The last time Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town met at Hillsborough, a place in the Championship play-off final was at stake. Huddersfield won through on penalties on their way to promotion but, reconvening over three years on, times really have changed, and not just because a packed crowd was replaced by abominable noise over the PA.
Both teams are a now shadow of their former entities, with both still in the scrap for survival this season for very different reasons. Not everything is the fault of the current men in charge of course, though when both managers took over their sides at the beginning of September, they would have envisaged more improvement than this.
Garry Monk and Danny Cowley went head-to-head in their first game in charge at their respective clubs, and it was Monk’s Wednesday who secured a comfortable 2-0 win over Cowley’s Huddersfield. It looked then that he had the more friendly task with the mid-table Owls compared to a Terriers team already deep in trouble.
Yet remarkably, ahead of this reunion at Hillsborough, both had identical records. Both had won 12, drawn 10 and lost 15 Championship matches, with Monk’s side stagnating and Cowley’s still in danger. The records would remain tied after 90 dreary minutes of inaction and, even if the point apiece proves vital in the final shake-up, the match suggests that these Yorkshire rivals, and the managers at the helm, have a lot of progress to make.
Fitness will inevitably be pointed to as a mitigating factor in this unprecedented period, but every team in the division is facing the same challenge. Not every team has failed to score in their last four matches like Huddersfield though, and not every team has scored four goals at home in 2020 like Sheffield Wednesday.
Owls switch bringing improvements
Monk made a big decision during the enforced break to switch his team’s set-up to a 3-5-2. Eight points from seven games is far from a bountiful return but if Monk wants to stick to it long-term - providing he remains at the club himself - there are some positive signs.
The back three is now looking solid, with skipper Tom Lees playing in the last two games in between Dominic Iorfa and Julian Borner and Wednesday keeping their first two clean sheets since the restart. Lees had fallen down the pecking order this season but put in another excellent performance here, clearing and heading everything in sight, and it looks like he still has plenty to give the club.
The system relies largely on the wing-backs in attack and that is where some of the best chances came from, with Jonal Lossl making top saves to deny Moses Odubajo and Kadeem Harris in the first half. Apart from that one chance on the stroke of half-time which was destined for the top corner until some remarkable goalkeeping acrobatics, Harris was pretty quiet and probably in need of a rest. Odubajo, playing just his second game in the right wing-back role, looks a player rejuvenated though, and it could be the system that finally sees him back to his best after several highly frustrating years.
They are still searching for the balance in midfield, where Barry Bannan is the only certain starter although his influence here tended to be limited to set pieces. Young Alex Hunt had another tidy game alongside him and it was a surprise to see him pulled early in the second half, with Joey Pelupessy offering little in his place. Only Massimo Luongo really offered attacking threat.
The biggest concern for the Owls is up front. Since Steven Fletcher’s departure at the end of his contract last month became inevitable, who would replace him at the top of the team became a source of intense debate, and we are not much closer to a definitive answer. Jordan Rhodes and Connor Wickham showed promise in the early games after the restart but neither have featured in the last three, with Rhodes an unused substitute again against Huddersfield, while Atdhe Nuhiu is generally preferred off the bench. Alessio Da Cruz has shown some promise and was a handful with the ball at his feet after being brought on for the final half hour.
But Monk went with a curious front two of Jacob Murphy and Josh Windass, two 5’9” forwards who looked all at sea when offered a deluge of long balls. Murphy has been one of their outstanding men this season and has done well in the wing-back role, but this largely non-existent showing demonstrated that he is not to be crowbarred into the team at any cost. Windass caused a little more trouble but is still not an out-and-out striker; a partnership with a proper centre-forward would surely be most fruitful.
The striker conundrum is largely academic now with two games to go; Murphy, Wickham, Windass and Da Cruz are all on loan, with a purchase option only on Da Cruz. It is the biggest area requiring rebuild over the summer, and the right mix will have to be found if Wednesday are to make any kind of progress.
Cupboard dry at Huddersfield
While Monk has tried to shake off mediocrity with a big tactical change, Cowley is still persisting with the same style and same 4-2-3-1.
Defensively, Huddersfield are a pretty good team, as two goals in five games would attest. They could thank Lossl for the clean sheet here but the centre-backs were reliable, with Richard Stearman a rock-solid partner for the ever-indomitable captain Christopher Schindler. Harry Taffolo has been a revelation at left-back and they require a similar solution now at right-back, where on-loan Trevoh Chalobah has been filling in over the last four games. In fairness, Chalobah was one of their best players, making some good runs and always looking to carry the ball into dangerous areas in contrast to some of his teammates.
The Terriers tend to dominate the ball and did again here, but they could rarely find any way through Wednesday’s flat back five. With Jonathan Hogg holding the fort, it was for Lewis O’Brien and Emile Smith Rowe to make things happen from midfield, and the Arsenal loanee did do that on a few occasions only for moves to inevitably break down. His frustration was palpable, particularly when he played a brilliant one-two to break forward and got himself into a perfect position for another only to not receive the pass in behind. Flashes of brilliance are very rare in this team and Smith Rowe knows he can’t do it on his own.
Karlan Grant is their top scorer and main man but, whether tired, overburdened or disinterested, his influence was alarmingly close to nul. He had one half-chance flashed wide, which is more than can be said for Elias Kachunga on the right side of the front three and Steve Mounie in the middle. Both of those two returned to the starting line-up, less in the confidence that they would make an impact and more because something needed changing. Fraizer Campbell did not underline his claim by coming off the bench to miss a sitter.
While Monk is rich in attacking options, the Huddersfield cupboard is pretty dry. Chris Willock made little impact though didn’t have much time to, while the next in line was Colin Quaner, left on the touchline with good reason. The only other player capable of truly exciting is Juninho Bacuna, but he too was left on the bench. Cowley may still be unimpressed with the daft red card at Nottingham Forest that saw him banned for three games but he is surely worth bringing back after four blanks in a row.
Serious work required
The bottom of the Championship is a mathematical minefield, with a 12-point deduction for Wigan Athletic currently being appealed and Sheffield Wednesday waiting to hear the verdict of a misconduct charge over the sale of their stadium and the potential punishment.
The Owls are 11 points clear of the relegation zone as it stands and will desperately want to know whether they are safe or still fighting for their lives before they travel to Fulham on Saturday. Huddersfield at least know their own position, three points above Hull City and Luton Town (and potentially Wigan), and they should now make it home, albeit with a distinct limp.
But both teams have fallen sharply from their might of three years ago and require serious work if they are to battling at the right end of the Championship table again in the future.