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.