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).