Preview: Sheffield Wednesday

A humbling defeat away at Reading last time out served as a reminder that survival is the principle ambition for this team this season. What was most concerning about that loss was just how bereft of confidence the team looked after falling behind. With three crucial games coming up against relegation rivals, this would be a terrible time for the team to be consumed by a sudden loss of self-belief.

This rearranged match against a Sheffield Wednesday side that have seen their own confidence levels grow over the past month could well define how these next few games play out. Although the points gap between ourselves and the bottom three means a draw would be no disaster, a victory not only pushes us away from danger but damages a direct relegation rival. A defeat, meanwhile, would drag us back into the mire.

Expected Line-Up

The suspension to Kyle McFadzean for his sending-off against Reading last time out leaves Mark Robins with a big selection decision to make over whether to stick with the back three that has largely served us well over the past season-and-a-half, or to shift to a back four due to the lack of available first-team calibre centre-backs.

With Josh Pask, Declan Drysdale, Jordon Thompson, and Morgan Williams, as well as possibly even Ben Sheaf, to call upon, there isn’t a shortage of options if the preference is to stick with the back three but it would be a first Championship start in that position for any one of those players. Josh Pask – who had looked set to be leaving the club this month this month – looks to be, marginally, the preferred option, with Jordon Thompson, then Declan Drysdale, the next most likely to come in – based on recent bench line-ups. The question is whether it’s a bigger risk to throw an inexperienced player into the fold or to potentially unsettle the entire team with a change in shape.

The back four may well be the preferred option, but the lack of attacking options makes it difficult to fit in players into their preferred positions. In particular, the recall for Ryan Giles leaves the team short on fit, senior natural wide players. New striker, Viktor Gyokeres, has played a lot of football out wide, but that would mean Maxime Biamou, who is playing through an injury, will have to start up front. On the other wing, it would be a call between Callum O’Hare (who is not a winger) and Will Bapaga (who has played 36 minutes of league football in his career).

In addition, a potential 4-3-3 could make for a trio of Gustavo Hamer, Ben Sheaf and Matty James in the middle of the park, which perhaps lacks an element of attacking thrust. However, it would take an element of defensive burden away from Hamer, our best creative player, while keeping the team solid in the middle of the pitch.

Last Time We Met

In a year or two’s time, there will be a pub quiz question ‘who was the only team that lost to Tony Pulis’ Sheffield Wednesday?’ (Probably only in Sheffield) The answer will be Coventry City.

Having been on a decent run of results back in December, the Sky Blues produced a performance completely lacking in ambition that allowed a Sheffield Wednesday clearly devoid of confidence to grind out a narrow win. In a game of few chances, a silly free-kick given away by Leo Ostigard allowed set-piece expert, Barry Bannan, to whip in a delivery that foxed Ben Wilson and allowed centre-back, Tom Lees, to score the game’s winning goal.

 

The Opposition

The Manager – Neil Thompson (Caretaker)

Stepping in following the sacking of Tony Pulis, Neil Thompson has re-energised Sheffield Wednesday by adopting a more attacking game-plan and bringing in a few youngsters to take the place of underperforming senior players. Thompson has won both his league games in charge of the Owls, giving the team hope of bridging the gap to safety despite being in turmoil off-the-pitch.

Both victories for Thompson in the league have come in somewhat fortuitous circumstances, relying on the opposition to miss some big chances before nicking something at the other end, but he has set the team up to at least be able to take advantage of misfiring opponents. With injuries and a Covid outbreak impacting his available options, Thompson has started four different formations in the games he’s had in charge – including two FA Cup ties – demonstrating a tactical versatility that could be important in eking points out in a congested season.

Who To Look Out For

The undoubted key player for Sheffield Wednesday over the past five seasons has been Barry Bannan in the centre of the park. The Scot isn’t the most mobile or aggressive of central midfielders, but his passing range and tactical intelligence can see him orchestrate games when at his very best. With the pace of wide players, Andre Green and Kadeem Harris, providing an outlet for Bannan, the key for us in this game will be limiting the time he gets on the ball.

With experienced and physically dominant central defenders in Tom Lees and Chey Dunkley, Sheffield Wednesday can be an imposing side at the back. Former Coventry City keeper, Keiren Westwood, may well be available for this game after missing the last few, adding an extra level of sternness for a Sheffield Wednesday side that has the second-best defensive record in the division, outside the top six.

In attack, that pace Wednesday have in wide areas is supplemented by the energy of forward Josh Windass, which potentially gives the team the ability to win the ball high up the pitch. In addition, the versatile Scot, Callum Paterson, can be a very effective battering ram in attack – feeding off deliveries from wide areas and set-pieces – despite his relatively short stature.

Where This Game Will Be Won Or Lost

As mentioned above, restricting Barry Bannan’s impact on this game is going to be important in stymying any kind of flow Sheffield Wednesday will hope to get into. Bannan can be quite elusive with the areas he looks to pick up the ball from – often drifting into deep wide areas – which makes it worth considering a man-to-man marking job from someone energetic, such as Callum O’Hare or Jamie Allen.

Given how much this Sky Blues side struggles to create against most teams in this division, it is going to be a particular challenge against such a strong defensive team. With their physicality at the back, we’re unlikely to get much luck from playing long balls towards Maxime Biamou or from crosses into the box. Our attacking threat in this game is likely to come down to the speed with which we can move the ball, the movement around the penalty area, and a level of decisiveness in key areas that has often been lacking from this team.

This is likely to be a low-scoring game, maintaining concentration and avoiding mistakes is likely to be as important as looking to take the game to Sheffield Wednesday will be.

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