Huddersfield Town’s chess game, Luton Town’s homework and role of fitness among five conclusions

Huddersfield Town’s play-off semi-final will now come down to what happens at the John Smith’s Stadium after they claimed a 1-1 draw away to Luton Town in the first leg on Friday evening. The hosts dominated the first half but nonetheless found themselves behind early on after Danel Sinani raced through on goal off Harry Toffolo’s pass before firing a shot past emergency goalkeeper Matt Ingram.

Sonny Bradley restored parity later in the half, but after the break it was Carlos Corberan’s men who put themselves firmly on top thanks to a couple of tactical tweaks that helped them take better control of the game – but neither side was able to fashion that golden opportunity they needed to take the advantage into Monday evening’s second leg in Huddersfield.

With a short turnaround between the two games, there is plenty of work for Corberan and his players to analyse how to get the result they need to book their place at Wembley come the end of the month. Here are our five conclusions on the game.

Read more: Huddersfield Town player ratings as Danel Sinani instrumental in play-off draw at Luton Town

1. This was a perfectly good result, especially within the context of the game

You’d have taken that before kick off, wouldn’t you? Luton Town have made Kenilworth Road an incredibly difficult stomping ground for even the very best away teams all season (and there have been none better than Huddersfield Town in the big games), with their performance here showing exactly why that has been the case.

But in this parish we are much more concerned with what Carlos Corberan’s side did, and on that front we were not disappointed. The Terriers were made to labour through the first half but matched their hosts for energy and determination, forcing the opening goal against the run of play and getting to the break with the scores still level despite coming under near-constant pressure from Nathan Jones’ side. The relentlessness of the game over those first 45 minutes was incredible.

We’ll get onto the specifics of that in a moment, but the headline here has to be that scoreline. This result – and the lack of an away goals rule – means the prize of a trip to Wembley will now be decided by a straight showdown at the John Smith’s Stadium.

That seemed an attractive prospect before the game and even more of one at the break; it would be churlish to now complain that Huddersfield failed to turn their second-half domination into a winning goal to take the advantage into the second leg.

Just to get it out of the way so nobody can say we didn’t mention it: yes, that was a penalty on Harry Toffolo in the first few seconds. But yes, it was also a penalty on Cameron Jerome later in the half. Those big decisions don’t always even themselves out, but thankfully on this occasion they did. As such, we won’t be dwelling on it any further here.

2. Luton had done their homework on Huddersfield Town’s build-up play

We praised Jon Russell’s enormous influence on the Terriers’ work on the ball against Bristol City last weekend, and Jones and his analysts had clearly taken note of that too with their gameplan revolving around starving Huddersfield of his ability to set the tempo and spray the ball into dangerous areas.

Luton immediately made clear their intention to double up on Russell and force him to rush as much as possible, and initially Town struggled with that. They could not get the play going in the first half at all and failed to capitalise on their opportunities to counter-attack besides the crucial goal that Danel Sinani took so well early on.

So effective was Luton’s gambit that Russell played no passes at all between the 20th and 35th minutes. That had a profound effect on Town’s overall fortunes: Corberan’s entire side played just five passes in the Luton half during that spell, with none in the final third, and had just 24% possession. We can’t think of many other occasions this season where they have ceded so much control to an opponent.

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3. Danel Sinani could be Huddersfield Town’s player for the big occasions

The flipside of a player getting such close attention as Russell did is that it inevitably opens up space elsewhere on the pitch, and in this case Sinani was that player. The Luxembourger worked tirelessly to drift around the pitch and take up good positions between the lines, and Huddersfield’s chances of making something happen in that first half was inevitably going to come through him.

Our big criticism of Sinani this season has been that he has a tendency either to make a big impact early on or not at all, and we half-expected that pattern to continue here after he scored his seventh goal of the season and his sixth in the opening 15 minutes of games. But instead he was comfortably Town’s best player throughout a difficult first half and a key player in their second-half revival despite switching flanks with Duane Holmes at the break.

Sinani can be a frustrating player to watch at times with a lot of ‘ooh, not quite’ about his game despite his generally having the right ideas about how to get things ticking over. But when he plays as well as he did here, he can be a real asset for a side that, for all their successes, do not tend to create an awful lot of big chances from open play.

This encounter was also more evidence for our growing suspicion that Sinani is something of what basketballers would call a clutch player: someone with that rare talent for coming up big at moments of greatest pressure. His previous best outing was perhaps his first start for the club all the way back in August, when he absolutely shone against Premier League opposition when Everton visited in the League Cup.

It was Sinani who scored the winning goal against West Brom back in November – a game that felt huge at the time with the Baggies’ massive collapse yet to truly take hold; and who put Town 2-1 ahead from behind away to Bristol City in December, a game where the home crowd was so aggressive that play had to be stopped for an extended period by the referee while things calmed down.

It was Sinani who delivered the ball in for Tom Lees to open the scoring in a febrile atmosphere away to Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup, and again when Harry Toffolo scored the winner late on against Hull City last month that came as such a huge relief after two bruising defeats to Millwall and Bournemouth.

Given the magnitude of the game – or games – that Town still have ahead, that trait could be an enormous boon to Corberan. This side has rightly been praised for its calmness under pressure, but you need a couple of the kind of adrenaline players that Sinani seems to represent, too.

4. Carlos Corberan made appropriate adaptations once again

Not that it was anything like a one-man show in the second half. Having been bossed so hard in the first half, a few savvy dressing room tweaks helped Huddersfield take firm control of the game for the final 45 minutes.

Having had just 39% possession in the first half – not a hugely unusual number for them this season, but still on the low side – they held the ball for 66% of the second period and were just a couple of slightly more accurate crosses away from finding a second goal against an extremely well-organised Luton defence that, to their credit, dug in extremely well.

An injury to Ollie Turton just before the break forced Corberan’s hand with his first change as Pipa came on for the second half, but it would have been the right move regardless after Turton’s influence at right wing-back began and ended with the cross he put in for Toffolo just seven seconds into the game.

Having a more naturally attacking wing-back on the pitch prompted Corberan to supplement that flank with a natural right-footer: Sinani and Pipa both love to cut inside off that wing to get into exactly the same kinds of areas, so you don’t need two of them. After a relatively anonymous first 45 minutes – through little fault of his own – Holmes came to life after joining the Spaniard on the right, matching the influence Sinani had had in the first half and continued to have after the break.

There also looked to have been an instruction to Russell to speed up his play on the ball, with the midfielder noticeably playing a lot more one-touch football than we are used to seeing from a player who thrives off taking his time on the ball. To the youngster’s credit, he took that adaptation well, playing nearly twice as many passes (28) as he had in the first half (15) with only a minor drop-off in his accuracy (from 87% to 82%).

It was not a perfect second half from Huddersfield by any means, with their territory and domination failing to turn into any real clear-cut chances; but we can’t shake the feeling that if they had not found that level of improvement on their first-half performance, Luton would have ended up winning the game.

More importantly, Corberan’s canny changes and his players’ improvement forced Luton to counter-parry with adaptations of their own. The term ‘chess match’ is quite frankly over-used and has become little more than a way to describe boring-ass games from the Jose Mourinho school of football. But it was apt here, with Corberan and Jones taking turns to strategise, re-strategise, and punch the clock with greater and greater regularity. The result was a thrilling and compelling game that relented only in the last 20 minutes or so, when it seemed to dawn on both sides that they were ultimately happy enough with their stalemate.

5. Fitness is going to be a massive factor in the second leg

The slight winding down late on might also have had something to do with the sheer amount of energy both sides had had to expend throughout a play-off semi-final that lived up to its billing and its incredible atmosphere with a tempo so high it would have made a 90s raver drop their glowsticks in frustration and go for a lovely sit down.

Danny Ward’s withdrawal around 20 minutes from time felt like an attempt to keep him as fresh as the circumstances after his recent injury and another mammoth unselfish effort both in the press and in his efforts to create space for teammates, but most of his teammates were not so fortunate.

Fortunately, Huddersfield have that famous strength in depth to call upon, and it is not inconceivable that we might see yet more changes for the second leg with Sorba Thomas returning for a late cameo while Tino Anjorin, Levi Colwill and Carel Eiting were all unused substitutes. There’s also a question mark as to whether Luton’s first-half exertions might have played a part in their quite literal drop-off after the break.

On the other hand, there have been times this season where the Terriers have struggled with quick turnarounds after long, late night away trips, while Luton have several players who have just recently come back from injury and may have benefited from getting those minutes into their legs, despite the short gap before the second leg on Monday evening.

Either way, it’s hard to imagine that game can possibly be played at anything like the ferocity this one started at – not for anything like as long, at least. The result at the John Smith’s Stadium may well come down to which side is better able to adapt to deal with that; as such, we suspect the chess games are just getting started.

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