It was not a classic by any stretch of the imagination. But Sheffield Wednesday won ugly at Hillsborough last night, seeing off already relegated Crewe Alexandra 1-0 after a second half penalty from Lee Gregory.
The Owls’ top-scorer made no mistake from 12 yards after Nathaniel Mendez-Laing had been upended by Scott Kashket. Victory nudged Wednesday back into the play-off positions and kept alive their automatic promotion hopes with three matches left.
The margin of the win should have been far greater but the Owls missed a string of gilt-edged opportunities in a one-sided contest. Wednesday registered 18 shots compared to the visitors one. Here are five talking points after the League One tussle.
Readmore:Sheffield Wednesday pile pressure on promotion rivals with hard-fought Crewe Alexandra win
The defensive regiment
Jordan Storey was the only recognized center half in Moore’s three-man defence. The Owls chief sprang a surprise by fielding Marvin Johnson at left center back and leaving Chey Dunkley and Lewis Gibson on the bench. Liam Palmer moved to the right and Storey lined up at the heart of their rearguard.
Injuries to Harlee Dean, Sam Hutchinson and Dominic Iorfa forced Moore’s hand to some extend. “I just thought the way they played we’d get a lot of joy on the left-hand side and we’d be able to step out both sides and dominate the ball and stop their counter-attacks, which was the case,” said Moore.. “We had the natural balance with Marvin (Johnson) a left-footer and Liam (Palmer) a right-footer.
“We’ll see how Chey, how Harlee (Dean) and Sam Hutchinson are, and Lewis Gibson was on the bench. If we can have them back we’ll get a wider selection but tonight I just wanted one out-and-out centre-backs and two runners alongside them.
“The game went as I thought it would. We only really had one Crewe game to watch because Alex (Morris) had just taken over but we got the selection right.”
Although Wednesday picked up another precious three points in their pursuit of a top-six finish, Moore still received some criticism on social media for his team selection and tactics. Eyebrows were also raised over Moore dropping Fisayo Dele-Bashiru to the bench in favor of Callum Paterson. Moore said fatigue was a factor in the squad rotation.
Yet the balance of the midfield did look a little off, with Barry Bannan utilized in a deeper position to accommodate Paterson. The captain is their best player and has flourished since Moore pushed him further forward. Crewe was not one of Bannan’s better games in 2022, albeit the Scotland international still played his part in the winner.
A win is a win and the Owls’ makeshift back line recorded a welcome clean sheet. It was their first shut out since March 19.
The Preston North End loanee barely put a foot wrong. I have produced one superb first half tackle to snuff out the threat of Chris Long on the counter attack.
But Storey was also strong in the air, winning eight aerial duels. His pass completion rate was 84 per cent.
Storey’s arrival in the January transfer window coincided with Wednesday’s revival. He has been a pillar of strength at the back.
If there is a possibility of signing the 24-year-old on a permanent basis next season, the Owls must explore it. His long-term future of him at Deepdale remains unclear.
Lee Gregory’s substitution
The centre-forward did not look to impressed when he was withdrawn just after the hour mark. Moore to take off Gregory and throw on Massimo Luongo to decide shore up midfield.
“With these games – five games in two weeks – and the close proximity of them, we’ve got to manage the group and the squad as best as we possibly can to come through this fixture list,” stressed Moore. “What has happened over the last couple of weeks is that we’ve picked up knocks in training, which has lightened the load a little bit.
“We’ve got a couple coming back from training now, but they need the volume in training. We’ve had to re-juggle the pack, so it was pleasing to do that and still get the result.”
Gregory is a hugely important member of the squad, having directly contributed to 17 goals. If the Owls are to go up, it is vital he stays fit for the run-in.
It has been great, hasn’t it? Wednesday have turned Hillsborough into a fortress, winning 10 of their 12 matches this calendar year on their own turf.
They have racked up 50 points in front of their own fans – their highest tally since 2011/12 (55) (and we all know what happened then!). Their home form is the best in the top four tiers of English football and has laid a solid platform for their promotion charge.
“Credit to the players because Crewe played very deep with a low block,” said Moore.
“We could have made it a bit more comfortable for ourselves had we taken some of the chances we created for ourselves, especially in the first half.
“Maybe the quick turnaround took it out of some of them but the boys kept going and kept their belief.
“You do kind of do wonder. Some of the chances were gilt-edged but you have to keep doing because as long as we’re creating chances I think we’ll score.
“Looking back on the balance of play I don’t think anyone can say we didn’t deserve it.”
It is still a possibility and who would have thought we would have been saying that a few weeks ago? Results could not have gone any better yesterday as both Rotherham United and Milton Keynes Dons suffered defeats on the road.
Moore’s side are just four points off second-placed Rotherham with three matches to go. But Moore is refusing to get carried away.
“I am being completely honest with you; I don’t where we are in the table after that because my focus is fixed on Sheffield Wednesday and the next game,” he said. “You ask me about automatic promotion and I say the same thing, the message from me has been consistent from the start of the season and that is all about the next game and no further.
“We have another big game on Saturday against Wycombe which will be a tough test and our focus now turns to that.”
Wednesdays have timed their late run to perfection. They are on an eight-match unbeaten streak and their closest rivals are stumbling over the finishing line.
There is a window of opportunity for the Owls to sneak into the top-two. Three wins will probably be required, starting at Wycombe Wanderers on Saturday.