Craven, demoralising defeat

On the bank of the Thames, Town’s survival hopes – already looking extremely forlorn – were sank in a quite awful performance showcasing all the flaws of a management team and squad which can produce creditable if largely unsuccessful displays against more fêted opposition but flounders badly when faced with their (alleged) peers.

A sterile first half largely played sideways or backwards racked up impressive possession statistics but virtually nothing of note in the final third other than weak efforts from Mounié and Pritchard, and with Fulham failing to rise above mediocre Wagner’s defensive minded team selection looked a huge mistake for a game where a win was desperately needed.
Epitomising the insipid, unimaginative and aimless showing was the number of unsuccessful attempts made to play Durm in behind Fulham’s left back after one early long ball had worked (without creating anything, naturally). 

At least these passes were forward. The depth of risk aversion which infected the whole team was astonishing and paralysed whatever latent creativity existed in the eleven as a dreadful spectacle bored on seemingly endlessly. Neither set of supporters were given any encouragement as fear gripped two sides surely destined to meet again in the division below next season.

The only notable event worth recording from an atrocious first 45 minutes was a pretty bad challenge by Seri on the fragile Hadergjonaj – Seri was booked and may have been fortunate to stay on. Perhaps the referee noted that the player fouled seems to assume serious injury following every mistimed or slightly robust challenge and adopted a level of scepticism we all share about Flo’s histrionics.

The best that could be said about the visitors at this point is that they were solid and competent, and that their opposition managed to be even worse than they were. This could and should have triggered changes to at least attempt to improve Town’s offensive threat – going to a back 4, bringing on some pace, anything to create some change.

Instead, it was Ranieri who acted by replacing the ineffective and booked Seri with the more direct and powerful Kamara and the game changed as the home side acquired the energy they had so patently lacked in the first period and Town’s control of possession was lost.

The Cottagers didn’t transform in to world beaters, their manager simply concluded, along with the majority of the visiting support, that Town’s strategy of stifling play was fragile and one dimensional and just taking an initiative was likely to bear fruit.

Lössl, a spectator in the first half (luckily for him, he was being paid to watch the dross) was now being tested as the home side dominated the opening 20 minutes of the second half, pushing back the visitors and creating shooting opportunities which were well dealt with by the Dane.
With no control of the ball and looking increasingly ragged in the face of the hosts’ new found ambition, Town disappeared as an attacking threat. Two very poorly delivered free kicks which drifted out of play and the odd Billing long throw constituted the thrills on display for an increasingly disgruntled visiting support yearning for some adventure from their team.

Instead, they were treated to two quite ridiculous substitutions with the ineffective Mounié being replaced by the lumbering shape of Depoitre and the creativity of Pritchard by the mundane workhorse Kachunga. The replacements offered nothing new – no pace, no guile, no change of shape – and an actual reduction in potential creativity.

For a while, Town stemmed Fulham’s threat as the game resumed its tedious procession  but a mishit cross bamboozled Lössl who’s clearance on the stretch was knocked on to Löwe’s arm for a clear penalty.
After a tussle over who would take it, Kamara placed the ball to Lössl’s left and it was a straightforward but important penalty save and it wasn’t long before Town had the opportunity to take advantage of the profligacy and seriously hurt their relegation rivals.

Breaking forward, Hadergjonaj waited patiently for Durm to break down Town’s right and fed the German to pick out one of the three players in the box (including one unmarked at the back post). Instead, he chose a low, hard ball which was cut out rather easily. Not that it mattered, as it fell to the unmarked Billing at the edge of the box who could deliver a good strike and gain 3 vital points.

In the real world, however, Phil tried a spectacular volley which left him on the ground and the ball on its way back up to the other end of Craven Cottage. Substitute Sessegnon – introduced for his pace by Ranieri – collected the ball on the halfway line, and moved forward. In front of him were 3 Town defenders and Mitrovic, with the Serbian making a run which Zanka spotted. Inexplicably, Zanka decided to go with him rather than just step up and play the forward offside. Having made one poor decision, his attempt to stop the striker was pretty pathetic and the goal condemned Town to a seventh defeat and probably the most horrible of the lot.

A late flurry of desperation in the final few minutes of injury time was as unconvincing as it was effective and it was hard for the fans behind the goal being mildly jostled in the second half to resist venting. Despite their consistent, loud and continuous support, the team had given them very, very little and there are few, if any, signs that 2019 will bring the miraculous improvement needed to avoid the drop. More likely, it will be the nature of the relegation – a fighting one or an ignominious one – which will cheer or depress.

Still, Happy New Year everyone!

Town bedevilled and frustrating

Town fell to a predictable yet hugely frustrating Boxing Day defeat at Old Trafford.

With the end of Mourinho and the start of Solskjær’s reign, the inevitable narrative around the so called Theatre of Dreams is one of renewal, swashbuckling football and the restoration of manifest destiny but, in truth, the Red Devils were relatively humdrum for large parts of the game bar a fine piece of skill by Rashford which should have lead to a goal and two strikes by Pogba which did.

The French midfield player appears to have shaken off his sulking post Mourinho, though he will be hard pressed to find a more accommodating defence than the one which allowed him inexplicable space and time yesterday. His first goal, and United’s second, involved decent movement, not tracked, but his second was uninterrupted by any sort of challenge from Town players with Hadergjonaj the main culprit.

How different things could have been had Kongolo put away a straightforward chance created by a Billing long throw after just 10 minutes. Schindler and, remarkably, Pritchard headed the ball across the area and in to the defender’s path only for him to fire over while leaning back. 

A goal at that time would have punctured the expectation of Old Trafford and brought back the uncertainties which have plagued their season of underachievement. Perhaps.

Town were not to threaten again until the very end of the first half, but defended competently against a United side which occasionally threatened but failed to seriously test Lössl until, and this is where the frustration comes in, a regulation near post corner saw Hadergjonaj fail to pick up his man. Lindelöf flicked on for the unmarked Matic to tap in a simple opener. Momentary disorganisation cost the visitors heavily.

Buoyed by their lead, the hosts piled on the pressure but were still not creating chances of any real quality until Rashford elegantly nutmegged Zanka and crossed to Dalot for what should have been an easy conversion. The Portuguese put the chance wide and Town were still in the game.

As the first half entered injury time, Pritchard – who played very well throughout – fed Billing in to the area with a deft ball but the young Dane optimistically decided to try to beat De Gea at his near post instead of squaring the ball inside to better placed colleagues. The attempt went weakly wide and Town’s second opportunity passed.

Despite being on the back foot for much of the first half, Town had largely contained United and were, at least, still theoretically capable of a result though few in the away section were counting upon it.

Encouragingly, Town gained quite a grip as the second half progressed and yet another opportunity was spurned as Depoitre chose to cut back in on to his right foot rather than attack the yawning space in front of him when played through. His hesitancy meant Mbenza took the ball away from him and hit it in to a defender. 

Earlier, a reasonable ball in to the area was treated to an ineffective overhead kick attempt by the Belgian, but he had a much better effort minutes later when he peeled off from his defender to connect with a rehearsed corner kick by Pritchard and force De Gea in to an excellent, instinctive save.

Kachunga also fired over following a good run by Kongolo.

At this point, Town were the more dominant force and – frustration abounds – it was a little against the run of play when United doubled their lead and ended the contest. Mata surged into the area on the right, sucking in defenders towards him, laid the ball back to Herrera who nudged it on to the unmarked and unchallenged Pogba (again, Hadergjonaj was slow to react, but he wasn’t alone) who swept the ball in.

The killer second came 3 minutes after Depoitre’s saved effort and, as has been the case in most games all season, Town had failed to make the most of the moments in a game which translate in to points. Frustratingly.

A third goal put the rather flattering icing on the cake for the home side. Possibly seduced by the numerous weak efforts by home players throughout the game, Hadergjonaj stood and watched one of the best players in the world calmly pick his spot from 20 yards rather than make a fairly routine challenge which would have blocked the effort. Pogba stood in silent tribute to himself for a good strike, but it was hugely facilitated.

A late consolation by top scorer Zanka – a condemnation in itself – gave the scoreline some deserved respectability, but with just two wins and far too few goals at the halfway point of the season, relegation looks increasingly likely if not inevitable.

In and amongst the gloom – and things are very gloomy – this was a creditable performance against a rejuvenated, if not exactly thrilling, United side who possess players of high quality. Town made them look quite ordinary for long periods but, as usual, were unable to punish the opposition when opportunity knocked. To do so without Mooy and Hogg was commendable but, of course, fruitless.

The lack of points and goals reached a critical point some time ago – failures against bottom half clubs hurt much more than dropping points at Old Trafford – and the next 3 games have become crucial and defining. Gain 7 or 9 points and Town are back in the survival fight; any fewer and hope will virtually disappear.

Possibly the biggest frustration of the whole season is that we are a much better team than last season – yesterday’s display was significantly better than in February – but this is counting for nothing when we consistently fail to take advantage of those moments in games which garner points; something we could do last season at times.

A January striker is essential, though it is far from certain that this will make enough, if any, difference as the pressure of being bottom and possibly adrift weighs heavier and heavier upon fragile shoulders.

On to Fulham and their new shape and better defence.

Wagner halo slipping

Southampton, with a new, fresh, inspiring manager at the helm of a squad which always looked significantly better than their struggles under dour regimes suggested, rolled in to Town on a wave of confidence after beating Arsenal last week. It was far from a flawless victory, and there was more than an element of luck about it, but the confidence it has engendered is priceless.

Faced with hosts shorn of aggression, experience and know how in midfield, a shambolic tactical experiment featuring a player yet to convince in a brutally demanding league and a back line which conspired to put in their worst individual and collective display since being brought together, the Saints’ easy win was as depressing as it was predictable.

Pressing from the start, the visitors always looked several streets ahead of a woefully inadequate Town line up who turned in a first half performance which barely rose above desperate. Incoherent through the middle, powder puff up front and vulnerable as babies at the back, Town lacked leadership on and off the pitch and while the injuries to 3 principal characters was always going to be a handicap, Wagner’s choice of the pacy but limited Mbenza and the inexperienced Bacuna for key roles while leaving Durm on the bench was either impressively bold or, you know, the other thing.

Billing, so elegant on the ball at times, simply didn’t handle the responsibility of being the relatively elder statesman in midfield and got away with one piece of negligence when he gave away cheap possession though another lead directly to Southampton winning the penalty which would cap a half of horror for a team which simply couldn’t match the visitors’ energy and confidence.

Alongside Billing, Bacuna was similarly profligate in possession while Pritchard, playing a little deeper but to little positive effect, opened the door for Ings to drive at the home defence, feed Hojbjerg who bypassed a hugely out of sorts Kongolo’s pathetic attempt to cut out his ball through to Redmond (a menace throughout) who easily beat Lössl.

Lacking instinct, composure or confidence, there wasn’t an area of the pitch which wasn’t shambolic and laboured for the Terriers. The two wing backs epitomised the frailty. Hadergjonaj made the most of two innocuous looking knocks but less of the rare crossing opportunities he had though the familiar lack of bodies in the box doesn’t help him in his, so far fruitless, search for last season’s form while Löwe, who has been a very good performer in many games, was hooked at half time after a performance with the highlight being him booked for a pathetic dive. A dive which makes Town the most divey in a league plagued by diving – Löwe was our fifth booking for the offence.

Saints cruised to a 2-0 half time lead, smashing Wagner’s weird game plan in the process. Capitalising regularly on the hesitancy and raw naïveté of their hosts, they were able to play with freedom and confidence with the ball and harass Town in to nervous mistakes and out of possession. There were flurries of attacking play which never managed to end in any activity from the Saints’ keeper and the corners resulting from a couple of blocked shots were pretty woeful (including an attempted short corner which saw Bacuna balloon a cross following a bobble). It rather summed up a first 45 minutes which was capped by the clumsy Zanka challenge which brought down Ings, who rolled the spot kick nonchalantly past Lössl.

A thoroughly miserable half ended with a wild Mounié shot and with a fair few depressed supporters already under the stands or walking away altogether. Patience is wearing thin at systems which don’t deliver goals and when subjected to pressure, crumble away.

The Hogg shaped hole in Wagner’s plans couldn’t have been more apparent. A disastrously weak and inexperienced midfield pushed the defensive shape in to blind confusion and the sight of both Kongolo and Schindler struggling to adapt was worrying  and hugely dispiriting, though it seems inconceivable that their manager will inflict yesterday’s line up on them or us any time soon.

For a while in the second half, and after a strong start from their über confident opponents, Town began to introduce a modicum of competence to their performance; undoubtedly attributable to the introduction of Durm and a back four which allowed the team to function. Not particularly well for the most part, and despite a brief period of dominance following Billing’s long distance shot which somehow deceived McCarthy, not enough to rescue a game against superior opposition, but the improvement will surely change Wagner’s thinking for the future. Sadly, that is far from being the extent of his problems.

The brief revival had begun with Town finally forcing McCarthy in to action as he instinctively and impressively turned a close range Zanka header around the post and was then bamboozled by a Billing effort which really should have been a routine save despite the movement the Dane put on the ball. 

With crowd and team coming back to life, Southampton were shaken out of their dominant control and their nerves began to jangle a little too much for their new manager’s comfort. Just 2 minutes after the deficit had been halved, Mbenza turned on a Zanka assist but fired his shot too close to McCarthy who pushed the threat away.

A weak Mounié header didn’t trouble him at all from the resultant corner, but the home side knew there was an opportunity they could exploit if they could only keep their discipline, keep patient and not making any rudimentary errors at the back.

Just over 10 minutes after scoring and launching several attacks resulting in rather poor efforts on goal (and conceding a break which saw Obafemi fire wide when well placed to score), Hadergjonaj brought the ball infield and inexplicably passed back to Schindler when a forward pass was far more obvious and safe. The German’s attempt to shield the ball went disastrously wrong, with Redmond robbing him and feeding Obafemi for the youngster’s first Premier League goal. Town’s brief, not entirely convincing, revival was over and a defeat which opened up the gap to Southampton and others felt just as damaging as all the other 6 pointers we have contrived to blow.

As Huddersfield Town fans consoled themselves with pre Christmas drinks, word came through that in South Wales, footballers of considerably higher quality than the ones who had easily beaten their team that afternoon had thrown off the shackles of another washed up manager and battered Cardiff with a free flowing exhibition of football. With Fulham keeping their first clean sheet as a new manager’s influence starts to get through (perhaps), the nights may be getting longer since Friday, but it’s still damned gloomy.

Still, with Kachunga and Quaner ready to come off the bench, what could go wrong?

A Geordie Rope-A-Dope

Neil Warnock once remarked that fans only remember the second half of games, no matter how well you perform in the first and no appreciation of a more than competent display against a seemingly cowed Newcastle United up to half time can whitewash the shambles which lead to a damaging and ugly defeat after the break.

The sluggish, isolated play of Depoitre (in both halves) will be the focus of much ire, but we have all seen this play many times before.
It bears repeating that Wagner has a game plan which relies almost entirely on getting the first goal and strangling the opposition thereafter. Going behind creates disruption which is rarely overcome as the principles upon which he builds his philosophy disintegrate in to barely coherent alternative plans, be it the throwing on of 2 identical strikers (when available), introducing a centre half to the final third or switching emphasis to a winger or two when wing backs have failed.

Despite often playing much better, and more attractively, than last season – we are more expansive and braver – the margins remain the same and the inability to cope with the setback of concession as toxic as ever.

Until Newcastle produced a move of some quality completely outside of their previous efforts, Town controlled the contest with some ease, all be it without creating genuine chances in the box (though a fit, confident centre forward would have made more of one or two excellent crosses), and it is baffling to see the panic button pressed so early and so unimaginatively.

The final 25 minutes, the ones which will live longer in the memory than the competence of the first 50, were a depressing mess of static confusion, pointless lumping and witless possession which allowed the Geordies’ central defence as comfortable a second half as afforded to Brighton’s in the last home game.

The lack of pace and guile sent the home crowd in to bewildered depression – they instinctively understood that going behind meant defeat, and at no point following the concession did the team on the pitch lift their spirits or provide hope on a dismal day of freezing rain and dawning reality. Sometimes the onus is on the team to lift the crowd, and this was one of those times – it cannot all be one way and they cannot expect blind devotion.

As ever, the effort couldn’t be faulted. Lauren’s closing down and overall exertions did not point to laziness, far from it, Hadergjonaj’s constant availability on the right demanded effort and commitment and the desperate search for a goal didn’t lack endeavour. It just wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough.

Too many players were decent in the comfortable midfield areas where Newcastle conceded space and possession – a literal comfort zone – but woeful in the most important area of the pitch, and open play goals look increasingly beyond a team which simply can’t get enough bodies in the box to support an already beleaguered centre forward (either of them). While Depoitre’s instincts appear to have deserted him – Mounié is a slightly different case – he was always outnumbered, largely dominated and expected to anticipate space which simply wasn’t available for much of the game.

As is often the case, Town started brightly and dominated the Magpies in an uneven midfield battle they won comprehensively. Hogg’s tackling and anticipation, Billing’s purposeful strides forward and total overshadowing of Diamé and Bacuna’s raw but competent prompting created enough pressure to win several matches until the paralysis in or around the area.

Despite overwhelming possession, and not all of it was voluntarily conceded, only a blistering free kick by Billing, very well saved by Dubravka, and a decent but slightly misfit effort by Löwe threatened the visitors’ goal. Hadergjonaj put in some good crosses but with only Depoitre in attendance, the Swiss had to be unerringly accurate for any profit to ensue.

The increasing reliance on set pieces – which had diminished somewhat in recent games – came back with a vengeance, however, and there is something vaguely depressing, and revelatory, in the sheer quantity of unproductive Billing long throws. It seems to be an acceptance that the team isn’t good enough to prosper from less blunt strategies. This may be admirable self awareness, but seems completely alien to Wagner’s usual approach. Let’s ditch it. Please.

Still, by half time, the general consensus was that Town had played pretty well, Billing had shone in a game short on quality and Bacuna had acquitted himself well on full debut. The lack of goals and chances was taken as a given but not, at this point, seen as disastrous.

All of this changed, along with the mood, when a lightning break by Newcastle split Town apart down the right. Escaping the press with a long, rather hopeful, ball forward from deep, the visitors turned a hopeful situation in to a deadly one with sharp passing and movement which opened up space for Rondon – anonymous up to this point – to steer in past the exposed Lössl.

Newcastle had started the second half more effectively, it should be said, and Town hadn’t regained their superiority of the first, but the response to the goal was panic, confusion and ill judged substitutions – not for the first time.

The lead emboldened the visitors’ containment game plan, allowing them to concentrate on defending their goal and spring counter attacks, one of which resulted in an incorrect call from a linesman before Pérez could finish (Benitez’s claim that a second goal had been disallowed was a little ingenuous – Lössl had stopped playing when he saw the flag), and Town’s dilemmas were increased.

With time slipping by, Town’s chances receded exponentially – Pritchard’s cleverness disappeared in the congestion, Newcastle’s defensive wall solidified and still there were too few bodies in the box to meet increasingly desperate crossing.

A decent ball in to Depoitre floundered on the Belgian’s lack of mobility, a defender’s head routinely cut out increasingly desperate crosses, corners and, sigh, Billing bombs and Pritchard fired wildly over when finding rare space.

Sobhi and Mbenza came in to the fray and provided little discernible difference, while Durm’s introduction seemed to be an admission that Löwe’s weird floating role experiment had served only to confuse.

Supporters’ confidence that a point saving goal was a possibility could be assessed by the number heading for the exits and horrible weather; they had definitely seen this play before.

On their lips will have been talk of a new striker in January, but if the problem had such a simple solution, would it not have been addressed before now? Maybe it was a failing of summer recruitment but it is difficult to see how a purchase will automatically solve the tactical malaises up front which have been evident since Wagner arrived.

The first is the stagnation which afflicts the team once the goal is in sight, the second is the lack of support usually provided to the poor sod in the 9 position and the third is the personnel in the shirt (though there has to be some hope for Mounié if not Lauren).

Perhaps a new attacking coach, who can join up the excellent strategies in the other bits of the field with the important bit at the other end, could help? Whatever the solution, without one our life in the Premier League will end in May.

Diving, diving, diving

The history, trophies and wealth drip from the very walls of the Emirates. Triumphant years circle the cavernous stadium from Chapman to Wenger, with the former hinting at what may have been for a Yorkshire club which, with even a semblance of good management and vision, could have built on not only a glorious decade but the solidly successful era until the mid 50s.

Now, however, the gulf between Town and the huge clubs with whom they now try to compete is a yawning chasm. Last season, the Terriers simply collapsed in the face of genuinely overwhelming odds; a supine performance without a scintilla of pride and the team prostrating themselves before a mid game collapse which screamed helplessness.

Perhaps assisted by the Gunners recent schedule – including a frantic draw at Old Trafford 24 hours after Town’s promising but unsuccessful trip to Bournemouth – the contrast this season could not have been more stark.

Disciplined, aggressive and unfazed by either the talent they faced or the unbeaten run stretching back 20 games of the hosts, Town forced Arsenal to dig deep in to their reserves (including 2 very good ones at the break) to gain a slender if probably deserved win to maintain their momentum.

That the visitors frustrated the North Londoners for over 85 minutes was admirable but hugely irritating when a brave point seemed more likely as time slipped by.

It is of some solace that, yet again, Town substantially improved their performance over last season but this does not add to the points tally and, crucially, can only be of some use if replicated against non top 6 sides in general and the increasingly stranded other 6 in particular.

Pressing high, Town largely subdued Arsenal’s redoubtable fluency and flair in a first half which rarely rose above the level of mundane and descended in to a scrap at times with referee Paul Tierney dipping in to his pocket 7 times before half time. The tetchiness emanated from both sides, lest anyone feels the need to suggest that the underdogs were simply undermining the aristocrats with foul play, though there was a condensed spell of Town indiscretions which resulted in Tierney calling over Smith to provide a warning that the visitors were going too far.

Disrupted early, the home side rarely moved through the gears as efficiently as they can; indeed, reverse was selected on several occasions, prompting some rare, not particularly encouraging noise from their supporters.

Stout and disciplined defending largely stemmed the Gunners in the final third, but just short of the half hour, they created two excellent chances for their two celebrated forwards, Aubameyang and Lacazette. The first saw the Gabonese put a very presentable chance wide with an instinctive shot, while the Frenchman made a complete hash when alone in the area, hitting a shot against his own foot with the ball ballooning over the bar. 

Both were let offs, but Lacazette latched on to a horribly under hit back pass by Zanka, rounded Lössl to slot home and turned away in half celebration to come face to face with the linesman’s flag. Shortly before Zanka’s error, the excellent Kongolo had deliberately played the striker offside, allowing him to go forward beyond Town’s defensive line, and the linesman was fully aware of the defender’s clever move – the decision was correct.

At the other end, Town struggled to cause much concern and until late in to the half, a reasonable effort from Löwe was all they had to show for their not inconsiderable efforts away from the danger areas. A typically tepid attack appeared to have been easily broken up as the break loomed, but a poor clearance handed the initiative back to Mooy who found Smith unmarked on the right. The captain found Pritchard who curled his first time effort over the bar. It was similar to an effort he had at Watford and really should have hit the target.

Half time parity seemed inevitable but there was time for Arsenal to almost take a season first lead in to the break when Torreira hit an excellent shot which appeared destined to end that particular, remarkable, statistic only for Lössl to claw the ball away with a fabulous save. 

From the subsequent corner, Mustafi fell down in the area under the slightest contact from Depoitre and was duly booked for simulation – the second of three Arsenal players to be booked for Sean Dyche’s favourite transgression. Comically, and for reasons only known to himself, Xhaka had been the first, seeking advantage in the centre circle following his leg being brushed by Mooy.

A mixture of high energy, some good fortune and a largely stuttering home performance  saw Town through a highly creditable first half, during which the visitors had, unlike last season, looked largely comfortable in elevated company.
Mkhitaryan and Iwobi were introduced by Unai Emery to increase his team’s creativity and threat and the change of shape rather pushed Town deeper and less comfortable than they were against the twin strike force deployed in the first half (the out of sorts Lacazette was sacrificed).

The change nearly paid immediate dividend as Mkhitaryan shot wide following a move of some menace, though a rare Hogg mistake had put the visitors in danger when he lost the ball with too few colleagues behind him. Town’s all action central midfielder had suffered an arm injury in the first half which required lengthy treatment and another knock finally ended his participation after just 5 minutes of the second half, necessitating the introduction of the inexperienced Bacuna, who acquitted himself very well.

Williams, who ran himself in to the ground on his first appearance, was understandably replaced midway through the half for Durm, shortly after Smith had to go off with injury with Hadergjonaj coming on.

The disruption caused by the change of personnel could have spelt disaster for the visitors, especially with Arsenal stepping up a gear with their own, voluntary changes at the break, but the substitutes performed well and Town’s resilience remained intact.

Whenever the Gunners tried to inject pace and fluidity to their game, Town hassled and disrupted their movement leaving few gaps and little space to the extent that the only danger after the first moments of the half came from a weak back post header by Aubameyang following a corner.

Forays forward were few as Town adapted to the introduction of substitutes but there was little desperation in their defending and the rather scrappy nature of play continued to help their cause. The only moment of real promise for the visitors came when the lively Pritchard created room in the box but his intended ball to Depoitre was intercepted by Leno.
Arsenal’s frustration was palpable. Unable to break down a defence increasingly comfortable with the uncharacteristically leaden forward movement they faced, and not entirely convincing when Town went forward, the mood in the stadium was gloomy and very quiet.

The exasperation translated in to some further theatrics with Guendouzi falling over in the box and collecting, remarkably, a third Arsenal booking for simulation (surely a record). Torreira could have added to the tally when he collapsed to the ground after Mooy’s hand accidentally created turbulence around his head but the referee – otherwise quite excellent – awarded a ridiculous free kick.

At the other end, Town had a genuine appeal for a penalty waved away when Pritchard was caught as he tried to bring down a ball in to the box and turn his defender, though the defender was probably rightly given the benefit of the doubt.

With time running out, another apparently mundane Arsenal attack was turned in to a winning goal by a piece of skill rather out of place in a game of endeavour and sweat. Kongolo and Löwe tried to defend a loose ball at the back post, with the former putting in a decent block, but Aubameyang was quickly on to it and chipped a delightful ball in to the unmarked Torreira to finish from close range. The extravagant bicycle kick took the headlines, but it was the chip from a not altogether promising position which finally undid the visitors.

It was a cruel blow after a resilient display and the relief of Arsenal and the home crowd was evidenced by a ridiculously elongated celebration which, and again to the referee’s credit, was reflected in the 7 minutes of injury time awarded.
Depoitre was the subject of a slight push in the area which saw him fall rather optimistically, though the anger of Papastathopoulos was hilariously hypocritical.

The Belgian was also narrowly beaten to an excellent Pritchard cross, but an unlikely equaliser never seemed on the cards.
Beaten, but far from disgraced, Town can take many positives out of a game where their game plan was interrupted but not disrupted by injuries. The spineless defeat last season left no doubt that they were a long way away from being competitive with the top sides – this one was precisely the opposite. While Arsenal’s class remains significantly superior, Town looked worthy of being their opposition and were only undone by a piece of creative skill late on.

Bacuna’s assured performance in the middle of the park and the successful return of Williams meant that the absence of Billing wasn’t particularly felt, but the lack of genuine threat in the final third continues to hamstring the overall competency of the side. Depoitre worked hard again, and was vital to the high press in the first half which so subdued the Gunners, but he, and the onlooking, gift distributing Mounié in the away section, must add goals and quickly.

It is dispiriting that two fine away performances have not added to the points tally, and with no solutions apparent for the lack of goal threat, the struggle is plain and obvious. Wagner’s calm head will prevail, however, and it does feel as if reward is on the near horizon – Town now must take advantage of 3 home games to collect points to give us a chance in the second half of the season.

Frustration piling up

Following the disappointment of defeat at the hands of an incompetent referee on Saturday, Town produced yet another unrewarded but satisfying performance at Dean Court to add further frustration to a season where the team has clearly shown significant improvement individually and collectively while simultaneously appearing to be in greater danger.

Bournemouth, enjoying their best Premier League season so far, may have been physically and mentally drained after stretching Manchester City at the weekend but they raced in to a seemingly ominous 2 goal lead after 20 minutes with the first coming as a direct result of more poor officiating as the linesman gave an incomprehensible free kick for the home side and then another in quick succession. From the second free kick, the same linesman failed to spot a pretty clear offside as Wilson headed the Cherries in front.

After further scares at the back – a flicked King header was only just wide and a Wilson shot was deflected fortuitously by Zanka – Town were beginning to settle down when a poor ball from Billing was intercepted and played up to Wilson who found the raiding Fraser with an excellent ball and the Scotsman finished the devastatingly quick move before Town had a chance to recover their shape.

To their credit, the visitors didn’t let the double setback affect them and they proceeded to dominate the game almost entirely from that moment.

Retaining possession and using it progressively and aggressively, they should have halved the arrears within minutes as first Billing was denied by a deflection and then Pritchard by Begovic from the subsequent corner before an incisive move involving Mooy, Depoitre and Hadergjonaj saw the wing back put in a perfect cross for the Belgian only for his header to be put too close to Begovic who, nevertheless, made a good save.

The Bosnian also denied Mooy from a free kick but with less than 10 minutes to go until half time, Town deservedly clawed their way back in to the game when Mooy picked up a second ball following a half cleared corner and crossed in to the still heavily populated area. The first head up was Schindler, who flicked the ball further in to the box for Zanka who out jumped his marker and found the final member of Town’s defensive triumvirate, Kongolo whose header looped over Begovic’s despairing clawing and in to the net.

It was the least Town deserved after an awful first 20 minutes where little went right for the visitors – particularly as yet another poor decision (indeed, decisions) conspired against them yet again. The second, which was superbly executed by Bournemouth’s exciting front men, stemmed from a very poor mistake up the pitch – and one which would have been seen as a cardinal error against this particular opponent who can hurt you very badly if unshackled.

Other than a breakaway which saw King waste an opportunity for the hosts, the second half belonged to the West Yorkshire side.
Unfortunately, much of the excellent work between the boxes floundered at the sharp end of the pitch, though Begovic had to make some interventions and Ake marshalled his increasingly beleaguered defence well (it is to be hoped that his talent is not stripped away from Bournemouth, where he has flourished, but, sadly, he will surely be a major target of the super rich clubs in January).

Anybody watching on would not have guessed that it was the team in red and black who were about to enter the top six after the game, rather than the team completely dominating possession, forcing error after error and making all the running but they may have had an inkling that the ruthlessness of the home side was the decisive factor.

A very annoyed Billing was replaced on 75 minutes by Sabiri who was immediately injured with his first contact with play – we have had all the luck this season – and forced Wagner to replace him with Sobhi. Kongolo had been replaced by Mbenza at the same time as Town’s need for 3 central defenders had long since disappeared, but the changes didn’t bring any increased threat to the home goal and the Cherries saw out the game to their evident relief.

Though Wagner denied his side had deserved anything from the game, on the basis of the defensive errors and attacking shortfalls, those of us who witnessed the game came away with great pride that in the face of adversity, the Terriers played with a conviction and aggression which totally subdued a very good Bournemouth side who simply couldn’t gain any foothold in the game after the first, disastrous, 20 minutes.

As has often been the case this season, the performance relative to the same fixture last season was massively improved, making the defeat even more disappointing. Pyrrhic victories garner no points.
Wagner was a little harsh on the defenders – they were let down by a linesman and a midfielder – but the lack of a goalscorer is an entrenched, debilitating problem. Depoitre’s general play wasn’t at all bad but, like Mounié, is failing in his prime purpose.

There is hope, however. When on song, Town can control games with an iron grip and the bad luck which seems to have followed the club around for much of the season must surely turn at some point.

On to the free hit at the Emirates – a huge challenge, but on this showing, maybe not entirely hopeless?

Oliver! The pantomime


The meticulous short, medium and long term planning central to David Wagner’s semi miraculous transformation of Huddersfield Town is necessary to counter the financial and cultural disadvantages which applied both at Championship and now Premier League level.

Reasonably often, and much more so at the elevated status, events interrupt and disrupt the plans of mice, men and German geniuses.
Perhaps it is the lack of options, or a suspicion of strategies not formulated in the calm of the preceding week, which inhibits the manager’s reaction to negative circumstances but he needs to find an answer to both his side being reduced by a man and his opponents suffering a dismissal. Time and again, whether facing ten or playing with ten, Town fall way short.
Rightly, the furore surrounding the performance of Michael Oliver has taken centre stage – and there will be no respite here – but the reaction to Mounié’s ridiculous dismissal demands some scrutiny and criticism.
Having a centre forward, particularly one who is not scoring, sent off is not and should not necessarily be a signal to retrench. Sure, there will be defensive implications and a need for even greater concentration and commitment but there has to be question marks over the mentality of the team and the spontaneity of the management when confronted with adversity.
The team looked defeated in a horrible second half, despite an initially spirited response to Oliver’s rash and ridiculous red card, and the mindset was compounded by the natural but flawed decision to replace Pritchard with Depoitre when innovation was required.
The setback of conceding an equaliser on the stroke of the half time whistle didn’t help, but the body language of some players – Billing, having been told all week that he had finally added maturity and strength to his game, proceeded to stroll around the pitch with a hangdog expression which should have seen him hooked before his culpability for Brighton’s winner and was the worst culprit – invited the dominance of the visitors who were allowed to play with carefree abandon at times.
Depoitre, who doesn’t look in peak shape, spent his time chasing around Brighton’s ultra comfortable defenders like an enthusiastic toddler trapped in an endless maze of triangles. He had as much success in the air against Dunk and Duffy whose comfort zone couldn’t have been cosier had we served them cocktails.
Despite his unfortunate appearances for the club to date, Mbenza was a much better option. Sitting as deep as Town were determined to do, the outlet had to be pace; not only could either of Brighton’s rather vulnerable full backs – from the evidence of the first half – be troubled, it may have got us behind the visitors’ excellent central defenders.
Williams’ drive was also far preferable to Billing’s indolence which may have unleashed Mbenza’s pace. What Mbenza would’ve unleashed is up for conjecture, but it is difficult to imagine how he could have been less effective than the big Belgian.
None of this would matter but for the performance of a referee who has form for taking decisions detrimental to Huddersfield Town – it may be futile to request that he is not involved again this season, but the message is worth sending. It cannot be comfortable for Oliver himself to be assigned either – his name rang from the terraces with vociferous anger and he was afforded a security guard to his car after the game and will not be a welcome guest at the stadium any time soon.
The decision to send off Mounié for a challenge he clearly tried to pull away from will be seen as acceptable to the authorities – precluding a surely doomed appeal – but lacked understanding of the game, careful decision making and empathy. A yellow card was the obvious, and easily acceptable, punishment for clumsiness which caused some pain but not serious injury to Bissouma.
After the sending off, Oliver further enraged the crowd by turning down a solid penalty claim as Pritchard was manhandled in the area, preventing the diminutive striker reaching a loose ball. It would be interesting to hear his explanation for allowing Pröpper to have his arm around Pritchard’s neck – maybe it would be as creative as the leg before hand confection created for him after Milner’s intervention in the area versus Liverpool.
It is rare indeed for Wagner to complain about referees – he understands that resistance is pointless – so his suppressed incandescent rage spoke volumes. Unfortunately, it may also explain the rather unimaginative responses to the situation with which his team were faced.
The traditional Seagull capitulation in Huddersfield seemed to be well on track after 15 minutes. Bruno, who cannot relish his trips to this part of West Yorkshire, gifted Town the lead in under a minute. A Billing long throw found its way to the hapless Spaniard who managed to produce a high, hanging cross rarely delivered by Town’s own players and Zanka climbed above the stunned Brighton defence to open the scoring.
Brighton’s fragile confidence had suffered a huge early blow and Town should have buried the visitors in an opening spell which seemed to mesmerise Bernardo at right back for the visitors. Town raided persistently and successfully down his flank creating half decent opportunities through Hadergjonaj, with the best falling my to Pritchard whose first attempt was blocked and his second wide. Mounié also made a decent connection but saw his effort fly over.
With Mooy pulling the strings, the visitors looked highly vulnerable for the first quarter of an hour but, gradually, they began to string passes together and were unfortunate not to equalise from a corner when Andone’s goal bound effort from close in hit Hogg on the chest and over the bar.
The chance invigorated the visitors who began to dominate possession and wrestle Town out of their composed stranglehold on the game – though the upcoming dismissal of Mounié was to be pivotal, it should be said that Brighton had, by that point, asserted more authority on the game and were moving Town players around nicely with good possession.
Struggling to maintain their early ascendancy, Town’s play had become decidedly untidy  and a far cry from the energy imposed upon Wolves six days earlier. Uncharacteristically, Hogg’s drive looked reduced, Billing seemed to regress back to the talented but undisciplined youngster of last season and only the combined efforts of the back 3, and Zanka in particular, was keeping the growing confidence of the visitors in check.
Oliver’s absurd and posturing decision put further pressure on the misfiring home side though, ironically, the setback seemed to spur them on initially. It was at this point that Oliver turned down the huge penalty appeal (moments later, he gave a free kick for a foul on Pritchard outside the area – an easy decision which barely began to compensate but gave Town players the opportunity to advise him what they thought of his inaction).
The third turning point of the game, following the red card and the non penalty, arrived with seconds to go before injury time expired. A hopeless looking cross ball was acrobatically kept in play by Bruno, forcing a corner, and – finally – the bearded one was to gain redemption with a quickly taken ball to March who floated an excellent, impossible to defend, cross on to the head of the advancing Duffy, who timed his run to perfection.
The equaliser changed the complexion of the second half and was a cruel blow to the home team’s chances of gaining any reward from the game.
From the outset, Brighton controlled possession in the second half and were the only realistic winners. Lössl was forced in to very good saves in the opening minutes as the Seagulls grasped the initiative, sensing a despair in the home ranks which was barely suppressed.
Opportunities to open Town up were wasted, but the narrative was the same – constant Brighton pressure against a deflated home side waiting to be defeated.
The winner, when it came, owed as much to a slack piece of defending by Billing as it did to another perfectly timed run – this time by Brighton debutant Andone who flicked the ball past Lössl for his first Premier League goal. The clinical nature of the finish left home supporters wistful for something similar; Brighton paid around £6.5M for a striker who looks very capable of scoring goals while much of our summer budget sits on the bench or in the stands, unable to make any sort of impression.
The game was lost at that point – Mooy had just been sacrificed for Smith (who came out of the game with some credit) and as if capitulating to the inevitable, Hogg was relieved for Williams, who should have appeared at half time in place of Billing.
Brighton’s intensity dipped as they saw out the game with comfort, and an Oliver inspired 3 points were theirs.
For all the injustice of Mounié’s dismissal, the response wasn’t good enough. Sitting far too deep, displaying all the signs of defeat in the face of adversity and offering virtually nothing in response to Brighton’s winner, the lack of a different response to going a man down was worryingly familiar. Unfortunately for Town, Brighton were far more capable of taking advantage than Cardiff and a similarly grim clinging on for a point never looked likely to succeed.
The result rather negates the efforts at Molineux and with two huge challenges facing the club, David Wagner needs to resolve the problem of having one, apparently less than fully functioning, front line striker. It is to be hoped that necessity will prove to be the mother of invention because the thought of Depoitre bumbling away in front of Ake on Tuesday night is too horrible to contemplate.
As for Oliver; no more please, sir.