Reality restored but no panic necessary

Preston North End’s impressive away form, which includes points gained at Norwich and Brentford, continued at the John Smith’s Stadium and ended an encouraging unbeaten few weeks for Town.

Robust, well organised and cynical, the visitors were everything they were expected to be and despite being outplayed for the first quarter of the game, their tried and tested methods eventually overcame the emerging Corberán style, which was too often exposed and particularly in the middle of the park where O’Brien’s rustiness and lack of game time combined with Bacuna’s carelessness rather handed the initiative to the Lancastrians.

Despite the defeat, which was fully deserved, and the rather obvious conclusion that the quality in the squad remains far too thin, if the lessons from the game are learned the trajectory continues to be positive and to be still in contention for a point with 10 men deep in to injury time was commendable.

The 24 hour advantage Town had over their opponents following the midweek round of matches looked decisive in an opening 10 minutes of total dominance, and the lead taken was just reward.

Mbenza won an aerial duel with 2 Preston players and as the ball fell kindly to O’Brien, the returning midfielder played in Campbell with an instinctive and perfectly weighted pass.

Holding off a challenge with good strength, the striker followed up his £5,000 donation to Stephen Chicken’s appeal with a strike past the otherwise impressive Rudd and Town appeared to be in a very good place.
Minutes later, Campbell should perhaps have doubled his tally when he connected with a Toffolo cross but his overly deft attempt to steer the ball in to the far corner let the visitors off the hook. It was a lifeline they were to take for most of the rest of the half as they imposed their physicality and began to dominate.

Town’s midfield diminished alarmingly with only Hogg holding things together as O’Brien’s long lay off began to show and Bacuna’s inability to add discipline to his undoubted talent came once again to the fore.

Preston’s best chance fell to Sinclair who took advantage of Stearman’s failure to heed the age old advice not to let the ball bounce, but the veteran fired wide when he should really have levelled the scores.

Sarr made an excellent block when the visitors looked certain to score and the home side we’re looking increasingly ragged in the face of the controlled aggression overwhelming attempts to inject flow in to their game.

A decent effort from the impressive Pipa was all that Town had to show as their performance deteriorated, but the visitors were grateful for an inexperienced referee’s failure to dismiss Potts for a high challenge on Campbell. Though subsequent replays cast some doubt on the level of punishment appropriate for the lunge, the naked eye, upon which the referee had to rely, more than suggested that dismissal was justified.

The referee compounded his error in the second half with unpunished challenges leading to both goals in Preston’s devastating start to the second half. However, it would be mealy mouthed to blame the visitors for his failings; unlike Hogg, who stopped with his hand in the air claiming offside rather than attempting to block a cross, they played to the whistle and got their rewards.

The equaliser was very well taken by Browne who took advantage of defensive hesitancy to curl a shot which gave Hamer no chance.

The keeper, despite a good performance, needs to take his share of the blame with Sarr for Browne’s second just a minute later. A far post cross didn’t look particularly threatening until they collided and rendered Hamer’s punch weak, falling very nicely for Browne who, nevertheless, had to adjust to finish.

The Lilywhites’ ascendancy of the first half translated in to a lead which they rarely looked like relinquishing and, indeed, continued to be the more dangerous, though the final stages saw something of a renaissance by the home side reduced to ten men when Sarr capped an uncertain afternoon grappling the impressive Riis Jakobsen to the ground with nothing behind him other than another Preston player.

By this point, Corberán had abandoned 3 at the back with Schindler withdrawn along with O’Brien for Diakhaby and Eiting. The changes added some urgency to the home side’s play but not enough threat.

Counter intuitively, Sarr’s dismissal heralded the best patch of play since the opening 15 minutes, though Preston were, by this time, comfortable with their lead, comfortable out of possession and dangerous on the break.

Bacuna came in to the game late and was incensed to be dragged back by Bauer when he had broken through Preston’s lines. The German was roundly congratulated for his cynicism; in fairness, Schindler was also booked for a similar transgression, though his team mates didn’t share the joy.

A late Pipa effort following an excellent move which finally carved open the visitors hit the outside of the post and those Championship fine margins reared their head yet again. The impressive Spaniard, who could be one of the finds of the season, had also brought a decent save out of Rudd earlier and the keeper finger tipped a Koroma effort round the post to deny the substitute a second in 2 games.

Preston could easily have added to their lead but for some last ditch defending and one or two decent saves by Hamer and the last action of an entertaining game saw Jakobsen hit the bar after bamboozling Town’s exhausted defenders.

This defeat could easily have happened in games we have drawn or won. Had Forest not been thwarted by that Hamer save, had Swansea not been so profligate, or Rotherham not succumb to something of a fluke, our position would be substantially worse. Which is to say, most Championship games are close, attritional affairs and being on the right side of moments essential.

Yesterday, Preston’s established style, professionalism and strength overcame a still developing Huddersfield Town and they deserved their 3 points. Time will tell if they can translate their status as perennial dark horses in to a promotion which would complete the list of former League winners experiencing the dubious delights of the Premier League.

For their part, Town showed that Corberán’s project has a long way to go but it will be far more interesting and entertaining than grinding out draws to keep our heads above the relegation waters. Frustrating as it is that the squad is too thin to meet all the demands of 3 games in a week, and oh! how we could do with a centre forward presence like Riis Jakobsen, a mid table finish is well within reach.

On to Brum. 

Ram on

Following Town’s win in South Wales on Saturday, Paul Merson, survivor of Sky Soccer Saturday’s dinosaur purge several years ago (or, in old time, September) opined that the play offs could be on.

The last time Paul connected his brain to his mouth over Huddersfield Town, he ended up dressed as a muppet so he will forgive us our skepticism about drawing conclusions from a welcome yet streaky win.

Neither should we get carried away by another victory over a gloriously inept Derby County side whose inability to deliver a set piece must have had the isolating Rooney tearing his manufactured hair out. Mel Morris, creative accountant extraordinaire, can only look on in horror at all the money spent to restore Premier League football coming to this.

A scruffy game, though not without entertaining moments, will be remembered for a cracking team goal finished by Bacuna but encapsulating the sheer promise of Corberán and his football philosophies, as well as the undoubtedly exciting prospect of just how much improvement, with these players and additions, he can achieve.

Not that much of the first half provided salivation. 2 brief, interesting spells, culminating in a couple of decent Pipa efforts were overshadowed by a largely jaded display with some alarmingly sloppy passing which an even slightly better team than Derby would have punished.

As it was, Hamer had one routine save to make while the plethora of free kicks, which were awarded rather too easily at times, and corner kicks created little if any threat for the visitors.

The Rams, however, had much the better of the first half and largely controlled possession and territory. Their undoing was a total absence of completion in the final third; Town’s rare attacks looked significantly more threatening.

As they had on Saturday, Town improved in the second half and after taking the lead with a goal which started with Hamer and involved an excellent contribution from Campbell on the halfway line to link with Bacuna who fed the marauding Toffolo. The full back, excellent all night, laid the ball perfectly in to the path of Bacuna, who had sprinted hard to follow up his incisive ball.

Earlier, another Toffolo surge nearly set up Campbell and the hosts were looking a different proposition to the team seemingly puzzled by the opposition’s set up in the first.

The goal allowed Town to stifle Derby with relative ease, though not without a couple of scares. Duane Holmes added a little urgency, and something a little different, when he came on and had a good effort which was neatly turned around the post down low. This thwarted any thought of Holmes under the Hamer puns*.

Late on, a snap header by Clarke clipped the post to deny the visitors a flattering point while Town wasted some good opportunities to punish Derby on the break; O’Brien with a few games under his belt would not have let them off the hook with poor execution when a team mate was free.

It was a very good time to play Derby, particularly without Rooney who would have relished so many set piece opportunities, and, brief flurries aside, a none too convincing performance but back to back wins will give the squad great belief to take in to the tough schedule before the next break. 

They now have to consolidate with progress and results; there is a long, long way to go before we can even consider them anything other than a bottom half team with realistic relegation troubles, but the excitement will be them proving to us that this is a ridiculous assessment.

However, there is a spirit and resilience about the team combined with a decent amount of genuine talent which holds great promise.

* copyright @PopPopChris on Twitter who came up with this to produce the tweet of the night (possibly the season)

Taking a Liberty

Sweeping aside the crushing disappointment of failing to secure David Nugent’s signature, with all the promise of goals which that held, or adding to the list of loans on Rolando Aarons’ CV, Town secured 3 points in South Wales against a very good, if under par, Swansea side with resilience, no small amount of bravery and a swathe of good fortune.

Biting satire aside, the fact that our left back opened the scoring and could quite easily have scored a hat trick should not be lost. Scoring goals is a team effort and rather relies upon players being in a position to do so. For all Grant’s achievements with Town, and scoring at the rate he did in teams seemingly constructed not to was admirable, it is surely better to increase the possibilities for multiple contributors rather than be heavily dependent on one.

As Corberán’s philosophies emerge, and they are appearing as quickly as Wagner’s did, there should be genuine excitement for the future. In the absence of anything resembling effective communication from a hierarchy grappling with admittedly huge external issues, let us turn our gaze upon the transformation a young coach is implementing on the pitch.

When Josh Koroma struck the winner, there were 7 Town players in and around the box. At the home of one of the best sides in the division. Let that, as the tiresome saying goes, sink in.

That winner seemed inconceivable after a torrid opening 20 minutes when the visitors looked sure to succumb to the Swans’ unrelenting pressure. Within a minute, Hamer was having to make a save, all be it routine, and the home side exerted stifling control of the game with an aggressive and highly effective press which pinned Town in to their own half with little, if any, respite.

Hamer’s performance, which included 2 excellent saves, was blighted by some quite awful distribution which not only gifted possession but also momentum as eager Welsh midfielders fielded his miserable punts facing forwards and in acres of space.

With 3 central defenders in a formation we should get used to when facing twin strikers, Sarr struggled to adapt and was caught out of position too often and nearly presented a goal with a careless touch intended for Hamer. He improved immeasurably once he settled and played his part in repelling the increasingly desperate opposition towards the end.

A succession of excellently delivered corners threatened to overwhelm the besieged visitors but the hosts were guilty of over aggression at too many of them while the returning Schindler seemed to relish the aerial challenges.

When Town finally escaped Swansea’s stranglehold, Koroma was freed to run at the home defence to force a corner. It may have been complacency born of their superiority which allowed Bacuna to stroll in to the area unchallenged following the short corner and hit a not particularly threatening shot, but Toffolo’s instinctive flick turned it in to a lead as undeserved as it was surprising.

Rueing their failure to convert possession and pressure in to goals, Swansea were never quite the same force though they were handed an equaliser by a baffling penalty decision just after the half hour. Hamer, who had already kept his side in the game with a one on one save from Lowe, came to meet Smith whose attempt to convert was already sailing over as they came together.

The harsh award gave Swansea a reward they fully deserved and Ayew stepped up, via a dubious run up and with encroachment clearly occurring behind him, and scored his inevitable goal against the Terriers.

Equally inevitable was Swansea’s resumption of control, though the threat they carried seemed to lack the potency of the opening 20 minutes; Sarr’s restored discipline of position and tighter defending contributed to soothing the nerves of onlookers of blue and white persuasion, and the sanctity of half time was reached without what would have proven to be fatal concession.

Whatever Corberán said during the break saw the visitors transform from a team seemingly reliant on the failure of their opponents to translate superiority in to goals to one which finally achieved cohesion.

Moving the ball more quickly and confidently between players finding space and time and with the conviction that they could trouble the Welshmen, Town produced their best 15 minutes of the season. Eiting’s promise began to shine, while the excellent Pipa and Toffolo added their support to the hard working Mbenza and Koroma and Swansea’s previous dominance evaporated.

Chances were created with an excellent effort by Mbenza agonisingly evading Toffolo – again, note that our highest placed forward was our left back – as it crashed off the far post. Toffolo then missed two very presentable chances.

Swansea responded eventually and Ayew should have buried a close range header following a superb free kick delivery. Town’s relief at surviving that chance was followed by a terrible ball from Koroma which set Lowe free. As the ex-Wigan man bore down on goal, Hamer positioned himself well to parry his powerful shot. The rebound was sliced well wide by the same player, who seemed affected by his collision with a post in the first half after a very lively start to the game.

Town’s emergence as a team to be reckoned with created a very entertaining second half as the procession of home superiority became a more equal contest, and following the scares, Koroma made up with for his error with an excellent strike following incisive build up play down the Terriers’ right.

Having missed a few chances in previous games, the confidence his goal will bring should not be under estimated. Picking up the ball at the left edge of the area, the youngster found space among the panicking defence and swept the ball past Woodman in to the far corner with a strike for which Grant would have been rightly hailed.

Inevitably, Town faced a frantic last quarter yet Swansea’s potency and thrust seemed marginally less threatening as the minutes ticked by.

Stearman, Schindler and Sarr held firm and largely subdued the increasingly desperate Swans until a succession of corners late on and some flapping by Hamer threatened to undo the hard work. Kasey Palmer, who came on and injected some energy in to the home side, missed a very presentable chance at the far post as injury time loomed which let his former colleagues off the hook and ready to celebrate a win which entailed a fair amount of luck but, equally, a lot of promise.

Few will leave South Wales with maximum points, particularly when important players return and they resolve their issues with converting superiority in to goals, but it is the excitement of potential which should be taken from the afternoon’s efforts.

The potential of expanding periods of excellence beyond the 15 minutes on show here, the development of Eiting’s excellence, creating more and more opportunities as an attacking unit which may engulf teams far inferior to Swansea and the possibilities of a coach who has taken an unpromising and diminished group and imposed an expansive system which is emerging game by game.

Despite the failure to recruit before the deadline, and the suspicion that bungling was a factor, it is difficult not to be excited at the prospect of watching Pipa and Toffolo terrorising Championship rivals, the emergence of a genuinely creative midfield and the possibility of Mbenza’s redemption.

It may be wise to keep our eyes on the grass and let the back room shenanigans take care of themselves. 

In a New York minute

When the otherwise excellent MacDonald diverted a Pipa effort to gift Town a deserved but strangely unsatisfying point, the task of dissecting 96 minutes of football containing a reasonable amount of promise for the visitors yet embedded with many of the same problems became even more complicated.

Corberán’s overly enthusiastic post match assessment, which inexplicably included the epithet “fantastic”, perhaps reflected his pleasure at seeing the identity he wants to create take a few tentative steps forward in no small part due to the contributions of the new faces he has introduced. Or a linguistic misstep.

There was more than a little truth in the coach’s impression but rather glossed over some familiar issues, not least the inability to turn progressive possession in to goals. It should be recognised that Town were facing a tough opponent whose resilience was well known before the encounter and confirmed until the very last seconds of an interesting clash.

It was MacDonald who prevented Campbell opening the scoring in the 2nd minute with a last gasp block; had that chance been converted, the game would have panned out very differently. For all their physicality and excellent organisation, the Millers were rarely particularly threatening and the comfort of an early lead would have settled the visitors rather than frustrated them.

Quick out of the blocks, the Terriers established control early and moved the ball well at times but failed to create enough problems for the hosts’ resilient defence. One move which flowed from back to front ended with Campbell slipping on the greasy surface at the wrong moment and there was a perceptible gap in quality between the teams on the ball.

Halfway through the half, however, Town lost their grip. Not helped by a fussy referee, the game became fragmented, Town’s previous fluency disappeared and Rotherham exploited the shift with their most, and perhaps only, effective spell culminating in a quite excellent goal.

Sloppy passing and giving away too many niggly free kicks broke Town’s rhythm and when a cleared corner was not followed out quickly enough, Ben Wiles was left in far too much space. The midfielder unhesitatingly stroked an arrow straight, powerful and accurate shot past the helpless Hamer who may have asked a little more from Campbell who simply failed to close it down.

The Millers threatened to take further advantage of their opponents’ dip in performance with Hamer saving well from Ladapo following a swift break after breaking up a promising Town attack.

A second would have buried the visitors and the break came at a good time for them as Rotherham’s momentum after the goal had turned the match on its head.

In the context of the first half implosion and a normally fatal concession, the second half was moderately encouraging, if very frustrating.
The dominance of the ball and the progressiveness was badly let down by final passes and finishing, though the home side’s rearguard should be complimented for their excellent defending. 

Koroma was the main culprit for the profligacy. He failed to control a superb ball from Eiting, and missed an easy chance following more excellent build up down the left, where Toffolo roamed freely and menacingly throughout the half. To be fair to him, Town’s best effort of the half was his curling shot from outside the area which went just wide.

With virtually nothing to worry about at the back as the Millers sat deep and resolute, Hogg, Stearman and Sarrs, who had a quietly impressive debut, were able to stroll forwards at will to begin attacks. Though they had some success moving the hosts around to create space, Rotherham rather abandoned the flanks in favour of relying on their ability to stop crosses; a faith which appeared wholly justified until the injury time calamity.

While Eiting is clearly a high quality player who will prove influential as the season matures, Town’s best performer was the excellent Pipa. Accomplished in possession, always available and a threat down the right, it was fitting that the Spaniard forced the error which gained a point (not that his shot was going anywhere). 

On the left, Toffolo was menacing and delivered one particularly good cross on to substitute Dhiakaby’s head just a couple of minutes before the equaliser, but too many of his deliveries were easily cut out.

It was unfortunate for the home side to concede as they did, and must have been utterly galling for MacDonald who had done so much to thwart the visitors, but a share of the points, as Paul Warne acknowledged, was fair, even if Town had got out of jail not through their own abundance of threat, but as a result of an instinctive opposition error.

Overall, it had been a confusing afternoon. The shape and style of the team for the majority of it was pleasing on the eye at times and the new recruits look to be genuinely promising, but the lack of potency persists.

It is always dangerous to believe that missing players, and O’Brien in particular, may change the dynamic but a driving force alongside Eiting’s quality could be the key. With Grant unwelcome and sidelined by unfulfilled speculation, it seems unlikely that Town will conjure a 20 goal a season striker from somewhere.

Corberán’s conundrum remains the final third; supply is improving, though far from perfect, but conversion remains elusive.

It would also be remiss to overlook Rotherham’s excellent defending, organisation and resolve. Many teams will find them difficult to break down; as their 4 opponents to date already have.

Town haven’t lost in S66 for nearly thirty years, yet it is never an easy venue, even for the best Championship side we’ve ever had.

Hopefully, the international break will see more players becoming available to Corberán before a very difficult trip to South Wales. Sarr’s promising debut was helped by the lack of necessary defensive work; Swansea will be a much greater test.