Kieran Lee and Josà© Semedo are providing Sheffield Wednesday with a New Poise
Sheffield Wednesday’s victory at Reading on Saturday was notable for some significant tactical thinking from newly appointed manager Stuart Gray.
Without question, the game hinged on the ninth minute incident which saw Alex Pearce adjudged to have upended former Royals loanee Benik Afobe in the area before the double jeopardy of the current rulings allowed Chris Maguire to put the Owls ahead from the spot.
With Nigel Adkins perhaps arrogantly deciding to leave both his strikers on the field, in contrast to usual policy in such instances to opt for a 4-4-1, Wednesday’s already keen appetite for a closing and harrying game would only become further sated — the ability to challenge the man in possession only heightened by the extra personnel available.
Hence, Reading’s tendency to sling long balls forward to the less than gargantuan dimensions of Adam Le Fondre, be it because of lack of opportunity — space was of course severely limited to the 10 men – or foolishness at the lack of realisation that such a policy could never really pay dividends.
With one full back having recently successfully converted from a winger in Jordan Obita and another in Garath McCleary now also forced backwards by the rashness of Pearce’s action, the usually suspect Joe Mattock was left with an acre of space of pootle about, unchallenged by the rapid bursts that would surely have tormented him had it remained 11 against 11.
Without any benefit of hindsight, the decision from my viewpoint looked to be a correct one however, so in spite of a testy first half where Reading did their best to try and convince the referee to even things up — Maguire in particular was pest-like in his tendency to bother Reading’s makeshift back four and was clearly enjoying some hearty dealership in wind-ups – the Yorkshire team took control.
Gray responded to the sudden inequality of numbers expertly, squeezing the play all over the pitch and encouraging a passing game which had been all too absent under the stewardship of his predecessor Dave Jones.
At root though, two recent positional switches are at the heart of all that is good about this new Wednesday.
First, Portuguese stalwart Josà© Semedo, a centre back early on in his career, has returned to that role and looks tailor made to the position, using his ability on the ball to slow the play down and feed sensible passes into central areas. Alongside the previously occasionally dubious Miguel Llera, the Owls centre backs benefitted from a field day of unchallenged head tennis — Semedo’s lack of inches more than made up by his astute reading of the game. Indeed, his performances evoked a Wednesday man of the past, Des Walker himself no less.
In many ways a similar player to Semedo; just ahead of him busied Kieran Lee. The floppy haired ex-Manchester United kid ran the game from the base of midfield, having been moved there by Gray after spending most of his time at Hillsborough on the right. With Jacques Maghoma a real threat down the left, belying a disappointing start to his career in blue and white, and Afobe a menace right from the off, there is a real pace to Wednesday’s play these days — something augmented by another ex-Biscuitman Michail Antonio when he came off the bench to indulge in a bit of late show boating.
In short, Wednesday look a more modern side. Lee and Semedo treat the ball like their own personal property, not something to be lumped forward, while the wiles of Afobe, albeit not always accompanied by end product (see also Maghoma) have been a familiar sight to Championship loan watchers for some time now.
With a winnable cup tie ahead and the quarter chance that Sheffield United may be lying in wait later in that competition, Gray’s job at Hillsborough has been exemplary so far and you have to go back to before Christmas to the Owls’ last defeat. Amid that run, there have been eye catching results of course, including that famous battering of Leeds and a good 1-1 draw at Burnley.
Sheffield Wednesday appear to be leaving the Dark Ages behind.