Before the season was suspended in March, Garry Monk seemed to have lost his way at Sheffield Wednesday. Falling into the same trap that led to Jos Luhukay’s demise, Monk was making multiple changes in formation and personnel and appeared to have adopted a trial-and-error approach, simply hoping that a winning formation would somehow present itself.
Writer: Daniel Burkinshaw
Fast-forward to June and on the season’s resumption, Monk had a bold new approach. Two out-and-out wingers were selected as wing-backs – an unusual and adventurous approach – and the team was playing with a clear attacking intent. Fast-forward again to the end of the season and Wednesday had yielded just eight points from the nine games since the restart.
But the results certainly do not tell the whole story. In most of the games, Wednesday were the best team for long spells and in none of them were they outplayed from start to finish; across the nine games, Joe Wildsmith had very few saves to make. The final match summed up the frustrations, with Jacob Murphy missing a glorious chance shortly before a bad error from Wildsmith gifted Middlesbrough their injury-time winner. At Swansea, Wednesday should have been leading comfortably at half-time and in the Preston game a poor refereeing decision denied Julian Borner a goal that would have put Wednesday 2-1 in front with just minutes remaining. Even in the 3-0 defeat to promoted West Brom, Wednesday were the best team for long periods of the game and were caught on the counter attack in a scoreline that flattered the visitors. And despite losing at Fulham, Wednesday had twice as many corners as a very strong Fulham side and more shots; with a little extra conviction they could have snatched a point.
So the statistics don’t tell the whole story either. In eight of those nine games, Wednesday had more corners than the opposition and more shots. Many will say that the only statistics that count are goals scored and conceded, but particularly among younger coaches, like Monk, strong emphasis is placed on the level of performance and I know that I am not the only one to have been impressed by Wednesday’s positive approach in the five weeks since the season resumed.
So why did the results not match the performances? The players have embraced the new formation but there have inevitably been teething troubles in a system in which they have been compelled to adjust to different demands of positional play, and the defenders at times have seemed a little disorientated by this. Individual mistakes have cost Wednesday dear and it is hard not to feel sorry for Monk when he sees errors such as Dominic Iorfa’s reckless penalty-conceding tackle at Fulham or the complete mess that Wildsmith made of the routine shot for Middlesbrough’s winning goal.
But unlike before the lockdown, there has been a consistency to Monk’s approach and some of the fans’ criticism has been completely unfair, both of the manager himself and certain players. All of them have seemed committed to the cause and several, most notably Harris and Murphy, seemed to be rejuvenated after the season was halted in March. The manager has also recognised the need for a pacier, more youthful team and Alex Hunt and Liam Shaw have both shown that they are prepared to mix it with senior professionals.
After the defeat to Brentford, I was convinced that Monk was not the man for Wednesday but the clear plan and attacking outlook since the restart has made me reconsider. However, if results do not go Wednesday’s way in the first games of the new season the clamour from a vocal section of the support might prove too much to keep him in his post.
I hope that before any such decision the level of performances, and the bigger picture, is taken into account. With an ageing squad that he inherited, and faced with the departure of a number of senior players, he still managed to coax a spirited level of performance from the squad after the season’s restart.
Some fans are unable to see beyond results. In the 2016-17 season when Wednesday’s fourth-placed finish was their highest since relegation from the Premiership in 2000, for the most part the football was pretty dreary and never have I known a Wednesday team benefit from so much good fortune. In a period of thirteen league games alone between 3 December 2016 and 14 February 2017, seven opposition players were sent off against Wednesday – with the dismissals quite probably making the difference between winning and failing to win, notably in the home games against Preston, Rotherham, Huddersfield and Blackburn. In all of these games, Wednesday were very poor.
Contrast Carlos Carvalhal’s luck in that spell with the bad fortune suffered by Monk and his squad in June and July of this year. Monk’s aim to build a younger, pacier squad is surely the correct one but the success that Carvalhal enjoyed was built more on resilience rather than free-flowing football and experienced players with a strong character such as Westwood, Hutchinson and Wallace were a big part of that steely streak. Monk’s challenge will be to implement a similar hardiness as he reshapes the squad.
How many clubs that are constantly changing manager achieve any success? The unreasonable fans, for whom anything other than winning almost every game will be unacceptable, will not appreciate this but margins in football matches are generally tight and luck does play a part.
Let’s hope that Garry Monk finally gets some good fortune when the new season begins.