Brrrrr. Shivers up my spine. Nails on the chalkboard. The screech of a microphone when someone first speaks into it. Snot hanging off your nose in the middle of winter. This is how this match felt.
How do you sum it up? Watford felt like a bad performance, but it never felt like this. This felt like a team – as excellent as it is – plunging new depths in poor performance levels.
We were all confident in ourselves approaching this game and perhaps we were swept up in our own and the media’s hype. But why wouldn’t we be? We were, frankly, excellent against Atsenal, a team who are on a long-stretch unbeaten and who are likely to be competing for a Champions League position – who the heck are Huddersfield?
But whilst Arsenal and teams of that ilk possess an arrogance that doesn’t allow them to consider an opposition’s gameplan, Huddersfield are fighting tooth and nail to stay in the division. With that comes a humility and a desire for marginal gains that will prepare them as well as possible for each match they play. Here, you could see a sophisticated game plan had been brought with them, something we seemingly had not prepared for.
There’s a school of thought that we have been found out, that if you stop our two maverick midfield Portu-geezers, then you will stop us. Watford did it and Huddersfield took a leaf out of their book by operating a similarly crowded central midfield. You should never, ever discount the impact an opposition has on a performance and we outselves have not perhaps been given the credit we deserved for making good teams and players look average. So first and foremost, kudos to Huddersfield and David Wagner.
They matched us up and their wing-backs didn’t allow ours into the game. They also surrounded Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho and harassed them out of the game, with Phillip Billing and Aaron Mooy in particular having the run of the pitch. Billing especially seemed to be everywhere, although if you can scale the width of the pitch in a couple of strides, perhaps we should expect him to. It was his elongated frame that stopped us from pulling level – the finest of margins that can dictate a game’s outcome. If we pulled one back, the fragility of a side that was bottom of the league at the start of the game, would probably have meant it swung in our favour. As it was, Huddersfield continued to run amok. Watching Neves, a man usually so elusive to the press, being hounded out by three blue and white striped Terriers, was a difficult sight to come to terms with. They also had an outlet, as we managed to make Steve Mounie look more like Didier Drogba for 90 minutes. Willy Boly failed to win a header against him, another vision we just aren’t accustomed to.
So that’s the Huddersfield bit out of the way. Again, we can’t discount the impact of an opposition, but what about the fact we were just plain horrid as well? This was a game featuring two teams playing at opposite ends of the performance spectrum. I don’t see Huddersfield playing much better than they did yesterday and I sure as hell can’t see us being any worse. The two things combined? And you get a 2-0 defeat to Huddersfield Town.
Where do you start? Well Helder Costa and Ivan Cavaleiro, in keeping with the best buddies image they have, decided to book a day off together. Matt Doherty still appeared to be concussed – we clearly don’t have one of those super-fast, special recovery concussion chamber thingies – while Neves and Moutinho appeared to be in awe of Billing (how can a human being look so much like an alpaca?).
The midfield twosome is perhaps the biggest quandary right now. There has been a genuine drop-off in their standards, which were supremely high from the beginning of the season. As we should expect, teams are watching us and starting to get to grips with how to combat us. The old ‘too similar’ argument has reared its head again and Neves and Moutinho can both appear to be operating far too square on many occasions. That can work, especially defensively, but it can also mean they lose out on passing options on the ball. The other issue is their mobility. Midfield pairings of recent years have always required a level of dynamism, Think Kante and Drinkwater – this only succeeded because Kante was able to do the leg work of an extra midfielder. Moutinho and Neves simply don’t have this in the locker, through no fault of their own of course. If you look at our options, you can see Morgan Gibbs=White is useful at driving into space, but his ability to read the game is probably lacking for someone who needs to be able to operate defensively and offensively. Romain Saiss is our resident hatchet man/walking yellow card, but he hasn’t been trusted in the Premier League yet. There would still be question marks about his ability to get about the pitch though, especially given his lack of action. The only other man who could be considered is Leander Dendoncker, who we can’t really form any opinion of at all. Conor Coady obviously has some history in the middle of the park and he would add the bite we may be lacking – anyone who saw him crunch Florent Hadergjonaj in the first half can attest to this – but he was pretty much the only Wolves player to emerge from this game with credit in his now critical position at the heart of the defence.
We’re in an interesting situation, especially in the context of not winning in five. This is a real test of Nuno’s managerial skills and how he utilises a good squad at his disposal. On the face of it, most managers who face opposition that are willing to re-engineer their style and tactics in order to combat them, will say they are doing something right. It’s a compliment. We’re too good to be steamrollered without a second thought. That’s a feather in the cap in anyone’s book and teams know we are a force to be reckoned with. But how to combat that change in approach from opponents?
This is the million dollar question right now. Huddersfield had the tools available to stop us. Others don’t. Even Brighton, in beating us didn’t ‘stop’ us. Southampton failed. West Ham couldn’t cope. Leicester needed a huge slice of fortune to overcome us and for large parts of the game were second best, but the Huddersfields and the Watfords cannot afford to tot up.
Whether it’s Plan B, C or Z. Something does need to be done to ensure we can react to the reactions. We play Cardiff next week. It’ll be a good time to start.