Wolves hunted down

Of course, it had to be Wolves. 

Town’s head to head record against all manner and shape of teams from the Black Country, in whatever form they are in, however much they have or haven’t spent and under managers as disparate as McCarthy and Nuno is quite remarkable, stretching back over 20 years.

The current Old Gold iteration is one brimming with talent as evidenced by an excellent first season back in the top flight, yet Siewert’s much changed team nullified their naturally expansive play with a combination of tenacity and discipline so sorely missing at St James’ Park.

Saturday’s performance, even given the early reduction to ten men, clearly rattled the new manager desperate for a first win or point. Eight of the starting eleven found themselves ousted with a couple excluded entirely as, notably, Grant was given a first start, Stanković handed the opportunity to finally show what a good player he can be and, in the most left field change, Duhaney was included from, well, nowhere, really.

Pritchard was drafted in after a long absence out of favour and the team selection appeared very bold, brave and potentially disastrous with Mooy – whose performance at the weekend was way below his high standards – relegated to the bench.

After a promising opening 15 minutes when Town dominated possession and territory but without causing much consternation for the visitors, other than a wickedly deflected Hogg effort which rather fortuitously flew narrowly wide, the first half descended in to something of a bore. Wolves’ superior technical ability eventually stemmed the early enthusiasm but without creating any significant danger for the hosts.

The one area of concern for Town in the first half was the inexperienced Duhaney being rather exposed defensively – his work on the ball was more than competent – and Siewert sensibly replaced him at half time with Bacuna. It was to prove to be an excellent substitution.

If the first half was a rather damp squib, the second came to life immediately with a goal bound Mounié effort deflecting off a defender and wide. From the corner, the hugely impressive Stanković could only head weakly despite little attention from the Wolves defence. Unfortunately, it was also slightly too firmly headed for the equally impressive Grant to apply a finishing touch near the line.

Grant’s willing running up front gave Town a new dimension up front (or, to put it a little more cruelly, an actual dimension) and Siewert’s stated aim of creating more chances, which looked very hollow at Newcastle, is taking shape. The problems are far from resolved, but the youngster’s movement is surely the way forward to improve the pitiful goals output.

Despite being on the front foot from the start, quelling the free flowing style of the Black Country men remained essential and, with some straining and occasional discomfort, the defence coped admirably. 

Central to the effort was Stanković’s cool presence, excellent timing and composed distribution. Kongolo and Schindler produced much improved performances than of late while Bacuna, playing an unfamiliar role, added aggression and pump fisting determination even if there were one or two flaws. In contrast to the youngster he replaced, he was able to recover and rectify his errors.

Bacuna’s influence down the right grew with the half and an excellent diagonal ball evaded Kongolo’s long legs (he had remained forward following a failed set piece) and bounced up invitingly for Mouniè. As has too often happened this season, his finishing instinct deserted him and he hit the side netting when he really should’ve scored.

The only real moment of genuine concern for the home side was when an unmarked Boly headed over from a corner, and it was the only moment where the back line could be criticised. Thankfully, and just for a change, the opponent wasn’t able to capitalise.

From then on, however, Town began to dominate and push forward with the greater conviction. Desperate to produce a win to reward the enduring patience of their disappointed but fundamentally realistic supporters, there was a palpable determination to their challenges on the ground and in the air, a noticeable fitness superiority and willingness to get men forward.

A great tackle by Hogg in midfield set Pritchard in motion. He found the ever willing Grant who, despite being pushed wide, found Hogg’s head at the near post but his instinctive flick went over.

The busy and creative Pritchard came off for Mooy shortly afterwards and Siewert’s second substitution was as effective and influential as his first with the Aussie adding his familiar calm to an intensifying home effort. It wasn’t long before he had a shot, either, fed by Mouniè and just wide.

By this point, the crowd sensed, rather in fervent hope than expectation born of experience, something may be on the cards. An excellent Mouniè strike curled just wide with the keeper beaten. Kachunga, lively as the third substitute, created the opportunity.

It was Mooy who finally opened up Wolves, capitalising on tired legs by bursting down the right and firing over a cross which reached Grant whose effort deflected off a defender, past the keeper and towards the prone Mouniè who poked in the winner.

The release of tension on the pitch, on the touchline and in the stands was as if the Terriers had won a trophy rather than their first 3 points since November, but who could blame us?

In stark contrast to Saturday’s dismal efforts, the second half performance in particular was brimming with spirit, energy and determination; which is all the fair minded, realistic supporter asks of the team.

Siewert’s bold decision making before and during the game delivered and, hopefully, both he and the players can gain much needed confidence to finish the season with a flourish to provide a springboard for the Championship campaign to come.

While Jon Gorenc Stanković will rightly take the plaudits for his flawless performance, Grant’s constant hard work caught the eye – he provided essential motion, something we have desperately needed all season. Bacuna’s promise was again on show.

A rare moment of joy in a quite horrible season was reward for a phlegmatic, largely good humoured and remarkably understanding support – a few more encouraging displays and results to create some momentum could prove crucial for the next campaign, even if dreams of a miracle escape are pure fantasy.

Town wash up on the Geordie shore

Newcastle United strolled to a victory over 10 man Town to put daylight between themselves and the increasingly adrift Fulham, setting up a scrap for the final relegation spot they look likely to avoid.

With injuries to Mbenza and Diakhaby stripping Siewert’s squad of pace, his selection was, nevertheless, curious to say the least. Seeing Kongolo on the bench was almost as depressing as the inclusion of the leaden Depoitre. In need of a drastic change in fortune, especially in front of goal, the limited opportunities given to Grant remains baffling – while it would be unfair to burden a lad with scoring the goals which could provide the season with a semblance of respectability, there is little left to lose.

For 20 minutes, Town dominated possession but the familiar strategy of trying to thread rope through the eye of a needle failed to trouble the Geordie defence in any meaningful way. Other than a potentially dangerous cross from Smith, which was cut out comfortably, Town’s laborious approach play was tragically easy to defend against and the home side simply waited for their opportunity to strike.

On 12 minutes, Newcastle beat the high press and produced a move of pace and quality which should have been rewarded with the opening goal. Carving the visitors apart in the space of seconds, impressive debutant Almiron chipped his effort over Lössl but on to the post. Following up, Rondón also hit the post, though a corner was awarded.

The move illustrated the gulf between the sides which was to widen as the game progressed. Pace, movement and understanding stripped the visitors bare and hope was already fading when Tommy Smith decided to perform a reckless, high challenge on Almiron which wiped out the Paraguayan and earned a deserved red card.

Relying on swathes of luck, poor finishing by United and some excellent goalkeeping by Lössl, Town survived a torrid test for the rest of the half but any thoughts of unlikely victory were effectively abandoned following Smith’s aberration. Replacing Puncheon with Hadergjonaj rather signalled Town’s intention to preserve a point – introducing Kongolo to play in a back 3 would have been less conventional and rather more brave but the already flawed selection would have required drastic surgery to change the course of events.

If the first half had, at least, seen Town display a level of resilience, the second was a pitiful capitulation which should have seen the visitors swept away. Again, the form of Lössl prevented a deserved towelling. The Dane could do little about the weak defending which saw Newcastle score twice in the first 7 minutes after the interval which removed any lingering doubts about the final outcome.

With Perez and Ritchie hanging out wide to exploit Town’s numerical disadvantage, Newcastle stretched their opponents effectively and often but it was indecision and passivity in the box which undid them.
First, Rondón pounced on a ball which deflected off Almiron’s knee before Mooy could put in a challenge, then Perez took advantage of defensive hesitancy to sweep home the second.

The contest was over and the only question now was how many the Geordies would rack up against their beleaguered and doomed opponents. Incredibly, the answer was none. Great saves by Lössl and some wayward finishing meant that Town entered the final 15 minutes with a flicker of a hope that if they could somehow contrive to score they may apply some pressure on to the hosts who should have been out of sight.

No chances came as Town played mostly sideways and backwards with the home team content to allow possession in the full knowledge that it carried virtually no threat whatsoever. Turgid progress was easily halted and replacing Depoitre with Mounié changed nothing, just as swapping Bacuna with Billing had little discernible affect.

In the end, a two goal defeat was highly flattering and monumentally depressing. All of the promise shown in the narrow defeat to Arsenal drifted away in to the north eastern air; while the loss of Smith was mitigating, the absence of anything like innovation to try to overcome the disadvantage was inexcusable.

A special mention here for yet another Hadergjonaj dive and die abomination. His embarrassing play acting is becoming seriously annoying and nearly lead to Newcastle taking the lead in the first half. On a more positive note, Bacuna, at least, tried to make things happen before being withdrawn following a knock, but there was little else, bar Lössl’s great saves, to commend a performance so feeble and benighted.

The scale of the challenge facing Jan Siewert is undeniably daunting and he needs to be given time but his selection and tactics yesterday failed to provide any vestige of hope. While the reputation of Pritchard, for example, is growing purely through absence, the new manager has to introduce new faces to a team still incapable of scoring or gaining the points necessary to overhaul Derby’s ignominious record.

Sadly, we won’t be visiting Newcastle again next season – a great city with great people and an exceptional away day. Apart from the 90 minutes we came for.

Hazard lights up a blue afternoon

It seems unlikely we will be asked, as we were after the Everton game, to look for positives after a 5-0 defeat but, counter intuitively, there actually were some at Stamford Bridge against an excellent Chelsea side and few, if any, in the slender home reversal.

The west London stadium will always be remembered for the draw which preserved Premier League status rather than this hammering, and rightly so, yet Town played significantly more football in abject defeat than they did on that legendary night and, for the first 45 minutes at least, performed as divisional equals rather than plucky survivors.

Eventually, the visitors were overwhelmed by the sheer quality of their hosts who were clearly determined to banish their Dean Court horrors against the weakest side in the league.

After a good move which created an opportunity for Mooy, headed just over by the returning Aussie, and a fair few breaks utilising Diakhaby’s pace (though, sadly, lacking a final ball or any semblance of composure), Chelsea took the lead with a piece of class from Kante who reverse passed to take full advantage of Higuain’s excellent movement.

The Argentine, who enjoyed an excellent home debut for the Pensioners had been denied by a good block from Schindler and a slightly too tight angle before opening his Chelsea account as a surprisingly open game provided a decent level of entertainment. Unlike on that glorious, status saving night, Town were willing to attack and defended quite well under significant pressure.

They should have been rewarded with going in to the break only one down and still in some sort of contention before being completely undone by yet another exceptionally poor refereeing decision. Kachunga, who worked hard but not particularly effectively throughout the half, tracked back and his gentle nudge on Azpilicueta, outside the area, was deemed a penalty.

Hazard, more of whom later, stepped up and ended the contest.
It was harsh on the strugglers who had played their part. The returning Mooy and Billing had given Town’s midfield a much more familiar look though it was Bacuna who caught the eye more than the returnees with a performance which showed no little promise.

The gulf in quality, however, was undeniable. Chelsea’s array of world class footballers passed and moved with effortless authority while Town’s journeymen strained every sinew to try to make things go their way. Hazard, in particular, was astonishingly good. 

Watching him on television showcases his enormous talent, but only in two dimensions; in the flesh, the Belgian is even better. An instinctive awareness of space, untouchable on the ball and a sublime passer, Hazard ghosts around the pitch and defies any attempt to man mark him – get too close and he will destroy you in a couple of feet of space, lay off him and he will bamboozle you in to giddy confusion.

Despite the contest being obviously over at half time, Town held out for 20 minutes in the second half though they were grateful for some rather wasteful Chelsea play. The sum total of Town’s contribution was a weak Billing shot from distance, though Kachunga, chasing a lost cause, looked to be caught in the box but, of course, the defender was given the benefit of the doubt in this instance.

Slowly but surely, however, the visitors began to unravel as incessant Chelsea pressure all over the pitch started to tell and midfield mistakes became more regular. One such error lead to Barkley striding forward and feeding Hazard who capped a great display with a clinical finish.
Minutes later, Chelsea conjured a quality fourth with Higuain firing home after being teed up, again, by Kante. The shot took a significant deflection over Lössl, giving the keeper no chance.

By this point, Town had dissolved in to an unseemly mess and whatever confidence had been garnered from a so-so first half evaporated in the face of the painfully huge gap in quality. By the time David Luiz’s header from a corner was diverted in to the net by Kachunga (Lössl would probably have saved the effort), Hazard had been replaced and while Town’s torment didn’t stop when he was off the pitch, they no longer had to worry about a player operating on a different universe to them.

Despite the spirit sapping performance in the second half, the away support continued to cheer on their team though the black humour so necessary to alleviate the pain was much in evidence. “You’re nothing special, we lose every week” was a particular favourite, along with jibes at the passive, touristy home support.

A brief and enthusiastic appearance by new signing Karlan Grant offered a glimpse of his willingness to find attacking space but no opportunities for him to actually use it. Hopefully, his chance will come against lesser opposition. Arsenal (!).

As we wait for relegation, the next few months can only be described as purgatorial. Somehow, the new manager and team are going to have to pull out some encouraging performances and maybe even a goal or two. As it stands, a soul destroying future looks far more likely with no end in sight.

Footnote: thankfully, I’m off until Newcastle away. Timing it to coincide with the FA cup, just the one game missed v Arsenal. I may report on the US experience of watching your team on NBC but I’ll probably ski instead.