A bloodless, feeble performance against a muscular, aggressive Stoke City side who embroidered a committed display with two fine goals finally dropped Town deep in to a relegation fight they currently look entirely incapable of avoiding.
With the welcome respite of the FA Cup next weekend, Wagner has time to rethink or, rather, reboot, the identity he has created for the club because it was unrecognisable in the potteries; insipid is too generous a word for a display which had precisely zero moments of hope or excitement for a disillusioned visiting support.
A horrible first half – from both sides – was as bereft of quality as any 45 minutes seen this season and neither goalkeeper had been remotely troubled until Shaqiri failed to lob Lössl in it’s final minute.
Dismal as it was, the home side dominated the physical tussle and debutant Pritchard and the isolated and increasingly ineffective Mounié were denied both space and time, Van La Parra’s occasional forays were thwarted with ease and Ince had minimal impact on a game which passed him by.
Worst of all, the bafflingly poor form of Mooy, who cannot buy a pass at the moment, continues. His midfield partner is as hardworking and combative as ever but Hogg was completely over shadowed by Allen and Adams – both provided the aggression and energy which created the foundation for a home win which was fully deserved and nowhere near as emphatic as it could and should have been.
At the back, Schindler was roughed up in a brutal first half for the defender while his partner had a lackadaisical game and nearly handed a lead to the hosts with a misplaced pass only to be saved embarrassment by Diouf slipping at the vital moment. Zanka’s main contribution was to, twice, expose the home fans’ ignorance of the back pass law. His first use of his upper leg was controlled and well executed, his second rather less so.
After his performance against West Ham last week, it wasn’t a surprise that Smith relinquished his place to Hadergjonaj but it was odd that Malone was preferred over the athleticism and physicality of Kongolo when a tough battle was eminently predictable.
A similar argument can be proffered against Mounié’s inclusion. The first game aside, the young Frenchman hasn’t got to grips with the Premier League so far – he wasn’t helped by his injury – and he looked hopelessly exposed against Shawcross and Zouma as balls were launched towards him in unpromising positions. Neither did he help himself in a second half where some of his attempts at headers and challenges looked distinctly half hearted.
If the first half had been parched of incident and excitement, Town had, at least, survived and, on the whole, defended competently. Their lack of discernible threat demanded it if a point was to be earned but, as has happened far too many times on the road, an increasingly disjointed, error strewn second half exposed Town’s defenders to quick, fatal breaks.
First, Choupo-Moting was set free down the left by a superb Adams through ball and the German-Cameroonian strode purposefully in to the open space in front of him before he hit a low cross for the onrushing Allen to sweep home.
If the opener had been a goal of some quality, the second was even better.
It stemmed from a loose ball from Mooy. The Aussie has executed the same cross field pass on countless occasions in his Town career to date but his current form was summed up by Choupo-Moting easily intercepting it and launching a devastating attack which ended with a sublime flick by Shaqiri to Diouf, who finished nicely past the exposed Lössl.
History tells us that, in fact, the first goal was as likely to be the death knell to Town’s hopes as the second, but Diouf’s rounding off of an excellent move banished any thoughts of revival.
Stoke should have punished the visitors further with other fast breaks – Shaqiri tested Lössl but other opportunities were wasted – and after a difficult season, a change of manager may inspire them to a revival if they can combine their naturally aggressive style with the flashes of quality Shaqiri can bring.
For Town, the last 3 league games have been hugely disappointing; as much for the lack of character in defeat as the losses themselves, and with two behemoths up next, further descent is likely before more winnable contests arrive. Even those will be beyond the Terriers in this form, however.
Defeat and relegation worries are both expected and accepted in this division – most sides have game changing quality in their ranks, some overladen with them, but the lack of fight, absence of attacking threat and passing bravery on display in the city of 5 towns was unacceptable.