A pulsating, thoroughly entertaining encounter with a talented, if slightly underwhelming Southampton side, ended goalless as both sides missed out on very presentable opportunities in stifling conditions at the JSS.
The south coast club, who have graced the Premier League since their rise from League 1 with no little style, represented a significant step up in quality over Town’s previous two opponents, even if their early season form seems to have been affected by having to adapt to a new manager as they try to rediscover their customary flair.
A messy and very fortunate League cup win over Rotherham by the shadow squad – ultimately pushed over the line by the introduction of Billing – gave David Wagner few reasons to change the eleven who beat Newcastle, and with the two new arrivals still to be bedded in, there were no changes to the bench either.
A relatively mundane opening 10 minutes saw the two teams sizing each other up, but the tone of the match was set by the visitors after the initial sparring when the excellent Davis set Redmond away down the left behind a square Town defence playing him just onside. Perhaps aware of Lössl’s size and reach, the ex-Norwich man curled his shot past the far post, and Town were let off the hook.
Roared on by a raucous, almost hysterically excited home support, Town then largely took over with their trademark aggression and intensity.
Prompted by Mooy and Billing, Town took the game to the Saints down left and right and opportunities began to flow. Kachunga, hard working as ever, and Van La Parra, mercurial and occasionally frustrating as ever, stretched Southampton down the flanks and dangerous balls in to the box seemed certain to open the door.
A combination of excellent blocking by the stretched Saints’ defence, Forster’s enormous frame and slightly tentative finishing kept the visitors’ goal intact. In a single minute, first Kachunga and then Mounié were denied as Town’s crowd inspired intensity strained the resilience of Southampton without breaking it.
The best chance fell to Kachunga, however, when Forster weirdly spilled a routine cross in to his path. Sadly, the ball fell to his weaker left foot and the idiosyncratic England understudy was able to deflect his effort for a corner.
Tom Ince, slowly increasing his effectiveness game by game, brought another, rather odd, save from Forster as he cleverly hit a Smith assist first time and by the end of the half, the southerners had been comprehensively rattled and fortunate to be still in the game, Redmond’s miss notwithstanding.
Faced with a clear step up in class of opponent, Town had met the challenge with gusto if not goals. Defensively sound – the early scare aside – and thrillingly offensive, the Terriers harnessed the exceptional atmosphere to rattle a team who will, if their supporters give the new manager time and resolve their obvious scoring problem, challenge at the top of the Premier League’s unofficial second tier.
Pellegrino, who angered the visiting fans by withdrawing the ineffective Gabbiadini halfway through the second half, reacted positively to the problems Town were causing his team by reducing Mooy’s influence and his team were much improved after the break, causing Town problems with smart possession and better transition.
An injury to Van La Parra eventually forced him from the game, allowing Palmer to take over the number 10 role with Ince moving wide and the Chelsea loanee added more power in the centre in an encouragingly improved display.
Danny Williams replaced the fading Billing shortly afterwards – on the hour – and positively contributed to a game which had changed at the turn around as Southampton began to assert their quality more effectively.
A weak attempt by Gabbiadini, who shot straight at Lössl when in a good position, encouraged the visitors who began to control the game through possession.
Town were far from out of the contest, however, with Mounié heading over from a good Smith cross and shots from Ince and Mooy being blocked and wide respectively.
The visitors brought on Shane Long to try to add some guile up front, but Town defended well as the pressure increased – Zanka and Schindler’s partnership continues to flourish, even if the former’s longer attempts at distribution remain wasteful, and Löwe was, yet again, outstanding.
With the game ebbing and flowing between two determined sides intent on snatching victory, good build up play by the home side could not repeat the quality of their first half chances while the visitors’ menace was less than frightening until the final 10 minutes as home legs wilted in the heat.
First, Zanka stopped substitute Ward-Prowse in the area without appearing to touch the ball – penalty appeals were waived away by the excellent referee, Atwell, and subsequent viewings showed it to be a good decision.
Then Redmond spurned another shooting chance by curling his shot too close to Lössl who competently saved to his left, before the best chance of the half was thankfully spurned by the visitors.
Long, who had substituted Gabbiadini to the boos of the visiting supporters, got behind Town’s defence and picked out the raiding Bertrand, only for the full back’s poor header to be cleared off the line by Tommy Smith.
The full time whistle couldn’t come soon enough for the home side who, nevertheless, were entirely deserving of the point which took them, if only for a couple of hours, back to the top of the table.
The influence of the home support, which was astonishingly loud throughout, should not be underestimated – the energy emanating from the stands both in response to events on the pitch but also as encouragement when things (inevitably, given the quality of opposition) start to go awry, is an extra dimension we have rarely witnessed at the stadium and an essential factor of the Wagner revolution expertly harnessed by the man himself.
Southampton, despite being a little under par in this particular period, represented a huge challenge to a largely reconstructed Town side who have plenty of room for improvement themselves.
A relatively kind fixture list has helped Town to enter the international break in a Champions League spot (!), but the efforts of the management and players to take advantage have been phenomenal and barely believable.
With two new additions to bed in, the break has come at a good time and with the next opponents in some turmoil, the opportunity to take a further stride towards safety is immediately available.
These are the halcyon days.