Losing streak ends, concerns remain – aka Huddersfield Town 1 – 1 Stoke City

Staring deeply in to the mouth of a gift horse, Huddersfield Town’s losing streak ended with a limp draw as they failed to capitalise on Stoke City’s reduced numbers as old failures undermined their efforts once more.

Veterans of many Town performances against 10 men will not have been surprised at the frustrating inability to make their extra man count and no doubt relieved that the visitors were unable to counter attack and grab a winner once comfortable with their absorption of increasingly predictable pressure.

It had all started so well. Continuing on from their second half dominance of Bristol City, the Terriers swamped Stoke in a compelling opening 15 minutes with the men from the Potteries barely making it in to Town’s half.

The superiority brought a welcome early goal with a good Toffolo cross eventually landing at the feet of Mbenza who set up Pipa to strike. A very helpful deflection left Gunn stranded and beaten.

Town’s dominance continued with the left flank combinations of Toffolo, O’Brien and Aarons causing significant problems for the visitors and the team in general fluently exploiting Stoke’s static opening.

An excellent Mbenza corner found the towering figure of Sarr who should have made more of the opportunity but the best chance of Town’s brightest period of the game fell to Campbell who contrived to plant a header wide from a fantastic Toffolo cross.

The miss heralded a decline which was rarely arrested.

The Potters finally began to find some energy to close down the spaces in which Town had flourished and the easy possession which they enjoyed dried up. Pushing further up the pitch, the visitors evened up the contest to an extent, and it was disturbing to see such a slight improvement have an immediate and detrimental impact.

Nevertheless, there was only mild pressure being applied to Keogh when he twice gave away possession in the space of a couple of minutes. Having got away with the first misdemeanour, the second became unforgivable and ultimately cost 2 points.

An attempted ball inside to Vallejo was even worse than his earlier misplaced pass to O’Brien and set up Stoke for a rare attack with Jack Clarke released towards the area. Even then, the ex-Leeds man should’ve been jockeyed and held up rather than being tripped up by Sarr’s impetuous challenge. Fletcher despatched the penalty for pretty much his only meaningful contribution of the day.

Stoke took encouragement for the gift and finished the half looking the team more likely to take maximum points until Norrington-Davies was dismissed in stoppage time for a reckless lunge on Bacuna. The Welsh youngster could have few complaints. The challenge was no doubt a genuine attempt to win the ball rather than deliberately malicious but the force of the tackle left the referee with little option to produce his red card with no hint of hesitation.

The depletion probably cost Stoke the chance of 3 points but, ironically, probably improved their opportunity for some reward given Town’s terrible record against sides who concede possession in favour of closing down space, and so it proved.

Laboured and lacking imagination for far too much of the second half, Town were, nevertheless, a little unfortunate on the two occasions they breached Stoke’s defensive walls and had a half decent shout for a penalty when Pipa appeared to be caught in the area only for the Spaniard’s overly wrought tumble to turn the decision against him.

As stodgy and inaccurate as much of the approach play was, Town only needed to nudge ahead to force the game in to the open to then take real advantage of an opposition forced to try and recover a game with ten men.

The threat Town were able to muster inevitably came down the left and their two big chances emanated from that flank. Toffolo, who is back to his 2020 form, set up O’Brien to hit a good strike from slightly behind him which may or may not have been finger tipped on to the bar by Gunn.

O’Brien then set up Bacuna in the area and following a nice piece of skill which opened up space for himself, his goal bound shot was cleared by McClean who positioned himself excellently to head away.

Had either of those gone in, the mood would be entirely different and, arguably, the restricted spaces Town find so difficult to negotiate would have opened up.

This is not to defend the rest of the half which was undoubtedly lacking in guile and threat.

While Pipa looked back to somewhere near his best, he wasn’t particularly helped out by his lacklustre partner down the right, Mbenza. The Belgian simply didn’t contribute enough and his replacement, the returning Holmes, managed 2 more threatening balls in to the box (inevitably not read by our strikers) than he had achieved in a pretty dismal second half display.

Campbell also had a distinctly average afternoon after missing the early chance, culminating in a pathetic dive late on which was never fooling anybody. The veteran has his positives, not least a willingness to work selflessly for the system, but when that system gets bogged down and plants itself up its own firmament, his flaws are exposed more than most.

The introduction of Holmes sparked some life in to the increasingly desperate search for a winner and his neat and tidy cameo showed promise for the future. In stark contrast, the sight of Pritchard under the numbers board must have brought many a groan from the sofas of West Yorkshire and beyond. He didn’t, dear readers, make a difference.

Stoke’s threat was minimal, as expected, but a corner won from one of their rare appearances in Town’s half was threatening enough to suggest the unthinkable was possible. Their resilience earned them a point, however, and restricting Town to just two opportunities of note in 45 minutes was commendable.

It is of little consolation that Town finished a game with a reward for the first time in 2021 when a much needed win eluded them, but it is better than nothing.

The improved form of Toffolo and Pipa is encouraging, the introduction of Holmes promising and the reemergence of Corberán’s style, though not sustained long enough, positive but the shooting themselves in the foot refuses to stop.

The mild concern about collapsing in to relegation trouble wasn’t alleviated by taking one point from two games which should have delivered at least 4, and February needs to be a massive improvement on January to get the club back on the mediocrity trail.

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