Maligned, much?

As a terrific contest was reaching it’s crescendo, the much maligned substitution strategy of Huddersfield Town’s much maligned manager justified itself as the much maligned Turton found Toffolo with an excellent cross; the left back looped an assisting header for the much maligned Danny Ward to secure victory with his second goal of the game.

There has been good cause for these malignancies to become common currency amongst the Town support, but, for this evening at least, all was forgotten as a rollickingly excellent clash with an expansive Blackburn Rovers delivered 3 points and banished the sour taste of two poor defeats.

A 3-2 score line is, arguably, more redolent of entertainment in football than any other, particularly if the scoring sequence casts doubt over the result throughout. Lots of goals without being freakish, indicative of committed struggle and achievement and where the loser often leaves the pitch with credit. All of these applied on a quite special evening at the John Smith’s stadium.

After the stagnant displays of late, Town’s energised start to the game was hugely encouraging and created 3 very presentable chances. Before a minute had been clocked, Thomas put in an excellent far post cross met by Koroma who headed across for Ward. Unfortunately, the first half Ward was somewhat diminished compared to his second half performance and his attempt was skewed well wide, coming off his head as if it was thru’penny bit shaped.

Sinani wasted an even easier chance, inevitably set up for him by Thomas, in minute 2, blazing over from near range.

Though Rovers gradually gained more composure, the early momentum remained with the Terriers and a third, more complicated, chance arrived for O’Brien in the box just after the quarter hour. Toffolo capitalised on a slip by a Blackburn defender before laying the ball back to his captain. With defenders closing down space, O’Brien had to hook his foot around the ball to get his shot off. He was marginally short and saw his attempt rattle the woodwork.

It took a while for the visitors to show why they have only been beaten once this season, but their quality on the ball and ability to open up defences became evident even if their execution fell short. 

Brereton’s hard work and willingness to find space, combined with the trickery of Rothwell and Dolan more than hinted at their ability to hurt defences, but the outstanding Lees commanded a largely convincing rearguard in a first half of high entertainment as the 2 sides went toe to toe.

Just as it seemed the Lancastrians had worked their way to the upper hand, Town struck.

Koroma’s persistence saw him rob possession in the middle and his measured, very well timed ball out right was perfectly in the path of the marauding Thomas. Favouring cutting inside, the Welshman celebrated his remarkable progress from Borehamwood to the Wales squad by laying off yet another assist to Vallejo, who swept the ball past a slightly disappointing effort from the Rovers’ custodian.

It was also a fitting reward for an excellent performance from the Spaniard, whose passing and positioning was instrumental in maintaining Town’s progressive momentum.

Rovers responded immediately from the kick off and only blocks by Thomas and Lees prevented an equaliser. They also pounced on a mistake by Koroma who failed to clear with a mangled attempt at an overhead kick and Town were grateful for a good save by Nicholls from the lively Brereton, who had earlier shot just wide from outside the box.

The contrast of the first half of this game to the debacle against Forest was stark. Both sides contributed to a breathless tussle and perhaps therein lies the answer. Rovers came to win and opened up space which allowed Town’s qualities to the fore. Corberán’s dilemma is finding ways to beat the less flamboyant, who tend to pick off his style.

But this wasn’t a night to carp about the past. The second half surpassed the excellent first 45 minutes to produce a classic; even had it ended in a draw, or even a narrow defeat, Town supporters would still have been able to take home warm feelings and, after the bitterness of defeat has disappeared, it is to be hoped Rovers fans can do that.

Town began the second period on the front foot without creating the number of chances they had in the first. A powerful drive by Sinani was too close to the keeper and several promising incursions by the hosts rather faded with the final actions. The intent, however, continued to be savoured by a crowd whose faith was being restored by that intent.

On the hour, however, Town lost Vallejo to injury and the disruption was immediately felt.

The impressive Rothwell, whose own departure later through injury had a similar disrupting impact on Blackburn, picked up the ball just inside Town’s half and embarked upon a surging, quite thrilling, run past O’Brien and then Pearson before squaring for Brereton, who had a little work to do before equalising.

Town shrugged off the disappointment, regained their composure and produced the best goal of a great game. Ward, by this point playing with a natural confidence largely unseen since his return, started and finished the move. His link up play was a few percentage points up on the first half, which were adequate, and the difference was exponential.

Taking a forward pass instinctively in his stride, he fed Sinani who, in turn, released Thomas to deliver a superb cross in to the perfect area between keeper and defenders. Ward got in between the much taller central defenders and buried a perfect header past Kaminski.

Within minutes, Blackburn struck back, all be it aided by the gifting of a penalty as Sarr’s lunge was hurdled by Brereton with any contact happening after the ball had gone. In real time, the decision of a generally poor and indulgent referee was understandable however, and the Chilean from the Potteries bagged his own brace from the spot. Nicholls nearly reached it but it was firmly and very accurately slotted in to the corner.

Resilience in adversity is not a trait often associated with Corberán’s squads, or many since Wagner to be totally fair, and may have informed his decision, which seemed baffling at the time, to substitute Thomas and Koroma following 10 minutes of decent reaction to the second equaliser when Town were on top.

Koroma’s withdrawal was perhaps the more understandable. His contribution to the first goal was substantial, but his efforts afterwards rather less so. Turton for Thomas looked entirely defensive, however, and seemingly an admittance that a point would suffice. Which wasn’t entirely without merit.

Counter intuitively, and as described many paragraphs ago, Turton provided the cross from which Ward, who, again, had instigated the move, converted following Toffolo’s very deliberate set up.

After the lead, Corberán’s substitutes, including Ruffles, the 1,000th player to represent the club, helped see out a rather nervous last few minutes and the 6 of injury time which followed.

Despite the concession of 2 goals, one predicated by a flash of brilliance and the other a less than convincing penalty award, Town were largely excellent defensively. Lees was magnificent, as was Nicholls, while everyone else involved created a difficult unit to break down, which bodes well.

It was the verve of the attacking which will, rightly, be remembered, however. This was many miles away from the tentative, safe and slow play which hampers the individual qualities the squad possesses. The performance had a natural and instinctive tone and some very good displays. Blackburn’s expansiveness aided this, and they contributed hugely to a great spectacle (including 2 fabulously inept foul throws) but the confidence sapping week which preceded this still had to be overcome.

At the final whistle, Toffolo went to collect a banner from behind the goal in support of a young Town fan suffering from terrible disease, to demonstrate the support of the club for him, as the players and staff stood behind it.

It was a reminder about the nature of triumph and defeat in sport and everyone extends their support to Daz in his battle.

Cut down to size

Town plodded to a disappointing defeat at the hands of a rejuvenated Nottingham Forest, who dealt with the extremely limited threat offered by their hosts with supreme comfort from the very first minute.

Results across the Championship in round 8 were in head scratching territory, “invincible” Fulham beaten at home by a side dismantled by Town a short time ago, crisis club Derby despatched Stoke and Blackpool went to Middlesbrough on the back of a heavy home defeat and won.

Perhaps it was the combination of an unshackled squad of professional footballers finding the freedom to achieve their potential against a complacent group who have had too much wind blown up their collective backside, but the mockery of the respective form of the contestants was bewildering.

Even before Forest’s excellent opener, Town looked sluggish and devoid of flair. Every player consistently took the safe option and soon dissolved in to a syrup of turgid possession which rarely survived contact with Forest’s defence who will struggle to have an easier 90 minutes all season.

In contrast, the East Midlanders were prepared to play on the edge of risk and none more so than Joe Lolley, restored to the starting line up by Stephen Reid, as the left side of Town’s defence succumbed far too easily.

It was no surprise when a dominant Forest took the lead with a goal of simple, direct quality. The highly regarded Brennan roasted Colwill for pace, having brushed aside attempts to stop him further up the pitch and delivered a fantastic cross met by Grabban who powered his header past a hopelessly exposed Nicholls.

Arguably, Town could point to a dubious advantage played by the referee after O’Brien was upended, they lost possession moments later allowing the counter, but that would be clutching.

The entirely deserved goal deepened the resolve of the visitors, who were able to control the game despite, and possibly because of, Town’s dominance of possession.

Keeping hold of the ball only served to bring a plethora of old problems to the surface. Allied to the numbing and desperately slow passing was a hesitancy which consistently closed up space, movement stagnated as deliberation overwhelmed instinct and intent became entirely predictable.

Ward, a surprise inclusion following his performance at Bloomfield Road (and pretty much every other one), was fortunate to see only yellow after a lunge precipitated by a typically awful first touch before the goal and again offered far too little but did, at least, have Town’s only attempt on target, a weak header straight at the keeper, of a desperately poor first half.

In an attempt to change the dynamics of a game in which they were clearly second best, Corberán opted to change to a back four, bringing on Turton for Pearson.

Theoretically, this would push Thomas up the pitch and provide better protection on the left, where Forest’s main threat emanated.

With Colwill having perhaps his least convincing performance and the proven threat of Pearson from set pieces, the personnel aspect of the change was questionable, though the tactical argument was fair enough.

Unfortunately for Carlos, the substitution proved immediately disastrous. Colwill, rather than leave a mundane ball in the box to Nicholls, chose to put the newly arrived Turton in trouble and he was promptly dispossessed. Nicholls made a decent save from the eventual shot by Yates, but Lolley was alert to possibility and capitalised on Turton’s lack of reaction to double Forest’s lead.

Within minutes of the restart, then, Corberán’s plans were in tatters, Forest’s confidence was confirmed and enhanced, and a team which had struggled to overcome a small hill in the first half were looking up at a steep mountain.

Belief, a commodity already scarce on an afternoon to forget, disappeared both on and off the pitch.

If anything, a third Forest goal looked more likely than a Town comeback but after a brief flurry the visitors sat back to comfortably soak up any pressure their hosts could muster, which proved minimal.

The much maligned Holmes came on at the hour mark and provided a little hope with an energetic performance. Sadly, his colleagues, including fellow sub Mipo, were impervious to his prompting and continued their safe and slow approach to a game clearly already lost.

Mipo is yet to make any impact whatsoever. His introduction in to the past 3 games haven’t been ideal, but he has barely touched the ball over about 50 minutes of game time. He should, of course, be given time and patience, but simply doesn’t look the answer to our central striker problems, which are deep, on the available evidence.

Towards the end of the one sided contest, Lees met a Thomas corner but put the chance wide when, it could be argued, Pearson would have converted. Turton also glanced another corner chance wide which the top scorer would have probably gobbled up.

It was unfortunate that Corberán’s decisions to try to change the game imploded almost immediately. Town have survived mundane first half performances before (indeed, this was the case just a few short days ago), but Forest’s second entirely undermined any hoped for transformation.

Mechanical, risk averse and lacking intensity, Town had a very poor afternoon but credit should be given to a thoroughly professional Forest who will surely recover from their terrible start played out under a manager who appears to have strangled them with his noted pragmatism.

The Championship though? Weird.

Tangerine Dream

A pleasant late Summer evening on the west coast, directly contrasting with a grey, wet and miserable day over the Pennines, was almost as welcome as a gritty, cohesive and unified performance, enhanced by moments of genuine quality.

A highly competitive first half provided few clues to the eventual outcome, as Town doggedly matched their high octane hosts but were rarely able to impose their own personality on a game bogged down by attrition, though not short on entertainment; full blooded commitment has its own delights.

For all the considerable efforts of blue and white and tangerine shirted participants, and what a rare treat it was to see traditional kits battling it out as they did in the days of Jimmies McGill and Armfield, neither side created nearly enough to trouble the scorers. 

Following their shock victory over Fulham, Blackpool started the game with high confidence and energy with a press which caused discomfort to Town’s back 3 and beyond, notably an uncharacteristic error in possession by the returning Colwill. The home side were unable to capitalise on the mistake, and were just as unsuccessful with some hesitancy on Town’s right where a rather harshly booked Pearson was naturally tentative.

The visitors’ resilience in the face of Blackpool’s energetic pursuit of slip ups curtailed much of their attacking aspirations, particularly as, in Ward, they have a central striker largely incapable of holding up the ball. It has been noted that the proximity of colleagues doesn’t help his cause, but it is difficult to ignore his continuing lack of real impact on games, to the point that any small differences he does achieve are ridiculously magnified.

Town’s cautious play meant that 20 minutes passed before they even hinted at causing a problem for the Seasiders, with Thomas finally being released from his own half to deliver a far post cross of predictable quality, only for Toffolo to appear to be in several minds what to do with it and ended up clearing the bar with ease.

Blackpool themselves failed to create opportunities from a couple of free kicks in dangerous areas, while any aerial threat was easily dealt with, particularly by the impressive Lees, though a header in to the side netting caused a modicum of alarm and Nicholls was forced in to an instinctive save from Dougall, who latched on to a rare loose ball.

There were glimpses of creativity in Town’s attempts to probe the home defence, but these were blighted by over elaboration. With Blackpool largely crumbling in the final third too, a goalless half came to a natural conclusion though, perhaps ominously for the hosts, the last action was an effort by Sinani, growing in influence, which resulted in an awarded but not taken corner as time ran out.

While an explanation for Town’s transformation is better sought elsewhere (Cf. Chicken and Hartrick), it was clear that Koroma needed to be far more effective, Thomas needed to be utilised more offensively and opening up space more prioritised, and the reward for Corberán’s tweaks was soon in coming.

Sinani, who had grown in to the game as the first half went on, surged in to space before feeding Koroma, via O’Brien, on the edge of the box, in his favourite position. His trademark curling shot followed, beyond the despairing hands of the previously untroubled Maxwell.

After a poor display at Stoke and an underwhelming first half by the beach, it was a confidence boosting moment from last season’s most notable player and top scorer.

The rest of his performance seemed to confirm this, including a blistering run past a floundering Keogh which made for a rather stark comparison with last season. 

Keogh was rather unkindly booed by sections of the away support; while most, probably all, are relieved that he is no longer plying his trade at the heart of Town’s defence, to its considerable improvement, he couldn’t be accused of lack of effort in some quite challenging circumstances. 

Having taken the lead, Town needed to ensure they didn’t sacrifice it as easily as they did at the weekend, but promptly contrived to nearly succumb to not only the same fate, but in a similar manner by failing to pick up a man at a corner. Lavery, who was that man, thankfully got a little underneath the corner delivery and his effort landed on the top of the net.

It was a pivotal moment, not least for Sorba Thomas, who received a vicious lambasting from his captain which presumably conveyed the message that the game is not just the glory bits. In Sorba’s defence, this was a rare lapse (not picking up his man) from an inexperienced player who works hard without the ball, but a sharp reminder from a seasoned campaigner won’t go amiss.

It was a brief interruption to an increasingly dominant away performance, which was quickly followed by a second, nerve calming goal from another familiar source.

Pearson, who recovered from a nervy first half hour to fully contribute to an excellent defensive performance, met a Sinani corner to double Town’s advantage. 
That the delivery came from the Luxembourger rather than Thomas emphasised the variety now possessed by a squad which looks exponentially more equipped over last season.

The home crowd had rallied their team to a response following the opener, and their team had responded, but the second goal deflated both.

Taking control of possession, Town were increasingly sharper than their slumping opponents, who had perhaps blown themselves out with their first half intensity, and the pressing tables were turned.

On the hour, O’Brien, who was much sharper and productive throughout, pinned Blackpool’s central defender to the corner flag. In hindsight, Ekpiteta should’ve cleared earlier but instead, his clearance bounced off O’Brien in to Koroma’s path whose shot was blocked only to sit up nicely for Jonathan Hogg to finish with style.

At 3-0, the game was finished and Town easily coped with Blackpool’s increasingly tired attempts to salvage something from the game, though the hat should be tipped to Josh Bowler who created problems down the right but failed to deliver quality in to the box.

Comfortable in possession, Town could have added to their score as Blackpool’s defensive frailties emerged in the face of a far more effective attack in the second half.

Nicholls, whose presence has been a hugely significant factor in Town’s vastly improved defence, was called upon to stop a late tangerine thrust and the aforementioned Bowler hit an excellent strike tantalisingly wide, but Blackpool were well beaten in an excellent second half display by the Terriers.

It was an exceptionally hard fought win against an aggressive, well organised side who lacked the quality Town eventually brought to the contest. The lack of an effective centre forward remains an issue for the Terriers and Mipo doesn’t appear quite ready to start yet, but this squad look an entirely different proposition to the struggling group of last year.

So does their coach.

Expectations should continue to be tempered, but this was a very satisfying away win from a side with plenty of room for improvement and growth. 

Book your Wembley hotel (tongue firmly in cheek).

Back down to earth

It may be that the international break undercut the momentum of 3 successive league wins. It certainly robbed Town of Colwill and Sinani, both deemed too fragile to appear, as Corberán left them on the bench and opted for Holmes and Sarr in their place.

Long on endeavour and short on quality or inspiration, both sides worked hard to cancel each other out for long periods with the first half bogged down with mediocrity and defensive dominance. The second 45 delivered a few moments for both but overall the contest will not live long in the memory.

With Thomas shackled and Koroma suffering a poor afternoon, Town’s threat was too predictable and sporadic, not helped by a lack of midfield thrust. To their credit, Stoke stifled the visitors’ threats to the level of futility slightly more effectively than Town did to theirs, resulting in a narrow home victory.

A bright start by the Terriers soon faded and neither side could produce a decent effort on goal. The flow of the game wasn’t helped by Town’s time wasting at dead balls, set pieces and throw ins, an unattractive trait which has a big propensity for blowback; having to chase an equaliser late on, for example.

Stoke themselves were not averse to a tactical foul or two to disrupt their opponent, and a better referee would have punished both sides earlier which may have elevated the game above the desperately mundane.

The first half may have been fascinating for tactical purists, but an extended yawn for the rest of us.

An early goal for Town in the second half promised to open up proceedings. In keeping with the overall tenor of the fixture, it was a scruffy affair with Toffolo taking advantage of a loose ball following a decent Thomas free kick delivery and, at last, a shot on target saved by the keeper’s legs.

Having broken through, the fate of the points rested on Town clinging to their lead with defensive solidity, discipline and, inevitably, more of that time wasting (which would, at least, have more of a point than in the opening twenty minutes).

Such ambition was crushed within minutes as an excellent corner found a Potter’s head, without challenge, and the home side were level.

To Town’s credit, they always strived to get on the front foot but had neither the guile or the physicality to break down the hosts’ solid organisation and looked increasingly vulnerable to the counter.

As attacks fizzled out at the business end, a rare Stoke counter saw the impressive Vrancic turn Sarr far too easily on the edge of the box and fire a ball across the danger area. Pearson, under no discernible pressure, got everything wrong and fumbled the ball in to the net to give the home side the lead.

Perhaps the own goal was karma for the Preston game, and left the visitors with a huge task to salvage a point from the encounter.

One decent effort from Thomas aside, which was just wide, they never looked like coming back. 

It certainly wasn’t for lack of effort, but Stoke were defensively excellent, epitomised by a sequence when 3 successive shots were blocked by committed home players.

The introduction of Sinani and Mipo were too late to change the course of events. The youngster barely got a touch in his ten minute cameo, though Sinani and Turton (on for Lees as Town went to a back four) created more space for Thomas on the right. When personnel allows, Thomas will surely be pushed further up the pitch.

A routine defeat away to a well organised and physical side is not a cause for concern, and few have got carried away by a short spell of good results which demanded contextual scrutiny, but it was a day to quickly forget.