Let’s be clear. What follows is NOT an excuse for Sheffield Wednesday’s current mid-table position in the Championship. Nor is it a reason for them to dip – again – from the improved standards they are setting themselves. It’s just a fact.
Namely that it is normal this season for clubs of Wednesday’s size, carrying similar expectations, to struggle to deliver. And that will remain the case while ever a dozen and more clubs of top flight pedigree are battling for just three promotion places.
If the international break does nothing else, it provides a freeze-frame for a reality check. By my reckoning, the Owls are one of 11 clubs falling short of where they’d aspire to be. Make that 13 if you include the teams in fifth and sixth places, Middlesbrough and Aston Villa (both only three points better than Carlos Carvalhal’s side). Boro and Villa are seven points adrift of second-placed Sheffield United; where they’d want to be.
The generally unexpected success of the Blades, Cardiff and Bristol City has put the focus on supposed under-achievers. And there are many of them, arguably over half the division, which is what makes this league so exciting.
Apart from Wednesday, here’s the ones I feel will carry a dissatisfied fan base. All have spent time in the top flight, many relatively recently. In order of current table placing, they are;- Derby, Ipswich, Nottingham Forest, Leeds, Norwich, Fulham, Reading, Hull, Birmingham, Sunderland. Arguably, you could add a 12th in Bolton Wanderers, who have spent more seasons in the top division than any other outside of the Premier League.
None of this exonerates Wednesday’s erratic performance level, albeit mirrored by last season’s other beaten play-off finalists Fulham and Reading. But it does highlight the size of the challenge AND suggest that if there is/has been a case for sacking Carvalhal then maybe half the division’s managerial heads could or should roll with him!
So I think, as repeatedly argued here, we should be looking elsewhere – at the players.
As individuals and as a team, they are starting to get their act together. Carvalhal is right to suggest it started with the defiant response in ten-man adversity during a 2-0 defeat at Derby. He was also right, as were those scoffed at for supporting him, to claim that the performance in a 1-1 home draw with Barnsley was, in attitude and approach, a step in the right direction.
Then came 2-1 wins over Millwall and Villa, the latter again showing true capability levels and stripping the team of any excuse for dropping back, as they did after the 3-0 win over Leeds.
The key, then, is to maintain this intensity and make it clear to everyone what is demanded. I think, as a group, they somehow need that rather than allowing the freedom of a more relaxed approach.
Yes, confidence is a big factor – as especially demonstrated by Adam Reach and Jordan Rhodes just now – but Bristol City at Hillsborough a week on Saturday also calls for a big statement about which direction this season is taking.