As new Teutonic philosophies were unfurled at a bitterly cold Hillsborough, including the jettisoning of some familiar names unable to fully train in the first two weeks of David Wagner’s tenure, the new manager faced a daunting first test against an expensively assembled Wednesday side who look certain to be challenging for promotion after years of desperate under achievement.
However much Chris Powell’s constant refrain about the money spent by rivals began to grate, even a cursory glance at the home team’s bench exposed the reality of his special pleading. One time Town target McGuigan sat there alongside the highly rated Joao and recent loan signing Hooper and the options for Carvalhal were deep and were to prove to be transforming.
For the visitors, the absence of Lynch, Paterson, Vaughan, Davidson and Miller (well, maybe not the last one) forced changes of both personnel and positions which were to be felt late in the game.
With Cranie moved alongside Hudson, Tommy Smith reappeared at right back and, perhaps most surprisingly, Dempsey was converted in to a left full back; an almost certainly temporary move with the loan signing of Chilwell a couple of days before the game sending a rather blunt message to the Australian incumbent deemed unready for action after his international travelling.
It was also a surprise to see the restoration of Carayol, whose languid performances in the past did not scream gengenpresser, to say the very least.
So, an unfamiliar line up, playing a style adopted over the past two weeks and requiring high levels of fitness against a shrewdly assembled and settled home team in good form. What could possibly go wrong?!
It would be a little unfair to invoke the phrase “putting lipstick on a pig” over a performance which had signs of promise but which was ultimately let down by familiar failings.
A higher tempo, some good quality possession and clearly evident desire couldn’t disguise the largely absent goal threat and a defence which eventually creaked like a shithouse door.
In the warm up, players went through passing routines to get the ball wide and in to dangerous areas quickly and, without the inconvenience of opposition, there was a reasonable level of competence.
Whether it was dictated by having a relatively tiny centre forward or is part of the blueprint, it seems that building from the back rather than lumping it up front is to be the way forward. Despite a clumsy start to this style – Murphy was exposed more than once by back passes and was also guilty of some poor judgement – it eventually worked, with some more comfortable at it than others.
As the half wore on, a surprisingly limited Wednesday intent on feeding off the huge Nuhiu were comfortably contained, and there was a noticeably higher energy about Town’s play. Unfortunately, none of the pressing and quite staggering levels of possession was converted in to goal scoring opportunities, though there were one or two moments of misfortune when good runs by Scannell and Smith were ended by small misjudgements.
The impressive Dempsey – surely a certainty for a more telling role in midfield once the new loan signing is bedded in – had a decent shot routinely saved, but the home defence was largely untroubled. Murphy made one regulation save and Hudson eased the irritating Forestieri away from a heading chance which he could only guide wide.
A scrappy first half wasn’t helped by an increasingly annoying referee whose decisions infuriated both sets of supporters. He also infuriated Whitehead, with the consequences being felt later in the game when he had to be withdrawn before he became a double victim of the card happy Boyeson.
Having yearned for a different approach to Powell’s occasionally effective but often sterile game plans, the away fans were largely appreciative of a performance which denied Wednesday possession, nullified their pace and forced them in to predictability. All of the players worked hard and strained to implement the new ideas, even if it looked alien and a little forced from time to time.
For the second half, Wednesday replaced the ineffective Helan (an old favourite of ours who was once booked twice and still stayed on the pitch) with Joao, a Portuguese who has been something of a revelation in the Championship and destined for a big future.
Within minutes, the substitute was causing problems with his strength and pace and almost opened the scoring at the back post only to find himself at too acute an angle to convert a good cross.
Shortly afterwards, Hudson’s under hit back pass put Murphy in trouble and he only just beat Forestieri to the ball and was injured in the process, which undoubtedly affected him as the game wore on.
Despite their scruffy start to the half, it was Town who took the lead. A free kick by Smith was half cleared and found its way to Dempsey on the left. The youngster delivered a great cross to the far post for an unmarked Scannell to head in from close range.
For 10 to 15 minutes thereafter, Town, while never looking entirely in charge, looked capable of holding the lead and even adding to it. The best chance to do so fell to Huws, who was thwarted by a good save. Doubling the lead at that point would have potentially put the game to bed, though you never can tell with this Town squad.
As it was, the let off proved a turning point in fortunes, exacerbated by the voluntary but sensible withdrawal of Whitehead who had had a running feud with the referee (at one point he was rightly incensed that an advantage hadn’t been played, he contested decisions regularly and is prone to the occasional rash challenge).
Having had little joy from the aerial power of Nuhiu, Wednesday replaced him with Hooper having already thrown on McGugan.
The pressure from the home side increased inexorably and Town survived several close calls before Forestieri skipped past Hudson in the box only to see his shot saved on the line by Dempsey. Unfortunately the ball broke to Joao who swept in the equaliser.
In the lead up to the goal, Forestieri had also walked past Hogg – Whitehead’s replacement – and it was difficult not to think that his progress would have been quelled at source before the substitution.
However, Wednesday’s pace, power and quality was now in full blossom and the visitors looked increasingly unlikely to be able to resist the onslaught. A winning goal duly arrived and, again, the Owls’ Italian caused the damage, skipping past Hudson and firing a shot that Murphy could only parry back to him to lay on for Lee to convert.
In the space of just 10 minutes, the withdrawal of Whitehead had been ruthlessly exploited by a team whose own substitutions were game changing.
To their credit, Town didn’t crumble, but tiring personnel were unable to create chances (hardly surprisingly – they hadn’t created much when at full throttle), and a disappointing cameo from Lolley, on for Scannell, was capped with him losing the ball on the edge of Wednesday’s area allowing them to break on a forward committed Town. The powerful Joao curled in an excellent third to bury any lingering hopes of a Town equaliser.
Wednesday’s eventual dominance gave them the right to the points, though a two goal margin was possibly harsh on the experimental team put out by the visitors.
It would be ridiculous to be too cynical about the new style and the capability of some of the current squad to adapt and, indeed, there were promising signs for the future, but all of the problems Powell faced were on display again – not least, the well resourced opposition. While they brought on 2 forwards of proven, and in the case of Joao, developing talent, we brought on young Wallace to play up front. It is a struggle to remember Wallace actually touching the ball.
Without the exceptional Whitehead covering in front of them, our defence is hopelessly exposed, with one or two of them probably not, or no longer, up to the standards required. Up front, Wells simply doesn’t cause enough problems for defenders. He worked hard enough and some of his link up play was good, but he rarely makes anything happen for himself.
It is to be hoped, nay expected, that Wagner has some answers to these depressingly familiar problems – a run of difficult matches, culminating in the visit of Middlesbrough next, has seen Town drop to within a few goals scored of the relegation zone and while there is still plenty of time, our 3 victories to date have been against clubs in the same trouble as we are.
An interesting few weeks lay ahead.