Sheffield Wednesday: Owls breathe new life into the dying art of crossing

Garry Monk cares little for the latest fashion.

Tuesday, 1st October 2019, 12:53 pm

That’s not to say he’s not nicely turned out of course – as football managers go, he’s surely one of the nattiest – but in terms of any pressure to follow the shiniest new trends in ‘how to play football’, the 40-year-old hears only white noise.

In naming Steven Fletcher and Atdhe Nuhiu up front together for Wednesday’s trip to Middlesbrough on Saturday, Monk risked criticism. Had the trip north gone south, fingers would surely have been pointed at a lack of dynamism up top, at a game plan dug up from the annals of history.

Long gone, they would have said, are the days of aerial balls to the big men. Two-touch-tiki-taka rules all, crosses into the box a relic of the past.

Sign up to our Sheffield Wednesday newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Although it isn’t, as Sheffield Wednesday – both under Lee Bullen and Garry Monk – have proven so defiantly. Of 258 teams across Europe’s top-rated leagues, no other side has scored more headed goals this season (@OwlsAboutStat). Headers have accounted for seven of their 15 league goals.

Casual observers of this statistic could be forgiven for writing the Owls off as long-ball merchants, but that would be grossly unfair. Saturday’s 4-1 win at the Riverside was a finely-tuned and intelligent aerial assault against which the hapless home side were unable to compete. There were no aimless balls from the back – every cross was carefully delivered, every set piece acute.

Monk’s early days assertion that his Wednesday side would be moulded to play to the strengths of the squad has played out. In Fletcher they have an in-form battering ram who has been bullying English defences for a decade. In Barry Bannan they have one of the most dependable delivery men in the business.

Steven Fletcher heads home Sheffield Wednesday's fourth in their 4-1 win over Middlesbrough.

The duo are the central figures in the Wednesday playbook and the stats bare that out – only four players in the division have had more shots on target than five-goal Fletcher, and the same number have created more clear-cut chances than the his midfield countryman.

Unfashionable? Perhaps. Such is the narrative of modern football, battling headers from quality set pieces do not get the same air time as 28-pass moves through an opposition defence. But Monk, who played a key role in the famous ‘Swanselona’ side that tore the football league apart with their short-passing philosophy, is unfazed.

As manager of Swansea – who he guided to a club-record eighth place finish in the Premier League – he brushed off criticism from fans that his side lacked that panache of old.

Asked last week whether his Sheffield Wednesday side would ever be seen to take advantage of a new rule allowing defenders to receive goal kicks within their own area, he said that while that style of playing out from the back is en vogue, he’ll be leaving that – for now at least – to the billion dollar defence of Manchester City.

“Every manager is different and every manager has their own beliefs,” he said, “my personal belief is that statistically you look at our league, the number of times a goal kick played short leads to an attack or leads to you entering an opponent’s final third, is minimal.

“The way I look at it is not to take that needless risk. I prefer to make sure players are comfortable in what they’re doing and play to their strengths.”

This pragmatism should not illustrate Monk as an old-fashioned manager, rather a thoroughly modern one that prefers to keep things simple.

Speaking to author Michael Calvin while manager at Swansea, Monk described the influence of a range of previous managers – from Glenn Hoddle at Southampton to Brendan Rodgers – in developing his ability to spot the best way forward for a group of players.

He said “I've played the typical British way, up and at them, give it to the front man and all that, but I've also played the continental way, in the football we play now. I can see the benefits of both.

“That stands me in good stead. People doubt you all the time in this game but I like to prove people wrong. That's what drives me.”

Wednesday’s Riverside rout was an exhibition in tactical nous and Monk’s players took full advantage, but it will not always look so effortless.

Rookie Boro boss Jonathan Woodgate threw on six-foot-plenty centre-half Daniel Ayala at half-time and from there the home side coped far better. Woodgate’s decision not to man mark Bannan was reversed and these, you feel, will be obvious tactics designed to blunt the Owls’ aerial threat going forward.

But while the going is good, there is no reason for the Owls to stop craning their necks. It is up to Championship defences to nullify their power.