by Richard Brook
Heading into the away trip to Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park, on September 1st, Sheffield Wednesday lay in second position in the Championship table, following the opening month of their return to the second tier. The Palace game marked the end of the Owls’ 19 match, league and cup, unbeaten run that stretched back to former manager Gary Megson’s last game in charge, a win over Steel City rivals Sheffield United back in February. The remarkable run continued under Dave Jones, seeing Wednesday secure League One promotion and start life in the Championship with real purpose.
The run finally came to end on the back of a questionable refereeing decision at Selhurst Park, and bizarrely it was the fact that the referee, eventually, got the decision right that was the turning point in the match. Having gifted Palace the dream start, a first minute goal before a Wednesday player had even touched the ball, Wednesday had fought their way back and equalised through summer capture Michail Antonio. The flash point came from Mark Beevers’ wonderful sliding tackle in the box, a proper centre-half’s challenge that took the ball, the whole ball and nothing but the ball. The referee gave the penalty. And promptly took it back.
The decision was correct. The tackle was a superbly timed defensive intervention. The damage however had been done. The Palace players and supporters were aggrieved, as any would be, at being awarded a penalty and then having the referee changed his mind. The atmosphere within the ground and the flow of the game was irrevocably altered, and Palace were spurred on to snatch the 83rd minute winner that put paid to the Owl’s unbeaten run.
Since that game Wednesday have failed to win a single game at eight attempts and have drawn only one. The second place they held going into the Palace match is a dim and distant memory as Wednesday now find themselves in the unenviable position of 22nd place – a relegation position, though it is a nonsense to call it such in early October.
Wednesday’s problem throughout the opening quarter of this season has been their leaky defence. Even when they sat close to the top of the table Wednesday were letting in a minimum of two goals per game, and were relying on outscoring the opposition. As such the lofty early season position always looked fragile, as to maintain it they were relying on their forwards to score a minimum of three goals per game. To do so over a 46 game season we would be talking about an unrealistic goals-scored column of 138.
Going into the first international break, Owls manager Dave Jones vowed to work on Wednesday’s defence, which had conceded two goals in each of the four league games and one of the two Capital One Cup games that had been played to that point. When the domestic games resumed, Wednesday conceded three goals in each of their next two defeats. Wednesday have so far, let in an average of 2.1 goals per game. This makes their defensive record the second worst in the Championship.
The defence arguably looked worst early in the season, when the forwards will still scoring freely enough to bail the team out. A number of the goals conceded during the early games were the direct result of poor defensive organisation and shape, not just within the back four, but as a team. If there is a silver lining for Owls fans at the moment it is that the goals that are being scored against Wednesday at the moment are largely due to individual errors that you would not expect to see made over and over again, rather than the poor team defending evident earlier in the campaign.
A typical goal for Wednesday’s opponents early in the season often resulted from crosses to targets with too much space in the box. One of the reasons for this was actually the style of Wednesday’s attacking play. Wednesday have options in wide midfield, the top two being Michail Antonio and Jermaine Johnson both of these wingers are lightning fast, extremely direct and very attacking. They are jointly or severally capable of thrilling the Hillsborough faithful. It is probably fair to say that both men played a large part in Wednesday’s early season ability to score two or three goals to nick wins and draws despite their defensive record.
The problem is that in attacking this way there is a propensity to the leave the full backs exposed on the counter attack. A number of goals earlier in the season resulted from this type of situation. The space in the box is created where the full-back is drawn out to the touchline, to meet the attacking team’s winger as he is not being tracked by the defending team’s winger. This results in an unguarded portion of the box around the near post.
Where this occurs on the counter attack it is not necessarily the defending team’s winger’s fault that he has not tracked back, as he may be trying to recover his position following the break-down of one of his own side’s attacks. The space vacated by the full back needs to be rapidly filled. There are a couple of ways of doing this. The simplest is that a central midfielder quickly covers the full back’s natural position.
Alternatively each defender moves across one place to maintain equidistance from each other along the defensive line, with defending team’s winger on the opposite flank tucking back as well.
Too often during the early part of Wednesday’s season, either this didn’t happen, or it did not happen quickly enough and the opposing team attacked the near post area to score. The near post area is a vital one as an aerial ball that finds an attacker’s head in that area, or releasing a player to get to the by-line for a drilled low cross into the goal mouth can be lethal, and was often Wednesday’s undoing.
In recent weeks, Wednesday have been able to stamp out this type of soft goal. Jones has been reticent to start both Antonio and Johnson, and possibly asked them to curtail their natural game, which would appear to be one reason why the Owls would be conceding fewer goals of this sort. This period has seen a couple of 1-0 defeats for Wednesday including Wolves away, which in the context of their defensive record, and their run of eight games without a win, has to be seen as defensive progress even if the results are not where the club would want them to be.
However in checking his side’s threat down the flanks, Jones is also reducing the team’s goal scoring potential. If Wednesday discount the 3-3 draw at Burnley, as it is a significant outlier, they have scored just three goals in the seven defeats of their recent win-less streak. While Wednesday have significant talent in central midfield, in the shape of on-loan Everton starlet Ross Barkley, former Rangers youngster Rhys McCabe and Wednesday’s own reigning player of the year Jose Semedo, it remains to be seen whether they can produce enough creativity from this area should the wingers be reined in by tactics or shut down by the opposition.
The answer to Wednesday’s issues could yet prove to be the return to fitness of the Chris Lines, who was very much the unsung hero of last season’s promotion campaign. Lines is a central midfielder who has a range of passing, does not shy away from a tackle, can drive forward and vitally he makes goals. As Wednesday attained promotion, the headlines were all about Ben Marshall, now of Leicester City, during the first half of the season, and Michail Antonio after his arrival. It is worth noting however that if you combine these two wingers respective half-season stints they only equalled Lines season total of eleven assists.
Lines is untested at Championship level – the same could have been said of Antonio and others – but he was widely regarded as one of the stand-out performers in pre-season and if he can bring his form from pre-season and indeed from last season, into the side he could be instrumental in the way Wednesday play. Lines is capable of providing creative spark in the centre of the pitch, if he lives up to this potential that could reduce the over-reliance on the wingers. The knock on effect of this being that Wednesday will be more difficult to shut down creatively, and better able to hold shape defensively as the wingers will be under less pressure to provide goals, therefore less likely to over-commit.
Irrespective of how it might be achieved it is vital to Sheffield Wednesday’s season that they find a way to address their defensive frailty. The squad is full of potential to be an exciting team capable of playing football that is simultaneously attractive and effective. Given the current run of form, and that Wednesday chairman Milan Mandaric is not a man noted for his patience, it is unsurprising that there has been speculation regarding Dave Jones position. If anything Mandaric’s recent statement in support of Jones will only accelerate this speculation. It would be a shame if Jones were relieved of his duties now, as his vision seems a long-term one, to get Wednesday playing the pleasing brand of football they were known for in the early 1990’s. It would be wonderful to see this vision come to fruition. The stark reality, however, is that Mandaric would not allow his investment to fall back into League One without a fight and there may be casualties.
Tactical images created by the author using the software Mourinho Tactical Board and reproduced by permission of the software’s developers. www.mourinhotacticalboard.com