Sheffield Wednesday will bulldoze major record – and it’s high-time praise was heaped on astonishing improvement

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What were the reasons Sheffield Wednesday weren’t able to sustain a tilt at automatic promotion last season?

Injuries seem to be the headline buzzword, as two rounds of injury crises ensured the phrase ‘square peg in round hole’ fell into common usage in Owls discussion and debate.

But strip away the availability issues and the Owls’ defence was surely the most alarming issue for a side that finished five points clear of second-placed Rotherham United and conceded just one goal fewer than 18th-placed Shrewsbury Town.

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Time and again these pages were filled of tales of woe around the ‘soft underbelly’ of Wednesday’s side, of a nervous inability to defend set pieces and a foundation that went wobbly in the last few moments of close encounters.

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The question was asked time and again of Darren Moore – a defender of high Premier League repute in his day – as to how a man who played as he did could manage a side that defended as they did.

It is perhaps inevitable given the level of expectation around any Sheffield Wednesday side in League One that focus in recent weeks has centred on concerns up top rather than what has amounted to an astonishing turnaround at the back.

So much so that the scale of that defensive improvement has perhaps been unfairly overlooked. Wednesday’s rampant 5-0 win over Cambridge United on Saturday took their tally of clean sheets this season to 14 – one short of last season’s tally and only three shy of the club record achieved in the 1978/79, 2014/15 and 2015/16 campaigns.

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Cameron Dawson has re-joined the Sheffield Wednesday defensive effort alongside Mark McGuinness.Cameron Dawson has re-joined the Sheffield Wednesday defensive effort alongside Mark McGuinness.
Cameron Dawson has re-joined the Sheffield Wednesday defensive effort alongside Mark McGuinness.

With 21 matches remaining and on current form – Wednesday have conceded only two goals in their last eight matches – it’s a record they will surely obliterate.

“I promise you I didn’t even know about that record,” Moore told The Star in the moments after the Cambridge win.

“All I focus on is how to set a challenging environment for the boys every single day and how I can keep on improving as a group of players and staff at this football club.

“We dust ourselves down and get ready for the next game. Can we improve for the next game? That’s all we’re looking to do.”

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It’s typically calm and collected stuff from a manager that refuses to get carried away in either direction by success or failure.

Moore has, though, put Wednesday’s vastly improved levels of resilience down in no small part to their turnover in personnel.

The injury crises that shrouded last season’s efforts have been guarded against – the club acted swiftly to satisfy Akin Famewo’s absence with the hugely impressive Mark McGuinness – and with the likes of Michael Smith contributing to the defensive effort from elsewhere on the pre-match whiteboard, this set of Owls is bigger and badder than before.

Moore spoke about the pursuit of a squad of ‘solid citizens’ and a sidestep out of dependency on a loan market that attracted players whose career wouldn’t necessarily be all that impacted by Wednesday’s fate.

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And he’s spoken about hours on the not-so-glamorous, unflashy hours on the training ground he credits with so much of a truly astonishing defensive turnaround.

First team coach Simon Ireland has led on set pieces; some 38% of the goals Wednesday conceded last season were from dead ball situations – the highest percentage in the third tier. It’s a figure that has more than halved to 17% this time out.

Wednesday concede 0.72 goals per league match this season – a figure that has dropped from 1.08 last season.

Away from home there has been an even more remarkable improvement, from 1.38 goals per match to just 0.58 and it is on this defensive step-up that an upturn of form on the road has been built – despite an identical number of goals scored per away day (1.25), the points-per-game figures have risen from 1.39 to two.

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The decision to swap-out David Stockdale for Cameron Dawson four matches ago raised eyebrows but has paid off, with the younger man stepping in to keep three clean sheets in four.

Stockdale had 11 and brought a confidence and a personality between the sticks Wednesday hadn’t had for some time. Though his 21 league matches came with an error or two and some hairy moments with ball at feet, the feeling is that his impact will be felt both on Dawson and the Owls defence for a while yet.

What’s clear is that having identified their defensive failings as a major issue in the summer, Wednesday have acted. What’s clearer is that it is impossible to pinpoint the cause of this improvement to one thing or another, rather than it is the sum of all contributing parts.

The fact is that long-term injuries to Famewo, Ben Heneghan and Michael Ihiekwe have offered reasonable excuses to fall back on as was the case last season. But the likes of Liam Palmer and Reece James have stepped up with ease.

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Second in the table and boasting a defensive record bettered by only three teams in the entire EFL, this growling Wednesday defensive outfit seems to have no intention of leaning anywhere.

A rampant, wind-in-the-hair attacking assault into the automatic promotion places it hasn’t quite been. But the lack of attributes that cost them exactly that last season appears to have been rectified to a hugely impressive extent.

Where that takes Sheffield Wednesday remains to be seen. A little over the halfway stage of the season, the signs are promising.