Craven collapse

Just when we thought the days of ignominious collapse in what is admittedly a tough division were over, Town capitulated badly in the face of a fine Fulham side who ripped the visitors to shreds with a performance of power, control and intense purpose.

Worryingly for David Wagner, his side were pushed aside with ease for the second time in a row on the road with defensive frailties cruelly exposed – frailties we barely new existed until this month.

Post mortems will no doubt focus on the return of Hudson in place of Hefele – and there is an apparent discrepancy between Bunn’s reward for a good substitute performance against Derby and the immediate return of the Schindler/Hudson partnership after a clean sheet – but the captain was the least culpable defender in the rearguard horror show, even if his display wasn’t good enough either.

Mid table Fulham are a strange side. Their away performances have been excellent, by all accounts, but home surroundings have delivered displays every bit as shambolic as Town’s yesterday, and a combination of them fulfilling their potential on home soil and a shapeless, careless and ill disciplined showing by the visitors saw them, finally, overwhelm an opponent.

A large, expectant Town following provided the only relief on an afternoon of unrelenting gloom as they sang for their team from beginning to end. In their collective determination to enjoy the experience despite what unfolded before them, the supporters seemed to be forgiving an over achieving group for a dark day in an otherwise hugely positive season and it is to be hoped that the squad and management will reciprocate with better performances in the future.

Defeats in this unrelenting and cruel division are to be expected, but the manner of the two setbacks in recent weeks are a major concern with solutions urgently needed, both tactically and in personnel or combinations of personnel. The return of Hogg will be a boost – he was sorely missed today as the Whitehead/Mooy combination was unable to quell Fulham’s lively and inventive midfield – but it is becoming painfully obvious that Wells’ strengths are not suited to the style of play employed and he needs to be sacrificed to allow Kerchunga a free role at the apex, though the absence of Lolley and Scannell is currently restricting Wagner’s choices.

It would be churlish, nay, impolite, not to acknowledge just how good Fulham were on a day when their hard work, invention and power translated in to an almost flawless display.

With our perennial pain in the arse Chris Martin tormenting Schindler in particular, Aluko destroying Lowe throughout and the excellent Cairney dominating the midfield, the Cottagers were a joy to watch and the only question mark about their performance was how they didn’t score even more against the traumatised Terriers.

As early as the 3rd minute, Fulham picked Town apart to free Piazon only for the Brazilian to shoot tamely at Ward.

It was the portent of things to come however, and when a cheap free kick was awarded to the home side – Mooy won the ball fairly – Schindler misjudged the far post ball to allow Siggurdsson to lay the ball on a plate for Martin to sweep home. The set piece frailty had returned.

Despite the early goal, the game settled for a time and while the home side were clearly dominant, their forays forward carried little threat for the next 20 minutes; indeed, the best chance in that period came from a Smith header which was directed just wide from a corner.

The collapse, from about half an hour in, began with a disputed corner (from the away end, a dead ball was pretty clear, but you could forgive the linesman looking from side on giving the decision). Palmer seemed to have cleared the danger, but the ball was worked back in to the area towards Lowe who inexplicably failed to clear and managed to present an easy chance to Kalas, who swept in the second.

Within minutes, Aluko turned two Town players on the halfway line, skipped by Hudson and an indecisive Schindler failed to stop a cross being delivered to Piazon’s head for another easy put away.

All three goals had been preventable and with half time looming the game was all but gone.

Had Bunn scored an easy headed chance just before half time, the momentum may have turned and interrupted the understandably buoyant hosts, but the recalled winger planted it wide with the goal at his mercy having met an excellent cross from Kachunga.

Town also pressed in the opening minutes of the first half to temporarily raise spirits behind the goal, but Fulham snuffed out the attacks effectively other than when Palmer brought a regulation save from Button.

With the freedom of a 3-0 lead, the home side soon reestablished dominance with Cairney running the show – at times he was taking on 3 or 4 Town players and leaving them in his wake, simultaneously opening up space for his colleagues to tear at the visitors’ crumbling defence.

The fourth arrived courtesy of a lunge by Schindler on the quicksilver Aluko – the penalty was despatched in to the corner by Martin and any lingering hope of rescuing even a little dignity from the game was extinguished and it was now a question of how many the rampant Cottagers would rack up.

While the answer was just one more – Aluko undressed Lowe yet again before setting up McDonald to finish with a flourish past the beleaguered Ward – further chances could have embarrassed the Yorkshiremen even more than they were already suffering.

An astonishing miss from 2 yards late on meant that Fulham had to be satisfied with a nap hand, but they had delighted their supporters with a vibrant display against an admittedly shambolic Town side, who barely deserved the exceptional support they received from their own, shell shocked fans.

It should be said that virtually everything that could go wrong did, indeed, go wrong for the Terriers, but rather than riding out ill fortune with determination, they simply compounded it with negligent, weak defending.

No player came out of the game with much credit – Palmer tried to inject some urgency and Kachunga worked hard – and a response against Birmingham next Saturday is vital if the club is to maintain it’s unlikely top 6 status for much longer.

A perfect Crave Cottage storm enveloped Wagner’s men – poor individual displays and mistakes, a hungry and talented opposition taking full advantage and the malaise of conceding two goals towards the end of the first half overwhelmed Town, and the manager faces a tough week to find solutions to a myriad of problems. He has done it before, and the marvellously loyal support can expect a reaction next Saturday.

And when everything was over, Town remained third – Norwich suffered an identical shellacking- a position unthinkable in August.

Rams tupped

Since returning to the Championship, games against clubs of the size and stature of Derby County have been seen as defining; indeed, yesterday’s opponents seem to have been particularly worthy of such definition given their spending power and perceived superiority.

For David Wagner’s predecessors, such tests were often gruesome trials with the wealth gap pointedly asserted most of the time with the occasional plucky performance offering little comfort in the greater scheme of things.

Despite back to back defeats – one slightly unfortunate and the other chastening if wildly overblown – Town’s elevated circumstances, and great potential, put them at least on a par with their struggling opponents whose expensively assembled squad had only just begun to splutter in to some sort of form in the past couple of weeks.

In the nature of a long, often arduous, season, an inevitable dip in form had seen the Terriers lose their leadership of the division with the accompanying worry that the sheer hard work which had delivered a remarkable opening quarter of the campaign could implode in a crisis of confidence.

This squad, however, lead with deep intelligence and passion by Wagner and his team, has not and will not crumble in the face of setbacks and, to their credit, the supporters were more than willing to accept and forgive the blip – another large, enthusiastic crowd provided excellent encouragement to help them recover from it quickly.

Wagner made several changes following Wednesday’s disappointment with Hudson and Mooy on the bench, replaced by Hefele and Whitehead, while Palmer returned in place of Payne. The Wells/Kachunga partnership was restored at the expense of Scannell and, once again, the manager signalled his belief in the whole squad to deliver when called upon.

With a midfield axis of Whitehead and Hogg, it seemed that the emphasis would be on stifling Derby’s undoubted midfield talent – Hughes, Butterfield and Ince don’t become bad players because their club is disorganised and troubled and Bradley Johnson is an experienced battler – with Palmer providing the creativity behind Wells and Kachunga.

A fairly entertaining first half was long on promise but rather short on delivery with neither keeper called upon to make a serious save.

Ascendancy oscillated between the teams; Town’s bright forward movement, largely instigated by the blossoming Palmer and, to a lesser extent, the enigmatic Van La Parra, was invariably thwarted by a resolute Derby defence and then undermined by carelessness in possession giving the visitors too many opportunities to get their own creative players on the ball.

An early Town move saw them open up their opponents’ left side only for Van La Parra’s effort to be well blocked, and a similar situation later in the half thwarted Wells.

The best moment of a frantic opening 45 minutes came when Hughes, having smartly interchanged passes with Vydra, saw a delicate and clever lob float narrowly past Ward’s far post.

This was during Derby’s best spell of the game – helped in no small measure by too many lapses in possession by the home side (Van La Parra, in particular, was caught out too often) – and another Hughes inspired foray saw the disappointing Vydra fire a first time volley high and wide when put through.

On the whole, however, Town’s industry quelled the Rams’ ambitions with Hogg and Whitehead covering a lot of ground to harass and discomfort, ably assisted by the hard work of all of the rest of the front 6. Despite finding it difficult to conjure opportunities, Wagner’s oft cited identity had returned and created the foundations for a second half of much greater promise.

The pick of the home side up to the break was Palmer. His touch and power belie his years, and with his individual battle with Johnson largely won the ex Norwich man’s influence was significantly reduced. His frightening potential – raw edges, not unnaturally, remain – should be a joy to watch develop over the season.

At the back, Hefele was solid (even if, at times, he seems to be on the edge of a mistake) and adds greater mobility than Hudson, if not the experience. Time will tell if Wagner will now make Hudson the understudy – it seems unlikely at this stage – but in his two full games, the popular eccentric has played well, bar one or two panics towards the end.

Smith, ably assisted by work horse Kachunga, largely extinguished the threat of Russell and Lowe was excellent on the left.

Town ended the half in the ascendancy but tame efforts from Schindler at a corner and a weak Smith effort rather summed up proceedings.

The second half followed a similar pattern. Town’s attacking threat was rather muted and Derby struggled to gain a foothold in the face of Town’s pressing of the ball. The visitors did create a chance for Ince when the dangerous Christie played him in beautifully only for his shot to be routinely pushed behind by Ward. From the subsequent corner, Ward had to tip over a header from Keogh, though it may have gone over the bar in any case.

It was after this point, with about 20 minutes to go, that Derby’s ambition seemed to be hauled in. Eating up time with delayed throws, dead balls and spurious injuries, gaining a point became their priority.

Town’s ambition increased in direct proportion, and Wagner’s shrewd substitutions – Mooy and Bunn had replaced the excellent Whitehead and frustrating Van La Parra respectively – started to swing the game in the home side’s direction.

Sharpness and movement increased inexorably and chances began to flow, with Mooy’s class and Bunn’s direct energy posing different and increasingly difficult questions for their visibly wilting opponents.

Carson had to be at his best to thwart Wells and Bunn efforts, while Lowe fired narrowly wide on one of his adventures forward, before a final substitution – Payne for Wells – added more creativity in the search for a winner.

In full flow, Town piled on the pressure – Bunn and Lowe combining far more effectively than Lowe does with Van La Parra – and Derby’s time wasting became more and more blatant.

What seemed to be the best chance was created by Payne releasing the rampaging Smith, but the full back had to come inside on to his weaker left foot and blazed over.

A none too generous 3 minutes were added and most had settled for an encouraging point from a decent performance. The deserved winner, however, was on its way.

Lowe fed Bunn with an excellent touchline hugging ball and the winger tormented Keogh on the left (Christie, the usual full back, was stranded further forward) before delivering a fine cross. In the centre, Kachunga’s movement took him in to space between defenders and he planted a classic “where it came from” header past Carson.

Scenes ensued, in the popular vernacular, with Wagner sprinting to the corner flag to mount the celebrating clutch of players and a deserved win banished all thoughts of wobbling wheels coming off.

Wagner will no doubt serve a touchline ban at Craven Cottage next week, but the enduring image will be worth it – the win had all the hallmarks of the man with substitutes disproportionately impacting the game and another late, late winner to add to those from earlier in the season.

Derby were not afforded any time to respond – the parsimonious injury time was gloriously turned against them. Perhaps not for the first time this season, they had come up against a team greater than the sum of its parts and failed pretty miserably through lack of ambition. It is not difficult to see why their goal tally is so hopeless – only 7 to date – but the decision to farm out Chris Martin is wholly inexplicable.

Jacob Butterfield’s return was not a happy one either – peripheral would be too much praise for his contribution. By the final quarter, and unforgivably, he and many of his team mates looked remarkably unfit.

Despite the late goal, this was no fluke win. Town never stopped trying for the 3 points and while the difficulties of turning possession and movement in to goals remains a concern, their spirit and togetherness was emphasised in a thoroughly satisfying afternoon’s work.

Heady days are here again.

Sheffield steel blunts Terriers

A disappointing and rather feeble defeat against a solid, unspectacular but professional Sheffield Wednesday should not over shadow what remains a remarkable start to a season of great promise, but neither should the flaws of the performance be dismissed.

It seems inconceivable that David Wagner will ignore the shortcomings, since they have never been far from the surface in games won and lost and merely emphasise his mantra that the work he is doing remains nascent.

Wagner’s systems have improved defensive performances beyond recognition, but the final third play is glaringly under powered – while Wells’ displays have been good (even in a quiet showing against the Owls, he showed great awareness at times and is technically much improved), chances are rarely falling to last season’s top scorer and he too often finds himself too deep.

Kachunga, despite a below par and less influential display in the defeat, seems more suited to Wells’ role in the current team as he has more power and ball holding ability, though Lolley’s long term injury and the (hopefully shorter) absence of Scannell restricts Wagner’s other wide option to Bunn, who hasn’t grabbed his opportunities so far this season.

The paucity of Wagner’s striking options is further exposed by the increasingly bizarre, and in the context of his normal style, painfully jarring employment of 2 centre halves up front when chasing a game.

The crude tactic simply does not work; neither Hefele, who largely fails to compete in the air when pushed up nor Hudson, who looks even more a fish out of water, affect proceedings in any meaningful way regardless of Hefele’s strange, probably unrepeatable, equaliser at Villa.

If some defensive shape is going to be sacrificed in such situations, perhaps adding Payne’s guile to the blossoming talent of Palmer could be utilised as an alternative plan; Wednesday’s disciplined and resolute defensive banks may have been more effectively tested by a more surgical approach than the blunt instrument employed.

The in form visitors, who appear to have put their early season struggles behind them, combined a highly effective game plan which severely limited Town’s ability to probe in their normal style with dangerous forays forward when the home team’s patience became exhausted.

A reasonably entertaining first half saw the visitors threaten to draw first blood in the early stages but Town survived with frantic defending and the help of the woodwork before the game settled in to a pattern of largely unthreatening home possession seemingly afflicted by the joint difficulties of finding ways to penetrate a tight and disciplined Wednesday rearguard and trying to avoid over extending in the face of the Owls’ dangerous front men.

With Kachunga largely subdued on the right, most of Town’s threat came from Van La Parra, whose ability to beat defenders and create space was invariably undone by poor decision making or lack of bodies in the box to hit.

The Dutch winger, restored to the side in place of Bunn, could have been the key to unlocking a resolute defence, and his runs roused the record home crowd at times but his delays in delivery, reluctance to shoot and disregarding of some excellent over lapping by Lowe constantly frustrated.

Ironically, one of VLP’s worst examples of indecision created a chance for Kachunga. Put in to space by Palmer, he attacked it with pace and could have delivered to any one of 3 well placed colleagues outnumbering defenders but chose to extend his run. In fairness, his eventual pass found Kachunga whose shot took a deflection which made Westwood’s save significantly more difficult.

The only other source of meaningful thrust was provided by Palmer. Sometimes, and excusably given his meagre experience, he can be naive in possession, but his grace and power emphasise his massive potential and but for another smart save by the excellent Westwood, he could have opened the scoring with a good run across the edge of the area.

These two efforts proved to be the only ones on target for the home team and, in truth, apart from a good rising effort from the subdued Mooy, the off target attempts lacked anything like conviction.

Never the less, Town had probably shaded the first half even if their difficulties in breaking down their opponents were all too apparent.

After the break, Town found the going even tougher and Wednesday strangled any momentum they tried to build and should have gone in front early in the half when Forestieri brought down a high clearance with consummate panache before an exquisite lob over Ward slightly over curled on to the post. It was the moment of the game.

With open play creating little danger – passes between the lines were invariably unsuccessful with Mooy an unusually regular transgressor – Town’s best opportunities came from set pieces. Corners proved of limited value but Lowe did hit a decent free kick just over the bar.

Halfway through the second period, Wednesday were gifted the lead when Town failed to deal with a regulation corner. Hogg’s attempted headed clearance flicked the ball in to danger, Mooy swung a leg at the ball but could only slice it in to the path of Lees, whose shot hit Van La Parra’s arm from close range. The decision could have gone either way but was far from controversial.

Forestieri, a perennial thorn in Town’s side, put the penalty away with some style and the visitors now had a precious lead they were always unlikely to relinquish.

Payne came on to replace Palmer but was unable to unpick the increasingly comfortable visitors who shut out the home side with increasing authority and once the aforementioned centre halves as centre forwards ploy was adopted, they exploited Town’s self imposed defensive frailty and should have wrapped up the game with a couple of opportunities. One was denied by a good Ward save – he had been largely under employed until this point – and Smith managed to head over with Ward stranded to deny Hooper.

A paltry 3 minutes added time – it should have been at least double – saw some desperate punts forward but the game was long over in reality.

It will be surprising if the expensively assembled Wednesday are not challenging for automatic promotion again this season, and there can’t be much of an argument against the contention that Carvalhal won his tactical battle with Wagner, so concern over the first home defeat needs to be tempered.

Somehow, however, solutions need to be found to increase goal scoring opportunities- there is a sense that the main weakness hasn’t been as damaging as it could have been in the early part of the season, but it threatens to undermine the team if the opposition can stifle us as well as Wednesday did.

An odd goal defeat against one of the higher quality sides in the division is no cause for panic, disappointing as it was for the expectant record crowd – so long as that disappointment doesn’t translate in to a lack of confidence. This seems unlikely under Wagner.

(No Preston report – plans made earlier around the original Tuesday date mean missing my first game of the season).

Wagner trumps McCarthyism

The myriad challenges of the Championship come thick and fast for David Wagner, but none seem to faze or surprise him.

When the story of this already remarkable season is written, little time will be wasted on an encounter largely devoid of flair or thrills, but disregarding an ugly but hugely effective win against supremely awkward opposition misses many of the central tenets of Town’s rise to the top of one of football’s most difficult competitions.

Mick McCarthy’s reputation for dour, functional and grinding football is well earned, and he is a past master of this utilitarian style to the point of parody. He is damned good at it, and has never seemed particularly bothered that others don’t see a great deal of beauty in his methods while pointing at the results his philosophies have achieved.

Reuniting Hogg and Whitehead as defensive midfielders and releasing Mooy further forward to replace the exciting but inexperienced Palmer in the number 10 role, Wagner added a rugged edge to his team and largely sacrificed the emphasis on controlled possession.

The adaptations largely worked against a home side struggling for goals and heavily reliant on set pieces for opportunities, but the compromises made adversely affected Mooy’s influence, though his class was never far from the surface.

A scruffy spectacle ensued as both sides concentrated more on containment than creativity, though an early corner found Hogg unmarked and just a few yards out only for him to head straight at the keeper.

A competent but slightly over fussy referee didn’t help the flow of the game, though his interpretations could rarely be faulted. From one such free kick, conceded by Scannell, Lawrence fired a decent attempt wide but the rest were defended in some comfort.

There were occasional glimpses of Town’s usual style going forward, but with Smith and Lowe more restrained the tendency to attack through the crowded middle reduced opportunities and threat. Ironically, it was a rare, poor Mooy pass which presented Town with their best moment of the half as the ball was cut out only to fall to Kachunga to fire against the post. From the follow up, Bialkowski saved smartly from Wells.

Ipswich’s best chance of the half came towards the end when a smart flick by Best – otherwise a lumbering, slow throwback – was latched on to by Ward only for his curling effort to miss the target when he should have done better.

On the whole, the first 45 minutes had been an unedifying spectacle but Town had matched their hosts all over the pitch and Wagner must have felt that the foundations had been built for a possible away win as he replaced Whitehead (who had done his job effectively) with the more progressive Van La Parra and Mooy moved back to his more familiar position.

With the Australian having more influence from deeper, Town were better in a gruelling second half without ever suggesting they would hit the heights of previous performances.

Little was coming from the hosts in the early stages of the second half as Hogg and Mooy tightened their grip on midfield, and the defence was largely untroubled. Any hint of threat was snuffed out quickly and Town slowly imposed themselves on a still relentlessly drab match.

On the hour, an inexplicable attempted headed back pass by Chambers went for a cheap corner. There had been signs in the Rotherham game and earlier in this game that a poor source of goals for Town may have been getting closer to reward, and Mooy’s perfect delivery was met by Schindler’s excellent movement to the near post and the German defender planted the ball perfectly beyond the Ipswich keeper for a vital lead.

In the process, Schindler – again exceptional until a cut eye forced him from the game – became the tenth different goal scorer for the club, serving to emphasise the team approach crafted by Wagner and executed by the whole squad. Tommy Smith, who had another good game, could have been the eleventh but his shot shortly after the goal just cleared the bar.

With their defences breached, the home side embarked on an increasingly desperate and, in truth, predictably forlorn, search for an equaliser.

It was telling that their first, and as it transpired, only attempt on target was greeted with ironic cheers from the depressed Portman Road faithful. Their gloomy disposition is thoroughly understandable given their team’s robust but basic style – not helped by injuries, it should be said – and despite one or two flurries of corners and pressure, there was never any serious doubt about the result once Town got their noses in front.

Hefele replaced the injured Schindler and performed well under pressure with discipline and strength. The back four was helped for the last 15 minutes (including 7 minutes injury time) by the introduction of Cranie, who added good experience in to the mix.

As the minutes ticked down, the visitors employed the usual spoiling tactics – disruptive “injuries”, running to the corners and general time wasting – but none of the 800+ away support cared or cares.

Yet again, Wagner, his lieutenants and his squad faced a new and very different challenge and came up with a winning, professional display. It will not live in the memory for long, and the return visit by Ipswich is not anticipated with a great deal of enthusiasm, but successful teams negotiate difficult encounters with good solutions; precisely what Town did in Suffolk.

Winning ugly. Got to love it!

Martin Sykes
Beaumonts Group

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