Tentative steps in the right direction

Coping with and adapting to adversity have been qualities decidedly absent from Huddersfield Town’s recent past as ill fortune piled on to the shoulders of the Cowley brothers’ predecessors and pretty much crushed them.

Having built a revival on the foundations of a solid, consistent back four, the management team found themselves faced with three quarters of their defence ruled out with injury, including one for the season, and few obvious options to not only replace their preferred personnel but also to maintain the balance and standards which underpinned the improvement in results and league position.

The announced team seemed to suggest that switching to 3 centre backs may have been the answer they had devised with the 2 obvious full backs – Hadergjonaj and Kongolo – left on the bench, but few of us realised that O’Brien’s burgeoning talent extended to being a dynamic and quite excellent left back.

While the makeshift, and slightly more experienced, right back was not as successful overall, the defensive line largely achieved a good balance and, but for some late sloppiness, would have thwarted a decent Birmingham City side who fully contributed to a quite entertaining game under leaden West Yorkshire skies.

It was the visitors who made the brighter start as Town adapted to the enforced changes with Jutkiewicz predictably a handful but as the game developed, the hosts settled and had slightly the better of a first half with much enterprise but few chances.

A break by Kachunga, capitalising on a poor error in midfield ended with a rising, unthreatening effort and the German-Congolese had the best chance of the half as he met an excellent cross from Pritchard only to see his header well saved and Campbell’s follow up blocked.
Neither side, however, was able to sustain dominance and a hard fought contest swung to and fro.

For their part, Birmingham occasionally found the room for their more creative players, Daniel Crowley in particular, to operate but lacked the cutting edge some of their approach play deserved.

Bacuna was caught out once or twice down the visitors’ left but performed reasonably well in his adopted role for most of the first half while on the other side, O’Brien was outstanding in the face of not inconsiderable threat. 

Despite too many instances of sloppy distribution and occasional struggles against the physicality of Jutkiewicz, Stanković adapted reasonably well as Schindler’s new partner.

With very little playing time or opportunities for what seems to have been forever, the Slovenian’s time has now arrived; he deserves a little patience and will have to improve in possession but he must grab his chance.

The pre match problems surrounding who to play in the back four were alleviated to an extent by the return of Hogg who provided excellent cover in front of them (though this was at the expense of yet another booking). His copybook was blotted by his role in Birmingham’s equaliser later, but his energy and tackling thwarted and interrupted the visitors’ flow for long periods and his experience will be vital in the challenging period up to Christmas.

Trevoh Chalobah’s talent is evident but often tainted by his decision making and this game was no exception. However, his sumptuous ball behind Birmingham’s central defence for Campbell to open the scoring 10 minutes in to the second half was possibly the highlight of his Town career to date.

It was well taken by the veteran striker who calmly neutralised the recovering central defender with a side step before finishing clinically past Trueman.

Birmingham’s brief riposte after the goal was dealt with reasonably comfortably, but the insurance of a second goal always felt necessary if their excellent record in Huddersfield, dating back to the 90s, was to be broken, and it was Kachunga once more who was provided with a perfect chance to bury the Blues.

The busy Pritchard, who fizzed an excellent free kick in the first half which drew a routine but necessary save from Trueman, was the architect of a cross which should have been buried but, instead, a poor connection saw the ball loop in to Trueman’s hands and the missed opportunity seemed portentous.

Shortly after they should have been two down and out of the game, Pep Clotet made a change which would see a point returning to the West Midlands.

Already showing signs of strain at right back, Bacuna simply couldn’t handle Montero and wasn’t helped by the introduction of the defensively naive Diakhaby in front of him. For all Kachunga’s faults, his industry helps his full back and swapping wings left the temporary right back horribly exposed.

Montero’s threat was palpable and unchallenged; Bacuna’s positioning deteriorated and Birmingham’s threat increased to the point that an equaliser seemed inevitable.

Lunging in on the troublesome sub, Bacuna gave away a cheap free kick on the left. Rather than take it himself, Montero took up an unmarked position in front of the six yard box and despite some pointing out of the danger by Hogg and Kachunga, neither felt the need to mark him. An unexpectedly low ball in, given the number of big men in the box, was flicked on by Montero and finished at close range by Roberts.

Birmingham’s ascendancy, rather helped by Town’s substitution strategy, had been rewarded and it is difficult to argue that they didn’t deserve to share the spoils and it would have been worse but for a smart save by Grabara late on.

In keeping with the rest of the game, Town came back in to the contest towards the end but couldn’t find a winner. That opportunity had gone at one up and they were always unlikely to get decisions on two second half penalty appeals even if one challenge on Grant seemed a little reckless.

In the circumstances, a draw against decent opposition, all be it opponents who seem to struggle to convert, with the context of a cobbled together back four cannot be viewed as disappointing; under Siewert and late stage Wagner, the game would have been lost.

If there is a criticism to level at the Cowleys, it would be that their substitutions were ineffective at best and arguably too disruptive; particularly the introduction of a Diakhaby at a time when Bacuna’s frailties in an unfamiliar position were being exposed.

Hopefully, Simpson can return for the visit of Swansea on Tuesday; his experience was sorely missed in the last 20 minutes and it would also increase midfield options if O’Brien remains the solution at left back.
The home record continues to improve after such a long period of relentless vulnerability and there were quite a few positives to take away from the 90 minutes.

Pritchard’s previously buried talent may be ready to re-emerge, responding positively to the injury problems augurs well and there were glimpses of the side we could become with decent recruitment and the continuing improvements the Cowleys are bringing.

Our recovery remains a work in progress, but it is, at least, in progress.

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