David Wagner proclaimed that the season started on Saturday in front of our fans against Cardiff City. The majority of the fans echoed this as we did as well. However, if that performance was a reflection of what is to come, then we are facing very challenging times ahead.
After the expected defeats to Chelsea and Manchester City, a positive reaction was needed. Something for the growing number of despondent and apathetic Town fans to rally behind.
However, as the problems of last season returned, the performance against Cardiff City seems to have divided the fan-base further, rather than galvanise it.
As expected, Cardiff set up to frustrate and they did so exceptionally well. Pressing collectively, they made life extremely uncomfortable for Town at times. There came a point where it was almost like watching the Town of old when Cardiff were out of possession.
What Cardiff’s off-the-ball exerts exposed was Town’s limited nature in possession. The sheer number of misplaced passes confirmed that Town couldn’t cope when put under pressure. This isn’t a new phenomenon.
Despite dominating possession, it was possession without a purpose. Not only was there a lack of purpose, like last season, Town held possession in areas of the pitch where they couldn’t hurt Cardiff.
After two difficult games against the Top Six, Town seemed to be crippled by lethargy which ran throughout the spine of the side. The painfully slow retention and recycling of possession meant that Cardiff City had a relatively comfortable afternoon.
Even when Town did manage to enter the final third and pin Cardiff City into their own defensive third, ill-discipline through misplaced passes and the concession of cheap fouls undermined Town’s efforts and allowed Cardiff to squeeze up the pitch and away from danger.
The bigger worry is how predictable the patterns of play were. Shuffling the ball from side to side before one of the full-backs was tasked with trying to send in the inch-perfect delivery onto Mounié’s head, seemed to be Town’s only means of chance creation.
Not once did we see Town look to carve an opening through the middle or get to the by-line and look to pull the ball back to a late arriving runner like we saw in certain pre-season games. Everything was far too one dimensional and the same could be said at times last season too.
In contrast, when Cardiff were pressuring us towards the end of the game, they moved the ball far more quickly, taking less touches, knowing who to play the ball into and making intelligent runs off the ball to give the play-maker in question options for a pass. We rarely did this, dithering in possession and taking up to five seconds to make a decision, something you cannot do in the Premier League if you want to initiate an opening.
As well as dominating possession without a purpose, there also seems to be a collective mental issue – one in which Town players seem petrified of being caught on the counter. This might provide an explanation as to why Town collectively lack bravery or purpose when in possession.
Whilst this fear of being caught on the counter may be valid, it led to Town operating in tight spaces on either wing as a means of controlling the game. There were many opportunities where Town could’ve switched the play and looked to stretch the opposition, but it would’ve led to Town being exposed at the back and they seemed reticent to take that risk.
Similarly, there seemed to be a lack of confidence in terms of committing men forward. Even prior to Hogg’s red card, Town had umpteen opportunities to deliver the ball into the box but on many occasion, Mounié was the only blue and white shirt surrounded by a sea of opposition bodies, a sight that we were used to seeing on many occasions last season.
There’s no point having a gifted poacher like Mounie on the pitch if the service he gets is worse than being on hold to a phone network company.
There was a reluctance to commit men into the box beyond Mounie. The fact that Kongolo, our defensive rock was one of our best attackers sums up the creative stagnation that we have in forward areas at the moment.
A reluctance to shoot when given the opportunity has also disturbingly persisted. Like last season, time after time, some players decided to take an extra touch or pass wide instead of having a go themselves. We have to be more bold and adventurous in front of goal if we are to score the requisite amount to keep us up. Anything can happen when you shoot, sometimes it’s worth taking the risk.
Some will attribute this poor performance to poor team selection and the omission of Alex Pritchard being the key to a turn around of Town’s form. However, my worry is that Town’s problems go beyond the personnel selected.
Town are currently suffering from a broader systemic issue in which the patterns of play are too predictable and more generally, Town are far too one dimensional and easy to deal with.
Until Town show more bravery and ingenuity in possession, either by playing in areas where they can hurt the opposition or stretching the play and taking some risks, Town will continue to struggle.
If that is the case, we may need to see David Wagner and his side release the mental shackles and take the handbrake off in order to arrest this slide.