To describe this narrow victory as scruffy would be to put far too much gloss on a hugely forgettable affair where one goalkeeping error finally settled the encounter in favour of the slightly less poor side.
With the home capitulation firmly in his mind and concerns about player fatigue, David Wagner made wholesale changes both to personnel and philosophy to pull off an important, momentum maintaining win.
In the soulless bowl Dave Whelan built for his hometown team and on a hard, unreliable surface, Town’s much changed team squeezed all the space out of the game and, with a very poor opposition unable to figure out any way past a solid defence, all semblance of entertainment was strangled at birth.
Until the late winner, it was a truly joyless experience for a huge travelling support who, nevertheless, tried to lift the atmosphere despite the thin gruel offered to them on the pitch. Many in attendance were dubious about the decision to make so many changes, though we are learning to trust in Wagner even if it means enduring a contest as grim as this one.
That a poor second half surpassed the first by some distance speaks volumes about the unrelenting dreariness endured until half time.
Slow paced and without significant movement or ambition, both sides stunk the place out with poor passing, low energy and lack of invention as the 45 minutes stretched interminably in to the cold afternoon.
Both defences coped easily with sporadic attempts at attacking play; on one occasion, Holmes-Dennis had to tug back Jacobs (whose decision making never matched his pace) and was lucky not to be booked as the referee played a dubious advantage, while Bunn fired an attempt on goal well wide.
Despite the ceaseless tedium, Town could at least take heart that the lack of space behind them and the lack of talent in front of them rendered their erstwhile tormentor Wildschutt completely anonymous, while former golden boy Nick Powell (remember when he was one of the most sought after players in the country?) was similarly ineffectual.
A packed stand behind the goal defended by the visitors tried to stir in to life and add some zest to a lacklustre fixture which barely deserved to be called a contest, but the gloom permeated even the most enthusiastic as the languor deepened with every soul sapping minute.
An early booking for Billing, playing in the Hogg role, added an unnecessary and unwelcome layer of tension to proceedings – his long legs and occasionally ungainly gait can render him susceptible to clumsy challenges – but he did his job reasonably well, even if it was wholly utilitarian rather than dynamic and not a little hesitant at times.
With 3 off target shots (2 from the visitors) barely warranting the description of attempts on goal, the sweet mercy of the referee’s whistle finally arrived and put everyone out of their misery.
The bar for the second half had been set ludicrously low, and despite a slow start, Town began to dominate possession without looking threatening. Bunn, in particular, was infuriatingly wasteful when in advanced positions though his defensive work helping Holmes Dennis quell Jacobs’ pace was important.
On the hour, Town looked vaguely dangerous from a corner only for a clearance upfield to catch Holmes-Dennis slightly flat footed and only able to prevent Wildschut breaking in to oceans of space by wrestling him to the ground. Though a long, long way from goal, the Dutch striker could have repeated his exploits of a few weeks ago and Town’s young, understudy full back’s cynical, necessary foul proved pivotal.
The introduction of Lolley shortly afterwards – Kerchunga moved left as the ineffective Bunn departed – seemed to lift Town a little and they slowly exerted control over their still enfeebled opponents. The tempo increased marginally but perceptibly, as did accuracy – though this didn’t translate in to direct threat, the team were now at least giving a passable impression of previous performances.
Replacing Billing with Whitehead also helped. His experience helped enormously and the nervousness surrounding Billing was lifted. A shot, Wigan’s second, by Wildschut which went narrowly wide minutes earlier may have decided the switch.
The breakthrough came following a good run across the front of Wigan’s defence by Kachunga, who unleashed a reasonably hard and slightly swerving shot which seemed to bamboozle the veteran Jaaskelainen, who spilled the ball in to the path of the predatory Wells.
As welcome as it was unlikely – Wells’ finish was Town’s second attempt on target as he followed up on the first – the goal sparked something resembling entertainment as the home side’s desperation left their fitter opponents with more space when they weren’t comfortably thwarting attacks.
Payne – who at least added energy at times – latched on to a weak back header to beat Jaaskelainen to the ball and head it cleverly over him, only to be halted by a covering defender.
Another break involving Lolley and Payne saw Wells in a good position to square to the unmarked Kachunga, only for the goal scorer to woefully underhit his pass and the danger was cleared.
Seeing out the game in relative comfort, Town could celebrate a streaky but important away win – the third in a row – and a hugely productive Christmas period was complete.
Successful teams grind out ugly results. It would be a considerable stretch to suggest that the woeful first half display was tactical genius, but there was no way Wagner’s charges were going to be mugged in the same fashion that they had been at home and, overall, the defensive display was reasonably admirable. Both Hudson, who demonstrated leadership and experience throughout, and Stankovic, provided the foundation for the win, ably assisted by Cranie and Holmes-Dennis.
Mooy had a much better second half than an error strewn first without hitting the heights normally associated with him and Payne’s lively contribution was a thin shaft of light in a forgettable team display.
Securing points for the second game running, Wells had suffered from severe isolation and was largely ineffective until striking, but took his chance when it came. His goals have been fewer in number this season, but most have directly earned points, particularly during this recent unbeaten run.
The return of Lolley is most welcome. Along with Van La Parra, he can offer a different threat and is more useful to the side than the one dimensional Bunn (rumoured to be on his way in any case).
Perhaps the only question mark over the manager’s selections is the nagging feeling that Whitehead and Billing started the wrong fixtures over the New Year period – Blackburn’s predictable lack of ambition did not need the over protection of a deep lying central midfielder, while a tricky away fixture was unnecessarily complicated by a naturally more progressive player in the role.
With key players rested and another 3 points in the bag, a break for the FA cup, which will surely see further utilisation of fringe squad assets, comes at a good time, before a major test at Hillsborough in two weeks, by which time, new faces may have been added.