Temporary exile – since the defeat at Brighton – has reduced my experience of the Wagner revolution to anxious 90 minutes staring at a live scores website (radio commentary is just too nerve wracking, with even the fine skills of Paul Ogden unable to alleviate the anxiety of seeing the game through the eyes of a third party), catching up with highlights and viewing the Burnley game via a dodgy, buffering stream.
A mixed bag of results, culminating in the demolition of Leeds United has kept Town far enough away from the more persistently struggling clubs to create too much worry about relegation but safety still needs to be confirmed by another win and a run of 3 games against clubs challenging for promotion followed by a trip to surging Rotherham is not conducive to total comfort.
First up in the top 6 trilogy came high spending Sheffield Wednesday. Slightly more likeable than Leeds, the Owls are a club which has struggled for many years to recapture former glories and its impressive fan base, considering there are 2 clubs in the city, has been unable to provide the necessary finances to be anything more than Championship plodders until the arrival of a tuna magnate.
On the whole, David Wagner’s influence has been very positive but when confronted by opposition with the depth of quality Wednesday can field, the realities of a tough, uneven competition tend to sweep away the undoubted improvements he has made to a relatively mediocre squad.
To counter the visitors’ superior technicians, Wagner chose to adopt a far more defensive approach which could, and perhaps should, have yielded a welcome point, but the much lauded identity of the team was largely missing on a day when too many passes went astray, movement was stilted and the isolation of Wells reminiscent of the dullest performances under Powell.
A thoroughly boring first half, with both teams playing far too slowly, saw neither keeper troubled and the only relief for the home crowd was to bray at the over theatrical but highly talented Forestieri, who was the best player on the pitch by a distance. It should also be said that Town did, in fact, foul him quite regularly and while he reacted to each one as if suffering a career ending injury, his touch, speed of thought and hard work can be a joy to watch.
The returning Jack Hunt was also regularly booed following his boorish comments after the game at Hillsborough; while his threat was largely snuffed out by a combination of Smith and Bunn, his pantomime villain image should have been further enhanced in the second half when he blazed a chance over the bar when he should have at least hit the target.
A weak Smith effort and one or two blocked shots were the sum total of Town’s disappointing offensive efforts in the first half and a routine save by Steer from a Wednesday free kick and a couple of blocked shots of their own emphasised the dominance of defences in a fixture where goals have been scarce in recent years (in fact, this was the fifth successive blank for Town).
Hooper had been well marshalled but a potent Wednesday bench loomed over proceedings. While Wagner has no obvious replacement for the overwhelmed Wells who was entirely and predictably dominated by the visitors’ impressive and imposing defenders, Carvalhal could call upon the huge Nuhui, the pacy Jaoa or £3M Matias who is just returning from a long lay off.
Just before half time, a crude challenge by Hudson – who had played well to that point – on Forestieri earned the Town captain a booking, which could and perhaps should have been followed by another for another ill advised lunge at the Italian when the ball was going out of play. Hudson protested that he had won the ball but the tackle looked dangerous – it is always difficult to know how badly Forestieri is injured given his play acting and maybe that doubt played on the referee’s mind as he delivered a lecture rather than a red card.
Sensibly, Hudson was replaced by Cranie to ensure 11 players were kept on the pitch.
Early in the second half, Paterson, who replaced the ineffective Matmour at half time, added some much needed zest to Town’s attacking play but even his probing couldn’t trouble the visitors’ solid defence and Wells remained very difficult to find amongst the giants.
In the middle of the park, it was a difficult day for Phil Billing. His inexperience was exposed against the Owls’ wise heads and he gave away possession far too regularly, his timing of headers was strangely off on a few occasions and his confidence seemed to dip as the game progressed. To his credit, he didn’t hide and did hit a magnificent cross field ball late on though this followed several rather poorer attempts to find a winger. He was also to be the closest to scoring, of which more later.
As with Paterson (and, perhaps, to an extent, Matmour), Billing wasn’t helped by the stagnation of a team focused on containing the not inconsiderable threat of Wednesday. Whitehead rarely left his defensive screening role, Lolley and Bunn were also overly distracted by the need to stem the threat of Wednesday’s full backs and it was rare for Town to inject anything like the pace and movement that troubles lesser opposition.
After the hour, Wednesday slowly but surely started to turn the screw and the predictable introduction of Nuhiu and Jaoa presented Town’s defence, which performed well, with new and very different problems. Lynch, the obvious choice for man of the match for the home side, had to clear off the line from a corner, Jack Hunt skied a decent chance and a precious point was looking precarious.
The winner arrived when, for once, Town’s defensive solidity was compromised by Smith losing the ball high up the pitch and allowing Wednesday to release Joao in to acres of space – with his pace, recovery was unlikely and he curled a great ball behind the retreating defenders for Forestieri to convert.
A late corner was met by Billing and his powerful header was chested off the line – penalty appeals seemed optimistic and, in truth, Town’s offensive impotence hadn’t deserved reward, even if the defeat was, arguably, a little harsh.
As seems to be often the case with Wagner, there was an air of experimentation about the team selection and set up as he tries to solve the conundrum of competing against the better sides. That he reached for a Chris Powell like solution was something of a surprise and the lack of bravery he talks about often was a little disappointing, if understandable.
While Wednesday were pretty dull, they have some real quality throughout their side and were the better of the two dour teams – both defences played very well, but while Town seemed to strain every sinew to try to contain the better players facing them, the Owls were more comfortable on the ball and able to make significant change from the bench.
Worryingly, the home record is starting to look pretty abysmal – another issue for Wagner to resolve along with the long wait for a result against a top side.