal after a reasonable performance in the first hour is one thing; losing to a distinctly average Everton without troubling their goalkeeper is another.

The home side, who should have been buoyed by a 4-0 win over West Ham in midweek and the arrival of a new manager, were lethargic in a first half of limited quality and Town‘s neat and tidy approach play and suppression of the Toffees promised reward at last on the road.

Perhaps nice is the most damning adjective to apply to the visitors’ first half performance. It promised a fair amount and delivered virtually nothing. Malone, Smith, Kachunga and Quaner got themselves in good situations to cross but invariably found a defender rather than the hard working Depoitre, who had often been instrumental in feeding the wings in the first place.

Mooy managed to deliver one looping cross early on but Kachunga couldn’t generate any power and his header fell softly in to Pickford’s arms. The obsession with statistics will put this down as an attempt on target, of course.

Depoitre also had a weak attempt easily saved later in the half and a scramble following an Ince near post corner caused some consternation for the home side following a Schindler flick on, but a goal never looked remotely likely.

For Everton, Martina forced Lössl in to a regulation save but their performance was summed up by 3 shocking free kick deliveries from Sigurdsson which all ended up in Lössl’s clutches under no pressure.

Largely uninspiring, the game lacked any sort of spark but the sight of Palmer clearly warming up with the other subs and dressed for a return to action at half time created a stir amongst the away support. For some time, the lack of a genuine number 10 has been cited as a significant explanation for Town’s poor goal scoring record – not only would creativity increase, Ince could move wide and be more effective. That was the theory, anyway.

Sure enough, Kasey replaced Quaner to line up for the second half and within 45 minutes, the theories looked ridiculous. He will need time to get back up to speed, and he is a genuine talent, but his performance in the second half was pretty damned terrible. Often robbed of possession, his passing was generally woeful and his decision making very suspect. He wasn’t helped by the displays of people around him in a second half Town will want to quickly forget.

They were not helped by yet another early concession in a half – the last 3 games have seen the Terriers caught cold after a kick off (at Arsenal, kick offs seemed to be the catalyst for losing goals). Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Everton’s best player in their disappointing first half, cleverly released Sigurdsson in the area with a flick and the Icelander proved far more effective with a moving ball than a dead one and beat Lössl for the opener.

It was almost a facsimile of Arsenal’s opening goal in midweek – a touch of quality barely fitting the rest of the game which saw Everton grow in confidence and comfort and finally give home supporters something to shout about occasionally.

Any threat Town carried came from breaks, and one shortly after Everton had taken the lead should have produced an equaliser. Ince was set free down the right and the home side were stretched. Instead of finding one of 3 Town players in the box, loosely marked if at all, he decided to shoot from an angle which while not impossible, certainly unlikely. Desperate for an away goal before snow falls, some Town fans were fooled by the rustling of the side netting.

A decent Kachunga cross was narrowly too far in front of Depoitre, but the visitors’ attacking deteriorated in to incoherence after that and a mix up between Malone and Mooy on the left inadvertently lead to Everton’s second, also assisted by Ince, who was not having his finest three quarters of an hour, being robbed on half way.

With men committed forward, the impressive Calvert-Lewin was set free and despite Zanka’s best efforts to get back, the Everton striker’s shot deflected off him and over Lössl.

Instinctively, the away fans knew that the game had been lost with the first goal, with the second merely sapping them of any vestige of hope foolishly remaining, but they still backed the team throughout.

Town are not the first nor will they be the last to find away games difficult in their first season in the Premier League, but a big opportunity was missed at Goodison Park. Everton will climb the table and finish in the top half given the players they have available to them and Allardyce’s ability to organise which will make them difficult to beat, but they looked vulnerable in a poor first half – a vulnerability Town never really looked capable of exploiting.

With two tough away assignments at Watford and Southampton coming up before the turn of the year, Town’s travelling support will need to exercise even more patience, keep faith with Wagner’s ability to solve problems (however acute) and hope that the home form reverses a run of 4 defeats.

Despite the poor performance of the team, Danny Williams deserves a mention. Easily Town’s man of the match, his energy kept the visitors in the game, with only Depoitre’s first half display making a slight challenge to the German-American.

Otherwise, this was another eminently forgettable away game.