When Mounié met Mbenza’s perfect cross to put Huddersfield Town in to the lead in a game they surely had to win to cling on to any hope of survival, they were rewarded for a competent, if not exactly spectacular, opening half hour and the success starved home support revelled in the highlight of the night, possibly the year.
In truth and by the time the lead was established, Burnley were already the more likely team to triumph. Town’s play was scrappy and unfocused and the excellent Mbenza cross was an outlier though the relief for Mounié scoring his first, very well taken, goal of the season was tangible.
It all fell apart rapidly as the visitors deservedly levelled within 5 minutes. The excellent young prospect Dwight McNeil, starting only his second Premier League game, tormented the fragile Hadergjonaj, and not for the first time, on the left and swept in a low cross for Wood to equalise from close range. Given Hadergjonaj’s quite awful form, it was a major surprise for him to be selected over Durm though the German’s vulnerability to injury and unsuitability to playing two full games in a week may have forced Wagner’s hand.
Just one minute later, Schindler, apparently blissfully unaware that he had been booked, illegally halted a dangerous Burnley attack – which was initiated by a woeful restart by Town (the increasingly irritating ball back for Zanka to stop and Schindler to launch) – and the bemused German was sent off.
Though there could be some sympathy for Schindler falling foul of Mike Dean’s idiosyncratic yellow card brandishing, the sheer folly of the situation highlighted the desperately muddled state of the club right now. Alternatively, it is also difficult to summon sympathy when a cynical play (the chances of Burnley scoring were high) results in the ultimate punishment.
Down to ten – an equation we struggle with both when depleted or facing the depleted – Town’s paddle could be seen floating down the shitty creek. The Clarets had already shown they were a more efficient outfit who passed more crisply, moved more effectively and played with sheds more confidence and it was difficult to imagine anything other than another gloomy outcome.
So it proved. Pritchard’s creativity was replaced by Durm’s versatility when any reshuffle should have seen Hadergjonaj relieved of his misery instead. Mechanical, obvious thinking won the day as it almost always does – Mounié tried, unsuccessfully, to play in the spaces left by his diminutive colleague and was peripheral at best for the rest of the game.
The effort of most in the second half couldn’t be faulted, but Burnley’s control of the ball was exhaustingly effective and it was only a matter of time before they took a likely unassailable lead.
The goal owed much to excellent centre forward play by Wood who, despite missing a very good headed chance at the back post, had an excellent game – one which could be instructive to both Mounié and Depoitre. Taking a ball with his back to goal, he laid it back first time with his head, moved in to space and received the ball back before moving it on. Burnley had, by the time Wood had done his work, overloaded Town’s back four and Barnes was played in to slot past Lössl.
Town’s attempts to get an equaliser in an increasingly frantic finale were far from convincing and the appearance of Depoitre (for the injured Durm) with 5 minutes to play didn’t augur well – Town have yet to score a goal when both he and Mounié are on the pitch but as the injury time board was held up, a good run from Mbenza was ended by a dangerous challenge by Brady which brought a well deserved red.
Billing lined up a shot from the free kick which was a decent effort but cleared the bar with Heaton scrambling and the 8th consecutive defeat was confirmed.
While there is no way of knowing if the result would have been different without the sending off, deep down those of a blue and white persuasion must concede that Dyce’s men looked more accomplished for most of the game and misses the crucial point anyway – for two seasons we have operated on the edge. One goal wins with good game management in the Championship and just enough paper thin wins and draws in the Premier League have provided two memorable campaigns but, eventually, when you are on that edge, you are going to fall off.
Criticism of the summer recruitment is valid but often ignores the reality of attracting players to a club certain to be fighting against expected relegation and the long term financial consequences of not planning for life in the league below. Mbenza is a case in point – loaned in for his potential, the early signs were not at all good but his displays at Old Trafford and against Burnley suggest that there is a player to emerge. He should have played at Fulham.
Barring a miraculous recovery, Town are down and need to prepare to take advantage of their financial strength next season – an advantage which will change the narrative we have been used to and which will present its own challenges.
The club owes the supporters a cup run now. A shadow team at Bristol on Saturday is not acceptable – they MUST take it seriously.