Half a season done, and we’re four points and one position better off than last season.
Five wins from six – our best form all season.
And this after a season that has felt weird: It’s actually better than last season was at this point, but it does feel like expectations have been raised a fair bit more than our points haul has (mind you, it doesn’t take much to do so).
And we have been underachieving this season.
This wonderful chart from Ben Mayhew shows how different this season and last have been.
Expected Goals is, in short, the quality of the chance – how many times out of a hundred does a shot from that position end up being a goal?
You can try out how big a percentage of shots, on average, go in from different positions with this cool calculator.
If we had the same efficiency in front of goal as Brighton and Newcastle, we’d have scored 15 more goals.
With the efficiency of the top six, we’d have ten more. Even with just the division’s average in efficiency in front of goal, we’d have five more goals.
In actual fact, based on the quality of chances we’ve created so far this season it’s quite outrageous that we haven’t scored more.
Speaking strictly statistically, if you replayed our matches again and we had the same quality of chances, in 999 instances out of a thousand would we have scored more than the 27 goals we have to our name:
After a tense, hard-fought (and -thought) victory at Newcastle – I struggle to think of a better advert for Championship football – it’s now back to everyday life of sorts: A busy schedule around New Year’s Eve with first Preston away and then a mere two days on Wolves at home (no t-shirts for this one, folks).
Preston away is the sort of match that a promotion chaser like ourselves would ordinarily consider a must win sort of game.
Wednesday are trying to win consecutive away games for the second time this season
But our away form this year has been iffy (we’ve won, drawn and lost 4) – far from promotion form – so it’s far from a gimme.
Furthermore Preston are exactly the sort of compact, well-drilled Championship scrapper we tend to struggle against.
Rotherham, by some distance the division’s worst, nearly did (another) number on us in exactly that way, and had it not been for the gods of refereeing smiling on us that day could have smash and grabbed all three points.
Preston remind me a bit of us under Stuart Gray.
Not just because they have three ex-Wednesday players (Vermijl, Spurr and McGeady), but they’re operating on a low budget and trying (successfully) to wring a lot out of meagre resources.
Their wage bill is around £7m a year – half of what we spent even under Mandaric – and they’re living within their means as one of few (the only?) Championship clubs actually making a profit.
There’s no gaming of the Financial Fair Play system, despite a wealthy owner.
Instead they have stability in Simon Grayson, a manager every bit as “solid if unspectacular” as the club he’s managing.
With nigh on 600 matches as a manager, he certainly knows his craft and has shepherded both Leeds, Huddersfield and now Preston from League 1 to Championship stability – no mean feat.
His nearly four years at Preston makes him the second-longest serving manager in a division, where a staggering 8 out of 24 clubs have already changed managers this season alone.
You’d almost think stability at a club – financial as well as managerial – was helpful!
It’s of course less than a month ago we last played Preston, and there wasn’t much in it then.
They showed plenty of fight, so much so they had Jermaine Beckford and Eoin Doyle sent off for fighting each other!
Beckford won’t play a part on Saturday, as, would you believe it, he actually got sent off again on Boxing Day four minutes after his return to the team as a substitute…
Preston lost heavily at home on Boxing Day to our play-off and Yorkshire rivals Leeds.
This was only their third loss in 15 matches, though (they’d be 7th if the season had started mid-September).
The other two losses? Against us and Newcastle. According to reports of their Leeds game, it was a lot less lopsided than the scoreline suggests.
It will be a(nother) tight game, and in perverse way it may be a stiffer test for Wednesday’s players than the triumph at St James Park: We all saw last season, how well we rose to the occasion, when we were underdogs; where we struggled was against the supposedly ‘lesser teams’.
Wednesday have laboured after big performances under Carvalhal
Often these struggles seemed to follow decent performances. There hasn’t been much to indicate that we’ve rid ourselves completely of that “big time Charlie” syndrome.
Last season saw us lose 1-0 at Deepdale, which ended our seven match unbeaten run and was the beginning of a 5 game winless streak.
It’s tempting to think all is well for us after the Newcastle game, but in many ways Preston is the worst sort of opponent, especially after that triumph.
As alluded to earlier, Preston remind me of Stuart Gray’s Wednesday.
That goes for the playing style too: favouring counter attacks, and using wingers Robinson and McGeady to carry the ball forward as “creative outlets”, and 6 foot 7 Danish front man Makienok as a target man for out-balls.
Those two wingers dribble the ball 50-100 % more often in a match than Forestieri does for us.
With Wolves just two days after, I can see Carvahal making use of our sizeable squad and rotating quite heavily between the two games, as we’ve also had quite a few niggling injuries of late.
He’ll want some measure of balance, to guard against counter attacks, while also comfortably controlling possession.
Reach as a left back is a license for him to bomb forward (with Palmer more cautious on the other side), and with Abdi as a “fake 11”, so to speak – tucking inside as a third central midfielder – he, Bannan and Hutchinson can control possession.
Joao is the only fit forward with a threat to the space behind their defence, which tends to push their defensive line backwards, leaving more space in front of them for us to use for some quick, passing interplay.
The only worry with this selection is it runs the risk of being too a bit too static.
Narrow 1-0 win, where we dominate possession and score from a set piece (Preston tend to sit back and have been poor at defending set pieces).
Wolves are about the polar opposite of Preston.
If Preston are reminiscent of Wednesday under Stuart Gray, then Wolves bring to mind some of the darker recent days.
There’s an air of entitlement about them, and they spend big (but without a plan), and have little to show for it.
Wolves have already sacked their manager this season: Italian goalkeeping legend Walter Zenga sacked to make way for Paul Lambert, the man who took Norwich straight from League 1 to the Premier League (and who actually won a Champions League as a player).
Lambert lost to Wednesday in his first home game as Wolves boss – Image: The Times
This match will see a full Hillsborough with blue and white on all four sides after the Lower West Stand was given to Wednesday fans too. This will hopefully work in our favour.
Wolves have committed the most fouls in the division, and have one of the worst disciplinary records.
We like a bit of Sam Hutchinson yellow card bingo, but Wolves have three players with as many yellow cards as the man who seems transplanted from a Greek myth: certainly a Spartan.
All swagger and lovely hair, sent to do god-like deeds in the Wednesday midfield in recent weeks.
It’s anybody’s guess how we’ll line up here, and we may well see a very different team than this one put out, simply as a result of fatigue or injury against Preston.
Hutchinson’s injury history in mind, I can’t see him starting both games, certainly not in midfield.
McManaman in line to start?
McManaman starting may be a bridge too far, but as Carvahal often prefers to finish games strongly, I could see him starting to be replaced early on in the second half.
Lee is touch and go for selection against Preston, but he still seems Carvahal’s first choice on the team sheet.
That said, the emphatic nature of the win at Newcastle, Lee absent, may indicate, brilliant as he is, he’s just not a player that makes us better as a team at the moment – or in those sort of matches.
That’s harsh on him, especially as he’s still, to me, the ultimate “more than the sum of the parts” team player.
His deep runs from midfield have been vital for us this season, as we have often found ourselves dragged down in tempo by a mass of bodies defending.
Players like Lee making runs is one way to upset that dynamic (to use a Carvahal-ism).
Especially as Lee has developed an almost Lampard-like knack for appearing in the right place at the right time.
Buckley may not be fully fit yet, but if he can put in 65-75 minutes here, I think Carvahal will do so, rather than play Wallace from the start in two straight matches. I don’t think Wallace has the energy to do so.
Forestieri did brilliantly against Wolves in the game at Molineux, but looked quite off the pace at Newcastle. He laboured admirably regardless, and, lest we forget, assisted Loovens’ goal.
3-1 win, with most of the goals coming later on in the game (so plenty of time on the day for the bumper crowd to get some chuntering out of the way) – I have a feeling Fletcher may add to the just 3 goals he’s scored from open play so far this season.