Monday 5 January 2015

How Sheffield Wednesday's performance can prevent a repeat post-Manchester City slump

Frank Lampard attempts to breach the Owls' back line
It was heartbreak of a different kind this time out as the Owls lost 2-1 at City despite a resolute defensive display. The blue and white half of Sheffield had a Wednesday to forget in September, humbled 7-0 by rampant champions Manchester City mid-week in the Capital One cup. A promising start to the season typified by excellent away form and a mean defence had inflated the tyres as the Owls navigated the ever bumpy road of Championship football.

But the Man City mauling proved to be a decisive moment in the season. Despite the fact few expected Wednesday to win the tie, not least as manager Stuart Gray fielded a weakened team, its significance as a turning point in the season cannot be underestimated. 

After the game, Wednesday failed to win any of their subsequent 10 games with four nil-nil draws summing up an alarming lack of guile, luck and bite up front this term. However, the stodgy run (and a pre-Christmas 4-0 humiliation at the hands of Fulham) was put behind them with back-to-back league wins over the festive period. The S6 team now sit in 10th, our highest league position at this stage since 2000.

This time out it was a remarkably positive performance at the Etihad in front of 44,300 fans. Against a Man City side of good strength and with a stronger line-up ourselves, the men in yellow acquitted themselves well with strike partners Stevie May and Atdhe Nuhiu holding the ball up and the likes of Semedo, Palmer and Loovens working hard to keep their big money opponents quiet for the first 60 minutes. 

The performance will lift the profile of a number of our players and, despite the sucker—punch of James Milner's brace, give heart to an Owls side who ultimately aspire to become City's Premier League peers.

So can Wednesday avoid a re-run of the grim form which followed their last trip to Eastlands as they enter the second half of the season? The first priority, which Gray will surely look to attend to in the transfer window, is a lack of goals. Wednesday have scored three times in the league on just one occasion this season - the 3-2 win at Middlesborough in August - and their strike force of Stevie May and Atdhe Nuhiu have mustered just nine league goals between them. May has won fans' hearts with his work ethic since arriving from St Johnstone, often appearing unlucky, however a lack of composure often appears the problem. 

The giant Nuhiu offers little pace and an excuse for midfielders to simply lump the ball at him but an unusually outstanding performance today and the winner at Wigan will doubtless encourage Gray to stick with him. A glance at their peers - Daryl Murphy at Ipswich, Chris Martin at Derby and even former Owl Michail Antonio at Forest reveal calm finishing in frenetic games is the key to bagging goals in the Championship.

Meanwhile, Gary Taylor-Fletcher's baffling month-long loan failed to yield any goals and Gary Madine's loan spell at Coventry has been extended, with his chequered career at Wednesday looking doomed. Maguire and Lavery, both introduced as subs today, also need to show more determination in front of goal.

So what can Gray do on a tight budget with 20-goal strikers hard to come by as he aims to retain the fine balance the Owls have found at the back? A more sophisticated look to the midfield would certainly help. The likely retention of Watford midfielder Lewis McGugan on loan could well prove a smart move, he has looked bright in his seven appearances so far and adds pace in the middle of the pitch not offered by the likes of Kieran Lee. 

What's more the return of Chelsea loanee and defender/midfielder Sam Hutchinson could further boost Wednesday's abilities. He has looked assured on the ball and able to find space with deft passes in his four outings this season. Behind him, keeping goalkeeper Keiren Westwood - who has been astonishingly good this campaign - will be Gray's priority and the Irishman has already snubbed a move to Liverpool in favour of first team football at Hillsborough. However, the fact he didn't play today suggests Gray was mindful of him being cup tied and detracting a potential suitor.

So I expect hanging on to the solid back line he has assembled and looking to add finesse further forward to be top of Gray's agenda this January. Whether he can do that will decide whether today's match at Eastlands will be viewed as a valiant performance or the start of another puncture to the team's confidence.