From two thirds of the possession, the Owls made 15 chances against Rotherham United, yet their only success was Matthew Olosunde’s scrappy own goal. The Millers showed a clinical edge and won in dramatic fashion with a goal each from centre-forwards Michael Smith and Freddie Ladapo.
From the morale boost of a new manager on Monday, the Owls ended the evening seven points from safety with a game in hand on the teams above the dotted line. Bright though their football was, the outlook is grim.
It was clear as soon as debutant manager Darren Moore set his team up in the 4-2-3-1 formation he was so wedded to at Doncaster Rovers he knows what he wants – full-backs high, centre-backs playing the ball out and everybody looking to get it down, Barry Bannan in the hole, Callum Paterson dropping off to link the play and another centre-forward, Josh Windass, on the wing. The questions are whether 13 games squeezed into nine weeks is enough time to make his ideas work, and whether his squad has the tools he needs.
Meanwhile at Huddersfield Town 24 hours earlier, not even the football was bright. If the Owls’ predicament has been clear from the moment they began the season on minus points, the Terriers are being dragged into the fight after an unexpectedly good start. Now, even after beating Swansea City 4-1 a fortnight ago, their confidence looks shot and they are vulnerable. Rotherham are five points behind but have 14 games to play to their 12.
With Wycombe Wanderers adrift, Wednesday, Rotherham and Huddersfield are effectively fighting over two relegation places with Coventry City – beaten late by Middlesbrough on Tuesday – and Birmingham City, who the Terriers held to a 1-1 draw. It is the South Yorkshire sides in the bullet seats.
Derby County are only a point ahead of Huddersfield but have a game in hand and a more positive feel since Wayne Rooney’s appointment dragged them up the table as Chris Hughton has at Nottingham Forest, on 40 points. Between the East Midlands clubs, Queens Park Rangers are eight points ahead of Rotherham on the same games played.
Worryingly for Huddersfield, even Carlos Corberan’s confidence in his methods seems to be wavering. A coach who appeared to have a fervent belief in how he wanted the game played and was hired to provide that appeared to have had a Road to Damascus moment after Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at Preston North End.
In a desperately poor game against Birmingham, there was a notable effort to regularly go long, particularly by clipping balls into the inside-left channel. Having just signed a 6ft 3in targetman centre-forward in Yaya Sanogo there was some logic to it, but two problems. Firstly, having not played regularly since Ligue 1 was abandoned last March, Sanogo was only considered match-fit enough to come on as an 84th-minute substitute, and secondly, they were not very good at it, continually returning possession to visitors who themselves looked sub-standard.
It appeared to be more about cutting out self-harm than hurting the opposition.
“If you attack more you are going to take risks and you are going to suffer counter-attacks and we had to stop that,” argued Corberan. “If playing out is going to create a problem, we are going to play long.”
If Sanogo gets up to speed quickly enough, maybe Town can match this, for them, new approach to their personnel but until then they are clinging to the cushion plumped up so well before Christmas and injuries they have not recovered from.
Moore looks more tied to his principles – he was at Doncaster – but he too must try to match them to players. Neither Tom Lees, Julian Borner nor unused substitute Chey Dunkley are natural ball-playing centre-backs and injury has kept Joost van Aken out since Boxing Day. The one chance created from that area was when Borner went long to Paterson and the Scot ought to have taken it. Therein lays Moore’s biggest problem. Tony Pulis was adamant Paterson was not a centre-forward, then found himself having to play him there more often than not. Moore was just as clear he believes that he is and Paterson did half the job of a Moore No 9, linking up with those around him.
If the Owls can find a striker who combines the all-round play with deadlier finishing – with six goals in 30 appearances Paterson is their top-scorer – all is not lost despite the daunting table.
Rotherham went into the derby with five straight defeats – the form Wednesday are in now – but having yo-yoed between the Championship and League One in recent years are realistic to know such runs can happen and were buoyed by the belief performances were better than those results, the encouragement Moore clung to at full-time.
Without the suspended Michael Ihiekwe, the isolating Richard Wood and injured Clark Robertson, they were light on centre-backs before Smith’s red card made life harder still but have great spirit and on Wednesday at least, clinical finishing.
As so often in relegation battles, it could be the strikers who hold the key for all three clubs.
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