Fearless Town swept aside a distinctly moderate Brighton side who were harassed in to oblivion and pointlessness as the hosts once again harnessed the energy coming from the stands to record a vital win in their quest for survival.
With four consecutive defeats behind them, the Terriers had to seize this opportunity – they couldn’t allow rot to set in, the opposition was reasonably modest and home comforts a significant advantage. It should be said that the preceding defeats need some context – they included one set in train by an incompetent referee, a brave home display against a formidable opponent, a far from unexpected defeat at the Emirates and an admittedly poor display against Everton. The sequence was disappointing but hardly season defining.
The absence of Knockaert, for disciplinary reasons, was a boost before the game – the Frenchman has the talent to win games – and few in the home camp would have been disappointed to see Solly March and Izqueirdo on the bench as Chris Houghton signalled a conservative approach to the contest.
With Palmer failing to make Town’s match day squad and Van La Parra serving the final game of his suspension, however, the home side were relying on the idiosyncratic Quaner and the so far less than impressive Kachunga to provide the spark for ever elusive goals, which demanded a little optimistic imagination.
On a bitterly cold, grey day with occasional snow flurries, Town’s identity came roaring back. The hesitation and trepidation of much of November was banished as the home side, finally, attacked their challenge on the front foot with intensity and energy nullifying the opposition so comprehensively that they not only failed to register a worthwhile attempt, they rarely got near the last third; when they did, Murray – who spent the game complaining to the excellent referee – was invariably offside.
The incessant and highly effective pressing, the key feature of Town’s success under Wagner, can mitigate against quality of play by forcing long balls, misplaced passing and poor judgement, but it was a delight and a relief to witness Mooy’s mojo returning as the Australian maestro controlled the tempo on the back of the tireless work of his team mates.
Without the quality to resist the pressure and turn it back on their hosts, Brighton looked vulnerable from the start and Mounié forced a decent save from Ryan with an effort from outside the area to signal the start of a devastating period for the visitors.
With Smith and Kachunga finally gelling on the right in the Premier League as they had in the Championship, the home side were turning the screw very early and the dominance of possession was building the type of foundation for a win we have seen so many times before and the prerequisite of an opening goal was not long in arriving.
From a Löwe corner, Schindler – or, to give him his full name, the awesome Schindler – made his now trademark run to the near post and flicked it on. In a change to the normal routine, the ball found an unmarked Mounié on the back stick rather than forcing an own goal and the French striker became Town’s top scorer by allowing the ball to hit his thigh.
With the all important lead, Town strangled the Seagulls without creating much further threat but with Hogg, who was everywhere, and Mooy controlling midfield the home side were seeing out the half with increasing comfort.
Izzy Brown, who received a warm welcome on his return, was largely anonymous in his role on the left and found it hard to escape the attentions of the Smith/Kachunga combination – his threat would surely have been more potent from the middle of the park but as it was he looked unhappy and ineffective.
Just before half time of a game with a Championship feel, Town had Ryan to thank for a second goal which pretty much secured the points. The Aussie custodian misjudged a Mounié header – the returning front man generated as much power as he could after Zanka had headed the ball back in to a dangerous area, but Ryan’s misjudgement was a poor effort.
Despite the gift, few could argue that Town were not good value for their lead. Feeding off the apparently limitless enthusiasm of the home crowd – even the disappointments of the last few weeks have failed to dim them – the Terriers sensed the opportunity in front of them, believed in themselves and nullified Brighton’s threat almost entirely.
It hadn’t been particularly pretty, but they had gone back to basics and delighted the crowd with their commitment and passion. They were rewarded with two goals, dominance and the prospect of a comfortable second half. This needs to be translated away from home, but the freezing stands had warmed to the effervescence.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that the final margin of victory could and should have been much greater. If the first half had been characterised by effort and destruction, the second added much more quality to the mix.
By not succumbing to a drop in performance at the start of the second half which has blighted them in a couple of recent games, confidence grew. Hogg and Mooy continued to dominate – the former with incessant tackling, intelligent interceptions and excellent passing to get the team going forwards and the latter with his sublime vision and range.
Out wide, the Smith/Kachunga partnership blossomed and flourished creating constant danger for the south coast team while Quaner produced probably his best performance in a Town shirt on the left. Mounié’s hold up play and linking is a little more subtle than Depoitre’s, but his much improved performance augurs well – adding 2 goals to his total after his injury will hopefully increase his confidence.
At the back, Zanka and Schindler had a straightforward day but did everything with consummate control and effortless efficiency. It shouldn’t be overlooked that 4 of our 5 clean sheets have been achieved with yesterday’s back four – Löwe was excellent too.
Which brings us on to Tom Ince. And scoring goals.
Tom’s commitment to the cause, ability and value to the team are pretty unquestionable – a couple of misplaced passes and a period of relative anonymity in the first half aside, his performance was good, approaching very good, particularly in the second half when all of his chances presented themselves.
He was a little unlucky when he connected with an excellent first time ball from Smith which hit Ryan at close range and he saw a couple of attempts blocked but his big chance came late on as Bruno (who must hate the John Smith’s stadium) misjudged an attempted interception, setting the Town man one on one and on his left. Ince’s shot was hit well but too close to the keeper and a glorious chance to break his duck, after many, many attempts.
Tom is a very good footballer, he contributes a lot to the team wether we win or lose and has a natural elegance which makes him good to watch but the failures in front of goal are becoming a huge burden and you sense the crowd’s longing for him to score and throw off the enormous monkey on his back.
Other than Tom’s efforts, Smith curled a left footer just wide, the hugely influential Kachunga had a shot saved from a tight angle and couldn’t quite control a header at the back post following a deep Mooy cross and there were times when the visitors were besieged by a home side throwing off the shackles.
The number of chances and opportunities created outweighed the disappointment of not adding to their tally in a wholly convincing win which also enhanced the hope that home form will see us through.
Overall, it was a vibrant display against a comprehensively demoralised side who rarely escaped Town’s suffocating game plan.
Next up is a hugely talented Chelsea side who will present an altogether different challenge but a similar commitment to Town’s core values will give us a chance before less daunting opposition appear on the horizon.