Having broken their opening day demons on Saturday, a strangely disjointed Town successfully maintained their cup run avoidance strategy last night with a poor second half display against League 1 giants Shrewsbury Town.
Sometimes in defeat, sunlight shines on the inevitable conundrums facing managers over the course of the season. In this case, the seemingly odd decision to continue selecting a slowing and ageing centre half and captain began to make much more sense. His potential replacements are not ready, his leadership was sorely missed and his organising ability and footballing intelligence is perhaps under valued (including by this correspondent).
The League Cup first round is becoming an annual and reliable graveyard for Championship clubs; the regularity of so called shocks (6 fell last night) is debasing the romance of it all and is seen as an easy opportunity for rotation and experimentation.
This is not to excuse a shambolic second half performance by Wagner’s men who should have settled the tie by half time but couldn’t translate almost complete dominance in to the goals which would have rendered the goal they conceded after less than a minute a mere aberration.
The dozy start, featuring weak attempted clearances, a pathetic attempt to tackle and some good movement from Shrewsbury shocked the visitors in to a decent, occasionally vibrant, first half display with Town pinning their hosts in to their own half for prolonged periods.
While the Salopians defended stoutly for much of the half, they struggled to contain the lively Payne and Van La Parra, while Kachunga continued his hard working role up top.
Twice, Jack Payne skipped past defenders with his quick feet and turn of pace, but he should have done much better than putting one chance wide with only the keeper to beat and firing another straight at the custodian when again clear. A late header was also a half chance, though you suspect aerial ability isn’t his forte.
Putting aside his finishing, however, the manner in which he created the two one on one chances provided more evidence of a growing talent which will deliver more positive results over the season.
With temporary captain Hogg protecting a largely untroubled defence, Town finally equalised with Mooy latching on to a clever ball from Van La Parra, turning past a defender and hanging up a perfect cross for Kachunga to score his second in two games.
And that was where the good news stopped.
Hogg collected a booking and, sensibly, he was replaced at half time by Paurevic – a chance for the big German Croat to shine which, sadly, he didn’t take.
Almost unbelievably, Town started the half as sloppily as they had the first and a Shrewsbury chance duly arrived before the half time tea was drained.
Unlike the first half, however, Town’s response was unstructured and messy. Attacks broke down in front of a newly resilient Shrewsbury who played much better as a unit, disrupted Town’s attempts for fluency and were well served by their new loan signing from Newcastle, Toney, who provided a much improved focal point for their counter attacks.
Without the busy Hogg, Town’s midfield became increasingly slow and static and far too many forward thrusts ended up in front of an increasingly dominant home back four.
Other than one decent run and pull back (intercepted by a defender), Scannell’s influence on the game receded and while Crainie is trying to get forward in the full back role Wagner clearly demands, his efforts look unnatural in comparison to Smith and attacks down the right were rendered ineffective.
Paurevic was weak in the tackle at times, too immobile and a poor fit with Mooy and Payne. His indecisive display exposed his central defenders and Stankovic in particular who became uncomfortable on the ball – it also exposed the reason why retaining and playing Hudson is not a blind spot of Wagner’s, which has been suggested, but a necessity until the understudy is ready.
Playing a little higher up the pitch and reducing the swathes of space they had allowed Town in the first half, Shrewsbury grew in to the game with increasing confidence and were able to restrict the visitors with a rugged and more dynamic style while creating the opportunities they could not before the break.
In between a decent effort from eventual match winner Dodds and a spurned opportunity for Sarcevic, where he should have done better, Paurevic fired a long range shot just wide.
On the hour, Palmer came on for Payne who hadn’t been able to replicate his first half display. The Chelsea youngster had a busy half hour, including a decent free kick which was, none the less, routinely saved, but even his skills were always eventually thwarted by the hosts’ solid defending. His strength in possession is, however, going to be a real asset on bigger stages than the Greenhaus Stadium.
Too many attempts to play in Kachunga were easily thwarted and Shrewsbury’s fast breaks were becoming naggingly worrying.
Eventually, the home side got the reward their efforts deserved as further midfield weakness allowed substitute Jones to feed the ball in to Toner who showed good strength to feed Dodds who fired a shot at Ward who may have done better than the Joe Hart impression he actually performed.
Increasingly desperate and unable to find a way through in normal style, Town turned to Hefele to add height up front. Incredibly, but totally in keeping with his status as a would be legend despite never kicking a ball in anger for the team, he was booked for entering the field without permission.
Let that sink in. Booked before he had actually started his debut.
The new agricultural tactics bore little fruit – Kachunga latched on to a flick on from a defender and his volley was saved but, otherwise, disappointment that we reverted to blatant panic was probably matched by relief from a Shrewsbury defence well equipped to deal with it.
The home side saw out 4 minutes of injury time with relative ease (indeed, they could and probably should have sealed the victory earlier as they broke with threat against a depleted Town defence missing Stankovic and Schindler who were pushed forward) and fully deserved their victory.
In time honoured fashion, Town are now out of a cup. More seriously, several squad members were not only unable to stake a claim for a league start, some of them looked worryingly inadequate. Paurevic in particular was brittle, belying his size, and Stankovic unconvincing.
It will be interesting to see how Wagner responds as his team swap the rural idyll of Shropshire for a St James’ Park cauldron – what a contrast for players and supporters alike – but perhaps the somewhat overblown conclusions from a decent opening day win will be reassessed more in line with realism.
It is, however, increasingly tedious trying to avoid crowbarring the phrase “cup of woe” in to reports, season after season.