A hugely disappointing afternoon, and not restricted to an undeserved but reasonably predictable defeat, saw Town’s already slim hopes for automatic ascension to the so called “Promised Land” disappear – logically, if not mathematically.
Undermined by extraordinarily weak officiating and staggeringly cynical Burton tactics, many of Town’s known flaws came rushing to the surface as yet another limited but aggressive struggler frustrated the home side to claim 3 massively important points for themselves.
It is perhaps inevitable that a team which has relied on many, many single goal, though often well managed, victories will occasionally suffer a reversal and Burton may feel vindicated revenging an undeserved defeat at home.
Rather more difficult to justify is their approach to the game. However desperate their league position, the crude cynicism they displayed – every trick in the book was utilised and indulged by a shocking referee – deserves round condemnation and while it worked for them in this encounter, it’s long term viability is very doubtful.
Blatant time wasting, which only became apparent to the referee towards the end of the first half when a long lecture didn’t result in a booking but yet more time wasted, constant haranguing of officials, professional fouls and feigned injuries were depressing to witness in a division where most teams are capable of decent football.
Competing against ugly strategies remains a conundrum for David Wagner and his team. An early goal is pretty much a prerequisite to change the dynamics of the contest and swing the control of events in Town’s favour – forcing the opposition in to greater commitment forward and allowing Town’s flair to blossom rather than stagnate.
Despite the visitors’ frequently successful attempts to interrupt play from the very beginning, Town produced some promising football in the first half with Van La Parra providing creativity on the left and some good runs which released the home side from an increasingly crowded midfield and while Lolley couldn’t reproduce this on the right he nevertheless combined well with Smith on occasion and fired over a couple of reasonable attempts.
Town’s best opportunity to take an all important early lead was denied them by a referee who refused to see a blatant foul on Smith after the full back had got in front of his opponent to threaten his customary danger.
Assuming converted, a goal at that time – within the first 15 minutes – would have changed the whole complexion of the game and Burton’s motivation to strangle the life out of the game would have disappeared.
Instead, the Brewers’ constant haranguing of the referee for Town players to be booked finally brought reward when a collision between Whitehead and Kightly was deemed to be deliberate rather than a simple coming together. Kightly’s dramatics were enough to convince the official.
A largely anonymous Quaner, presumably included ahead of Wells for his physicality, nearly met a Van La Parra cross after the Dutchman had outstripped 3 Burton players and Payne brought a decent save from McLaughlin, but Town’s general play was already becoming stodgy and slow.
For Burton, Sordell played the lone striker role very well and caused Town the type of problems our own front men rarely do – rather than show Quaner clips of his own performance, perhaps the backroom staff could show him Marvin’s movement, aggression and control. A challenge on him in the box was arguably as good a shout for a penalty as the one on Smith.
All in all, the first half performance had been pretty average – in and amongst the frustrations there were glimpses of the form which has carried the team to third place – and despite the absence of an early goal, there was talent on the bench to make a difference.
The first real threat of the second half came from Burton with a weak shot from Sordell ruining his excellent play to create the opportunity, before Jack Payne was replaced by Wells. The diminutive number 10 had buzzed around enthusiastically but to limited effect and the losses of both Palmer and Brown are being keenly felt.
That Wagner chose to leave Quaner on suggested he still felt that a bigger presence in the front line was needed but the German’s influence on the game was marginal at best throughout, underlining Town’s season long problems up front – sadly, Colin does not appear to be the answer just yet.
Competing with a packed midfield, Town tried to get the ball wide but Van La Parra’s first half performance was not replicated in the second as his wasteful traits came more to the fore. On the right, Smith and Kachunga (who replaced the fading Lolley) created more promising situations but the final ball too often found the welcoming arms of McLaughlin.
As desperation started to seep in to Town’s play, poor decision making increased in proportion and movement became more and more mechanical. Rare was the judicious increase in pace usually supplied by Palmer or Brown and the ball wasn’t played quickly enough often enough.
A decent effort from Mooy from a free kick earned by Van La Parra just outside the box on the left was headed over by a defender, Hefele was also thwarted by a defender’s head when the ball seemed destined for the top corner and Mooy fluffed a close in chance which almost fell to Van La Parra.
For all their dominance of the ball, much of it far too stilted, Town’s normal fluency was missing and the link between midfield and attack laboured.
During the second half, and perhaps sniffing opportunity, Clough Junior – hitherto employing tactics which would have enraged his father (referee intimidation not the least of them) – made surprisingly attacking substitutions; first introducing Mooy’s Australia national team understudy Irvine, then bringing on Varney to support Sordell. His final substitution was also positive with old boy Lucas Akins coming on to face the club who released him so many years ago.
The final 15 minutes saw the visitors perceptibly increase their threat and missed a couple of decent chances to take the lead, before a reckless challenge at a corner saw Whitehead flatten a Burton defender – once the resultant melee was over, an inevitable second yellow reduced Town to 10 men on the day and a further selection headache for Wagner for Wednesday’s game with Norwich.
Though deflated, Town continued to strive for a vital winner but lacked the necessary guile against their obdurate opponents who, in turn, managed to turn defence in to attack one final time, overturning possession from an attempted Billing long throw and racing past a thinly populated Town defence to snatch their victory.
In truth, the goal and defeat matters little – one point was barely of any use given results elsewhere – but the impact on the remainder of the season could be debilitating if not managed well.
For all Burton’s ugliness, Town’s vulnerability when faced with packed midfields and sturdy defences came once more to the fore – it is surely no coincidence that too many points have been dropped against the less expansive sides and the injuries of the past few weeks are taking a big toll.
Whitehead, other than his reckless behaviour at the end, was a decent replacement for Hogg but lacks his colleagues remarkable energy and Payne simply isn’t as good as Palmer or, particularly, Brown. This is far from being a disgrace – he has his own qualities – as both of these Chelsea loanee have very good futures ahead of them.
With automatic promotion now almost certainly out of reach, a return to form over the final games in preparation for the play offs is essential. Hogg’s miraculous return will help, but the number 10 role is arguably of more importance.
A game to forget, but a reminder that there is a lot of work to do if all the promise of a great season is not to be undone.