In a performance which ranged from scintillating to skittish, Town overcame a spirited if limited Rotherham side as each club ended the night occupying opposite ends of a maturing Championship table.
Shorn of 3 regulars through suspension (pointing, perhaps, to a discipline problem which is worth tackling given that 2 of the players missing were being punished for needless offences) and the necessity to rest Hogg after his indomitable efforts against Reading, Wagner could take some comfort that the first major disruption to his team came against the struggling Millers.
Nevertheless, it was far from ideal to be playing a pair of untried defenders given the unity of the previously unchanged back 4 along with a new central midfield pairing.
In a dominant first half display, such concerns as there were dissipated as Town overwhelmed their fragile opponents with suffocating and controlled possession, menacing intent and individual flair. Palmer, in particular, blossomed around his hard working team mates with an elegant touch and powerful running; only his decision making let him down from time to time in his attempts to create danger.
A very early goal – Kachunga was in the right place to capitalise on some pinball defending – could and probably should have signalled a goal rush against a bewildered and disorganised opposition, but Town’s indecisiveness in sight of goal came once more to the fore.
With the new back 4 virtually redundant – any threat Rotherham possessed was snuffed out before they had to become involved – and Mooy pulling the strings in his unruffled fashion, the long awaited goal glut seemed inevitable but Town’s lack of thrust on too many occasions was to come back to haunt them later.
The relentlessness of this team, however, when both in and out of possession is a joy to behold and must be extraordinarily difficult to both play and plan against. Being constantly on the move, smoothly interchanging positions and having a growing telepathy between pairs and groups of players, Town create complex conundrums for opponents and few have been able to consistently stifle the Terriers’ ambition.
The vulnerability, however, is the (current) inability to translate their superiority in to commanding leads. This was amply illustrated just after half an hour of prodigious superiority when Palmer glided through the midfield with astonishing grace only to delay his pass to Kachunga just enough for the linesman’s flag to nullify his good work.
Immediately afterwards, and to the astonishment of the crowd, Rotherham equalised with an incisive move ending with Ward finishing smartly from a Taylor cross. That it was the visitors’ first coherent passage of play of the game only served to emphasise the lack of Town’s ruthlessness (a flaw which will not have escaped Mr Wagner’s meticulous attention).
To their credit, the setback was immediately dismissed and the lead restored just 4 minutes later as a blistering and typically strong run by Scannell enabled him to release Wells to angle a fine finish past Camp from just inside the area.
Wells has worked very hard to get back on the goal trail and it is to be hoped that he can build on the relief which will have accompanied his strike.
A single goal lead was scant reward for Town’s mastery of their opponents, but far from unfamiliar territory. However, strong performances by the understudies, a sparkling display by Palmer and Mooy’s magisterial presence augured well for the second half.
Hefele’s widely anticipated debut had gone well. There was always the nagging suspicion that his cult status could be tarnished by his actual performance, but he stepped in with confidence and assurance and, thankfully, without entirely shedding the aura of eccentricity surrounding him.
For 15 minutes after the break, Town’s superiority prevailed but a scattering of corners and a high and wide attempt by Palmer was the sum of the threat posed to the visitors.
Hefele did add a new dimension to Town’s generally mundane set pieces, however, and the disruption he causes is a tool which may well prove useful as the season progresses.
From the hour mark, though, Town wilted. The exertions of a 10 man effort at the Madjeski started to bite as possession became much more difficult to maintain, even against very ordinary opposition.
Rotherham could sense an opportunity; though they were never likely to dazzle their way to a point, it became much easier to apply rudimentary pressure on their tiring hosts. Tareiq Holmes-Dennis, who had performed competently on his debut, began to suffer and was not helped by a knock late on which rather opened up a flank for the Millers to exploit.
Palpably nervous, the home side had to dig deep for resilience and should have been undone 5 minutes from the end when Forde’s clipped cross was headed wide by Adeyeme.
While Town comfortably saw out the game following the let off – Hogg, Payne and Stankovic were introduced to quell Rotherham’s quest for an unlikely and undeserved equaliser – the earlier profligacy had created the pressure they were now feeling.
At full time, another single goal victory had been achieved and with Norwich not playing until Wednesday, Town restored their place at the top of the table with a barely believable 22 points from the first 10 games (it took until Christmas to achieve the same points tally last season).
As disjointed and occasionally brittle as the second half had been, this cannot diminish the vitality of the first half, particularly with enforced changes, and though a Millers’ equaliser would not have been altogether surprising, it would have been something of a travesty.
With his wisdom, David Wagner will have learned a lot from the victory. He has capable, competent replacements for his preferred eleven but a ruthless streak needs to be grafted on to the hard work and consummate skills of his squad.
Top of the league and with room for improvement is a very, very good place to be.