Sheffield Wednesday Season Preview: Westwood the best

Sheffield Wednesday have been the Championship’s nearly men over the last two seasons. On both occasions, they made the top six with relative comfort but were undone in the play-offs by fellow Yorkshire outfits, Hull and Huddersfield. Supporter Steve Walmsley from War of the Monster Trucks reflects on the recent highs and lows in Owlerton.

In 15/16 we were the surprise package, we scored goals, home form was great – the only lows were some poor defeats away to struggling teams and simply not turning up in the play-off final. Last season teams had worked us out and the football was a real grind at times – tight wins or defeats being the norm. The two games when we really showed our best were the wins against Newcastle; we were only on the edge of the play-offs most of the season, however a string of wins at the end secured a berth. But we tried to grind it out against Huddersfield, however they knew how to grind it better. The low was so much worse than losing at Wembley, we let a great chance slip away, and I haven’t got my mojo back yet as a result!

You boasted the Championship’s third best defensive record last year. How important were holding midfielder Sam Hutchinson and centre-back Tom Lees?

Hutchinson missed a few games last season and we still defended pretty well, and we have conceded soft goals when he has been playing, it’s his ability to win the ball back in midfield and to drive at teams from there that was his best contribution, although he is a very accomplished CB. Tom Lees is sound but better when Glenn Loovens is at his side.

The most common partner for Lees was 33-year-old Loovens. With Vincent Sasso gone, is more depth at centre-back needed?

Definitely, the manager has said he wants 2 centre halves but getting the right quality at the right price is a different matter. In summer 2016 we set out to sign one and to play Hutchinson at centre half too. We had to re-sign Sasso vary late on as we failed to sign what we wanted. Then Hutch was moved to midfield to perk that up and we were left short at the back. The worry is that we have spent too much on other parts of the team and are struggling to compete in an expensive market – maybe a sale or two might be needed to raise the cash. I think we have a brilliant CB at the club already in Sam Hutchinson, if we could fill the hole in midfield that would be left.

There are criticisms of your full-backs that Jack Hunt gets caught out of position and that Daniel Pudil has lost a yard of pace. Where do you stand on that?

Both criticisms are true in my view. In an ideal world we should sign a LB and a RB. For me though the top priority is LB where Pudil hasn’t just lost pace, he has lost stamina also – the job that our manager expects full backs to do takes a great physical toll which I don’t think he can handle at 32. Jack Hunt got better as the season went on and I think he will be ok if not ideal.

Keiren Westwood started 45 games last year. Is he one of the most consistent goalkeepers in the Championship?

Yes, I think he is. He is a big reason why we had the 3rd best defensive record in the Championship last year. There aren’t many better keepers and any club at this level would take him.

Barry Bannan has been a regular for the last two seasons and so has Kieran Lee, bar injuries. What do make of their performances?

Kieran Lee is the heartbeat of the team – he makes it tick like no one else. His energy is relentless, he gets box to box, he links play and re-cycles possession, and he can chip in with a few goals. If fit, first name on the team sheet for me. Bannan was a man re-born in 15/16 but struggled more last season as teams worked us out, he tried too much to hit the world beater long pass and gave the ball away as a result more than he used to. To have him and Almen Abdi in the squad is a blessing though.

The club has invested in a lot of strikers over the last year. Did the increased use of 4-4-2 mean we didn’t see midfielders play with as much freedom as they did the year before?

Carvalhal has always played a nominal 4-4-2 with Wednesday. Full backs high up the pitch, CB’s split with one of the 2 central midfielders dropping in, wingers that play inside, full backs to provide width and one striker dropping off to link play. The difference between 15/16 and last season was that opponents had worked it out and knew how to limit its effectiveness, hence we focussed on grinding out results.

Also we sign players and then try to make them fit that system rather than play to their strengths eg Jordan Rhodes as a target man? We have Steven Fletcher, Lucas Joao, Atdhe Nuhiu, Rhodes, Sam Winnall and Gary Hooper as strikers, plus Fernando Forestieri who can play there or out wide. But last season we found that without Hooper as a No10 the attacking game doesn’t work – he had a long spell out last season with a hamstring injury. Most Championship managers would give their eye teeth for Fletcher, Rhodes, Winnall and Hooper up front and would make the team work to create chances for them. No point in having them if you don’t give them opportunities.

George Boyd signs from Burnley. Where do you see him fitting into the team?

He’s a good player with real pedigree at Championship level having won promotion with Burnley and held down a place in the Premier League. He should be a great addition, but we have thought that before with wingers and it’s not always worked out – Adam Reach has been ok but not ripped up trees, Callum McManaman never really got a chance, Aiden McGeady was on the fringes but then played like a world beater at Preston, Marco Matias is always injured, Modou Sougou was another on the fringes. I hope Boyd can fit into the role Carvalhal wants wingers to play and be the source of decent ball into the box for our abundance of strikers.

What are your thoughts ahead of the Championship season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

Middlesbrough will win the league that’s for sure. And then there will be 8 or 9 clubs after the places behind them. It will be a dog-fight with a relentless battle to the finish in store. That’s the Championship! Bristol City and Forest might be ones to watch. It will be interesting to see how our foes from across the city do too – badly we hope, but I suspect not, depending how long the manager stays.

Where will you finish? You were about right last year…

Much will depend on 2 things. First, transfer dealings. If we can sign at least one top notch CB, a LB with the pace and stamina and who can cross a ball, and some cover for Kieran Lee in midfield we should be strengthened. Second issue is can we find a way of playing that makes the best of what we have up front? A bit less Barcelona and a bit more Burnley might be appropriate. If we can do all that then a top four finish isn’t beyond us. More of last season and we ought to be top 8, but where in the 8 is anyone’s guess. I am one of the 35% of Wednesdayites who are a bit sceptical about the manager and whether he has the flexibility to deliver what is needed from what we have got – I hope I’m wrong but we’ll see. I think where we finished was about right last season, in my view we were flattered by a bunch of wins at the end of the season that we got without really playing that well, apart from the Newcastle game at Hillsborough. In the play-off semi-final we were bang average and that was real let down.

The Football Lab’s Verdict

Sheffield Wednesday have a sturdy spine of Westwood, Loovens and Hutchinson behind individual attacking quality that most clubs envy. The Owls should bag another top six finish, but their approach play needs to speed up. 5th

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