One of the beauties of two-legged football – especially when both games are packed together like Sheffield Wednesday’s play-off semi-final against Sunderland, part two of which is tonight – is that it can set up mind games and brinkmanship as the two managers think around what happened in the first game to try and shape the second.
Part one went the Black Cats’ way more emphatically than the 1-0 scoreline suggests. But the fact remains it is only 1-0 and Sunderland’s big advantage on Friday – a packed-out, partisan crowd they have played well in front of over the course of the League One season – will be Wednesday’s at Hillsborough this evening.
The hosts’ biggest threat in the first leg was not their goalscorer, Ross Stewart, but the two who played behind him in a 3-4-2-1 formation, former Huddersfield Town playmaker Alex Pritchard and ex-Middlesbrough loanee Patrick Roberts.
Trying to deal with them saw the Owls switch to a back four at the start of the second half but it was no surprise their best spell of the game was when both had been substituted.
Now manager Darren Moore must think up a better plan to counteract them.
“That’s if they play,” he was quick to point out. “We have to be better there but I thought we got to grips with it better in the second half and forced them to play longer.
“They played a different system and it was a game of chess so credit to them because we had to make adjustments in the game and we did that to stem the flow.
“We’ll have a look at it and see how this game pans out but we’ve just got to focus on what we’re about.”
Explaining his switch to 4-4-2 then back to the 3-5-2 which has been his team’s default formation this season, Moore said: “I just thought for 15, 20 minutes we’d go man for man to stem the flow and once we grew into the game, we flipped it back. I just thought they had that half a yard on us because of the way the game was going and the energy from the crowd.
“We adjusted because they were so on top and it was the right thing to do to stay in it so we could wrestle it back.
“Once I felt the pendulum swing, we switched back.”
Although Sunderland dominated the first-half possession, they rarely looked like scoring until the half ended with a Sam Hutchinson error which Stewart pounced on. They were more effective against the back four. Pritchard rattling the bar and Roberts seeing plenty of chances too.
But plan A shows if Wednesday can be a bit more careful in possession – a lot more, actually – they have nothing to fear from Sunderland’s attack.
“They didn’t really break us down that much and we were happy with them having the ball,” was centre-back Jordan Storey’s very fair assessment of the first half.
“I don’t think they even had many shots prior to the goal so we felt comfortable letting them have the ball because they weren’t really hurting us. We knew the only way they were going to break us down was from our own doing and unfortunately that was what cost us in the first half.
“In the second half it started to open up a bit more but I still felt confident and I think either side could have nicked a goal in the second half. Unfortunately no one did.”
Clearly, though, what happened on Friday will not be good enough to turn the deficit around. The beauty of a second leg is something completely different could take place.
“I want it louder from our fans because we know what Hillsborough can be like,” said Moore, whose talismanic midfielder Barry Bannan struggled to impose himself on a game he had been a doubt for with injury.
“We know at home we’ve got to carry more of an attacking threat and our pictures have got to be clearer and better.
“I just thought we could have used the ball better but you’ve got to take into consideration it was a ferocious atmosphere and areas where they thought they had to rush it, they had a lot more time than they realised. That’s awareness and experience of games like that.
“I just thought there were moments where we could have taken the sting out of the game a little bit more with a little bit of composure.
“We were up against it but the boys stayed dogged.
“We had to sit in deep and the boys showed their experience not getting dragged into positions where we could get more exposed.
“When they got into the latter part of the pitch we had bodies in the way to make it difficult for them so a lot of their chances came from long-range efforts.”
Tonight’s aggregate winners will meet Wycombe Wanderers at Wembley on May 21 after they beat MK Dons 2-1 on aggregate yesterday.
Away goals do not count double, and the tie will be decided by extra-time or penalties if necessary.