Sheffield Wednesday Season Preview: avoiding injuries

With the 2018-19 Championship season coming up, The Football Lab spoke to Steve Walmsley from the excellent Sheffield Wednesday blog War of the Monster Trucks (@SheffWedWOTMT).

You finished 15th last season, 11 places lower than the previous campaign. Considering the investment that has been made without the insurance of parachute payments, that must go down as a disappointing campaign?

Yes it was very disappointing. We took a big gamble on transfer fees and wages and we didn’t refresh the squad by moving players on – instead many were effectively frozen out due to the bloated nature of the squad. In my view, Carlos Carvalhal should have gone in summer 2017 but he was trusted to have one more go at gaining promotion when he shouldn’t have been. Change was needed after the Huddersfield play-off defeat but he was left to carry on with his methods.

The player recruitment system has left much to be desired and Carvalhal’s claim to have two players for every position was left exposed when injuries bit. The players were just not fit enough and despite Carvalhal sacking the medical team in summer 2017, the injury list got longer and longer. As a result he had to turn to the players whom he had frozen out and he publicly admitted he didn’t know what to do to motivate them, so he chucked in the towel with us and left it to Jos Luhukay to sort out.

It took time, the return of Kieran Lee, Barry Bannan and Fernando Forestieri, and Luhukay finding ways to re-invigorate some of the previous cast-offs such as Frederico Venancio, Lucas Joao and Atdhe Nuhiu; once that happened we finished the season strongly with promotion form!

You’ve not added any players so far due to FFP, but then the squad is already very big. Do you think that getting and keeping the key men fit for a whole season is a bigger priority for 2018-19 than the summer recruitment?

We are certainly up against the FFP buffers and that is forcing the club to make decisions that it has shied away from in the last two or three years – reducing the size of the squad and giving youth a chance.

Since the end of last season we have moved on four players with no replacements and the squad is still too big. The wage bill has to come down significantly still and Luhukay has said we need to move on a further four or five players which feels about right. But it means the lack of quality in a number of areas cannot be addressed.

Fitness will be key, both in the sense of general fitness levels and avoidance of injuries, but some of the most expensive players we have are the oldest and most at risk injury wise. In an ideal world you need to refresh your squad a bit in the summer but it looks like we won’t be able to do much of that unless these is significant movement, and of course our most marketable players are the ones we wouldn’t want to sell.

You finished 2017-18 in good form; and stats would suggest your attacking record improves by 53% when Fernando Forestieri starts. Does the Italian hold the keys to your campaign?

I think overall we look a mid-table squad with a chance of a tilt at the play-offs only if we can avoid significant injuries and if we keep Forestieri fit and firing. At the back-end of last season when he returned after a long lay-off he looked very sharp and seemed to be enjoying a different role in the 3-4-3 system we used, playing in a fairly free role as one of the front three. On his day he is capable of being one of the best attacking players in the Championship and if we are to threaten the top 6 then he is critical.

Jos Luhukay managed to incorporate Forestieri as well as two powerful strikers in Lucas Joao and Atdhe Nuhiu. Does that diversify your goal threat?

Luhukay had to raise fitness levels, lift the confidence, incorporate some young players and find an attacking shape that suited the fit players we had available in the second half of 2017-18. As I said earlier, he managed to get more out of Nuhiu and Joao than Carlos Carvalhal could and he integrated them into a front three that combined physical strength, a bit of pace, trickery and the ability to produce some brilliant goals almost out of nothing.

It’s fair to say that under Carvalhal we didn’t offer much goal threat at all, and also not much under Luhukay until he managed to forge these 3 together.

Based on the above – and Adam Reach’s form – are wing-backs the way forward? With Jack Hunt leaving for Bristol City, would you like somebody to come in on the right?

Carvalhal played 4-4-2 but didn’t play orthodox wingers and his approach to attacking play just stopped working, so we had to do something different, Luhukay has adapted to a system using wing backs which worked at the end of 2017-18. Reach was used in a number of roles last season, one of which was wing back, he was clearly our Player of the Season, personally I think wing back is his best position.

The cover we have at LWB isn’t great on paper but we have hopes for young Matt Penney to step up. In an ideal world we would replace Hunt but I’m not sure we can afford to financially and young Ash Baker looks a prospect – he’s done well in the Under 23’s and had a cracking debut at the end of last season.

Liam Palmer has been at the club a long time, he now has a chance to step up and prove he can do it consistently but there are more than few fans who doubt he can.

Barry Bannan was excellent in the 2015-16 play-off campaign. Did he show signs of rediscovering that form at the end of last season?

Yes, he looked back to his best after his long injury spell last season. He brought that bit of quality that we had missed in midfield as a result of him, Sam Hutchinson, Almen Abdi and Lee all being out for long spells last season. He looked to have established a good partnership with Joey Pelupessy who took time to settle in to Championship football after a career in Holland. Offensively, Bannan makes the team tick from midfield like no one else does. He appears to be happy with us but we do worry that an offer might come in that we and/or he can’t resist!

The other midfielders who have had injury issues are Sam Hutchinson and Kieran Lee. Are you looking forward to getting both back, or do you have confidence in Joel Pelupessy?

I like Pelupessey, he has settled in well after a rocky start in a struggling team, his attitude is good and he seems like a positive force in the dressing room.

Hutchinson is a fabulous player but he is prone to injury and in central midfield is too gung-ho and a bit reckless at times leading to either injuries, bookings, or sometimes both. Personally I would play him as one of the back three from where he reads the game much better.

Lee has been fantastic for us but he is now 30 and has had a long time out with what appears to be a difficult problem with his hip – we hope to see him back to his best but we can’t wait for him forever.

We have positive hopes for young Connor Kirby who broke through at the end of last season too. And of course Almen Abdi owes us big time but I suspect if we could move him on we would. David Jones may play a role at times and so may George Boyd.

12 months ago, you were very praising of Keiron Westwood. Given that Joe Wildsmith started more league games last year – and Cameron Dawson looked good in the FA Cup – is the battle for the goalkeeper’s jersey now more open?

Westwood was the best keeper in the Championship for two seasons but he was carrying something at the start of last season and wasn’t himself, and he then had a long spell out which opened the door for Joe Wildsmith and Cameron Dawson.

Both Joe and Cameron were excellent, they are both good young keepers and neither of them deserves to be or will want to be 3rd choice.

Given our financial position I would not be averse to allowing Westwood to move on to another club – he’s great keeper and I don’t want to lose him but if him moving on allows us to retain a player who it would be harder to replace then we may have to do it. We are blessed with two young keepers who are mates but push each other all the time.

There’s suggestions that Tom Lees has been burdened at times by the captaincy. With Glenn Loovens moving on and Frederico Venancio’s loan deal ending, does Luhukay have some thinking to do in the centre-back area?

I thought Lees carried the captaincy well after he came back from his long injury break last season but I also wonder if the presence of the very experienced Daniel Pudil in the back three helped him in that respect. We tried to sign Venancio but couldn’t do the deal for whatever reason – he would have been a decent signing but I think we have the answer in Hutchinson; with him, Lees, Pudil, Joost Van Aken, Jordan Thorniley, Frederik Nielsen and Connor O’Grady we will hope we just have enough in that department.

Gary Hooper impressed me when fit last season with his movement. Do you think he could offer something different to Nuhiu and Joao?

Hooper is a brilliant player and without him Carvalhal’s game plan just didn’t work. But he didn’t play after Boxing Day last season and has just gone to a medical centre in Barcelona for more treatment/rehabilitation. He hasn’t played since Luhukay took over as manager so we don’t know when he’ll be fit or if he would fit in.

The best guess is that he and Forestieri look to be the best players for the free role in the front three for which they both have the speed of thought and movement, the delicate touch and the intelligence that the role needs.

Nuhiu is the more physical presence who can disrupt defences by drawing players to him whilst Joao is a bit of a maverick but his movement can be good and once moving his long legged pace is hard to keep up with.

Even after the departure of Jordan Rhodes (which needed to happen for both him and the club financially) we have on paper an embarrassment of riches up front but with Fletcher only just back from injury, Hooper’s position unknown and Sam Winnall out until late autumn that means we look a bit thin, therefore Marco Matias has a chance to stake a claim – has the ability but could do better.

Owls aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the Championship season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

I think Stoke, Derby, Boro and Forest will be up there this season. Norwich, Brentford, West Brom and Bristol City won’t be far way and Leeds United could be either a shooting star or sink without trace under Bielsa.

Where will you finish?

There are so many unknowns regarding the financial position, player fitness and how youngsters will step up it’s really hard to predict. We look to be a decent Championship team but with the potential and ability to push further than that if it all falls correctly, but that’s a big if. I think we are in for a season or two of restructuring at Hillsborough but if we are in the top half after Xmas and with Lees and Bannan fit and Forestieri firing we might have a chance at a play-off spot, subject to a fair wind with injuries etc.

Thanks to Steve for his answers. The Football Lab’s verdict on Wednesday can be found on We Love Betting from 30th July.