A momentous 2017, packed with memories for the ages, finished with a tired, dour performance which, somehow, gained an undeserved but welcome point against a tough, uncompromising Burnley side enjoying their own golden age.
Other than the first 10 minutes and a brief second half spell of rare clarity, Town were made to struggle by a Clarets side which never looked like conceding, such was their ability to retain and regain impregnable shape at the hint of danger.
Town were handicapped by an unusually subdued Mooy – the FA cup break cannot come soon enough for the Terriers’ talisman – an inability to turn intermittently decent forays in to chances and perceptible fatigue.
Burnley’s incessant aggression undoubtedly played a big part in the home side’s struggle – the dropped two points owed as much to a lack of cutting edge as the failure of the referee to award them a clear penalty – and it was not difficult to see why they have enjoyed so much success so far this season.
Early on, the home side made some inroads as the Clarets began slowly and Quaner’s burst through the visitors lines and firm shot produced a good save from Pope and a couple of successive corners gave Town initial ascendancy.
It was to prove to be the falsest of dawns, however, as the momentum was lost in a first 45 minutes where Town failed to learn some simple lessons; notably that the advantage of a strong wind at their backs was a fallacy. Long balls sailed past Depoitre on an all too regular basis and even when the Belgian came in to play, any support he had struggled to catch flick ons zipping away.
The same problem afflicted Burnley in the second period, though they fell in to the trap rather less regularly, but the Lancastrians dominated the first with superior passing, movement and organisation. Dominating midfield and forcing error after error, the visitors translated their primacy in to several decent opportunities including a disallowed Hendrick effort which was clearly offside, a superb run and shot from the impressive Gudmundsson which went just wide and a good effort from Defour.
Up front, the irrepressibly irritating Barnes was causing Town’s central defenders constant problems with clever movement, excellent linking and free kick inducing falls. A nightmare to track, the veteran brought his more talented team mates in to play and the home side were in a state of significant discomfort for long periods.
Town’s sorties upfield were rare and fruitless and Pope spent more time collecting the ball from over worked ball boys than having to bother with actual goalkeeping. Sloppy passing – Mooy had an unusually high failure rate – was a mixture of forced and unforced errors and, coupled with their inability to cope with the wind, the home side somehow managed to escape unscathed to the blessed interval.
Wagner replaced Hadergjonaj with Smith at half time. The Swiss youngster’s inexperience was rather exposed in the conditions and while the captain was to perform to an average level, his greater nous was welcome in a second half where the game became more equal. Regrettably, the new balance was created more by a drop in Burnley’s levels than any improvement in the home team’s.
A largely forgettable second half saw the visitors struggle, like their hosts in the first, to manage the windy conditions but they were more adept at playing through the lines occasionally and created whatever opportunities punctuated the grim fare.
Town intermittently broke free from their shackles only to find a Claret wall blocking everything with some comfort. One decent move after another faltered at the penultimate stage – Van La Parra taking one touch too many, crosses finding the first defender, and lack of awareness of movement around the ball carrier – but Burnley’s natural ability to regain defensive shape even when looking stretched is immensely impressive and very difficult to counter.
For all their overall superiority, Burnley did appear to run out of ideas in the final third in the second half but they spent 30 minutes of it rightfully aggrieved that their one incisive break in to the area – a one two between Arfield and Hendrick after capitalising on some slack defending – did not result in a penalty as Lössl took the ex-Derby man’s right leg as he shifted the ball around the Dane.
People in the Riverside stand had a similar view to the referee of the incident and it did appear that Hendrick rather stumbled in to the challenge, but this illusion was incontrovertibly disproved from other angles. The referee was also handicapped by not having an assistant nearer the incident but Sean Dyche’s anger could, on this occasion, be understood (his objection to every other decision which went against him precludes much sympathy, however. He is an excellent manager but his constant whinging does him no favours).
After this turning point, the game descended in to attrition and mediocrity. Wells, who received a warm welcome as he came on as substitute, nearly broke the deadlock late on but Lössl made himself big to thwart the Bermudian.
A promising run from Quaner (one of few home players to come out with credit) was cynically ended by Mee and the German had to be replaced soon after. Joe Lolley, the replacement, played quite well again to provide another little positive.
Overall, however, Town were second best against an impressively strong Burnley side who will not only rue the referee’s denial of an obvious penalty but also their lack of potency – Wood may have made a difference if fit – which is clearly the area they will need to address if their good season is to turn in to an excellent one.
As David Wagner said in his refreshingly honest post match comments, until this game Town had earned every point which sees them sitting mid table but this one was a steal. It provides a decent haul from the Christmas period, but he will need to do something very special to get his clearly weary squad up for a very tough challenge on New Year’s Day. Given the progress they have made in the first half of their inaugural Premier League season, the players can be cut some slack for the performance.
We enter 2018 with a good chance of survival, the opportunity to add to a stretched squad and, mercifully, the chance, after Monday, to give key players a decent rest.
Happy New Year.