Sheffield Wednesday are up to 3rd in the Championship table, after a valuable 1-0 win over Bristol City on Sunday.
Gabriel Sutton looks at how Garry Monk has made the Owls competitive.
Steve Bruce swapped Hillsborough for his hometown just 17 days before Wednesday kicked off their season at Reading.
It was, therefore, unlikely that any new Sheffield Wednesday manager could come in and instantly instil a fresh playing identity, without a pre-season to work with the group.
Lee Bullen, of course, did an admirable job of steadying the ship and oversaw a respectable return of nine points from six games as interim manager, but Monk had to be sensible and pragmatic.
Luckily, the 40-year-old had shown those qualities at Birmingham, where he guided a limited squad into Play-Off contention last season.
As was the case at St Andrews, he recognised that the way of getting the best out of the existing crop would be to go long to a target man – in this case Steven Fletcher – then play from there.
Strikers on song
Steven Fletcher has been a fantastic spearhead for Wednesday’s attacks.
The strong Scot has won 133 aerial duels this season, which is more than any striker in the Championship bar Lukas Jutkiewicz.
Fletcher is sometimes paired with Atdhe Nuhiu, who offers an alternative aerial option from goal kicks; the feisty Kosovan can cause problems for Championship defenders who, due to the evolution of styles we have seen in the second-tier, are sometimes not used to marking two big strikers simultaneously.
Jordan Rhodes – arguably the EFL’s best poacher this decade – announced his return to form with a first half hat-trick in the stunning 4-0 win at Nottingham Forest and his clinical finishing could be a real asset, although there have been reports of a move to Celtic.
The form of Fletcher, Nuhiu and Rhodes means that Sam Winnall, who would arguably be first choice striker at half the teams in this division, is fourth choice at Wednesday.
If the Owls do make the top six, their firepower up top would be a key factor.
Garry Monk has led Sheffield Wednesday up to 3rd in the Championship
Barry Bannan brilliance
Another key factor would be the performances of Barry Bannan.
The one-time Aston Villa trainee can put in the hard yards – he will battle and scrap off the ball – but his main USPs come in what he does with the ball.
Bannan has the vision to spot through balls that few other players at this level can do, as well as the confidence to execute them to great effect.
There is no other midfielder in the current squad who can do what Bannan does to the same extent, so keeping him fit will be vital.
The Palmer and Harris combo
There is potential for Wednesday to strengthen their options in the full-back positions in January, but for now the left-sided combination of Liam Palmer and Kadeem Harris works well.
After left-back Morgan Fox got injured last time out, we saw Palmer take up his position, with Dominic Iorfa moving to right-back and substitute Julian Börner coming in at centre-back.
Despite being right-footed, Palmer is arguably a better left-back than he is a right-back.
When played in the latter position, he cannot influence the game because, as well as not having the pace to attack the flank directly, it’s hard for a right-footer on the right to see meaningful passing options, unless it’s a basic ball down the line which the strikers or Adam Reach are unlikely to have the speed to latch onto.
On his unnatural side, however, Palmer can easily cut onto his right foot whilst moving infield and almost becoming a surprise a midfielder that opposing teams might not account for.
From that position, the game opens up for the 28-year-old, who then has various options: he can recycle the ball to Bannan having created more space, he can attempt a diagonal to Reach, he can pick out one of the strikers or play a reverse ball to Harris.
Crucially, Harris does have pace and loves to run at players directly, which means Wednesday have the tools, on their left-flank, to adapt to any situation.
If they need to counter-attack, they can use Harris and get deep into the final third very quickly, but if they must break down a deep-block opposition, they have Palmer giving them another option infield.
I honestly think Garry Monk is the most underrated manager in the country— SWFC_Polls (@SWFC1867_Polls) December 15, 2019
He just seems to get teams playing in a very effective way
There’s no noticeable “philosophy” but gets the best out of every player #swfc creating loads of chances every game and look hard to beat
After Wednesday lost 1-0 to Hull in the 2016 Championship Play-Off Final, they spent two years failing to recruit correctly – and one of the key areas was at centre-back.
Joost Van Aken, Vincent Sasso and Federico Venancio, plus to an extent Daniel Pudil and Joey Pelupessy, were all signings with whom various managers dabbled in that position, but to limited effect.
The Owls were unable to truly account for the decline of Glenn Loovens, which had the knock-on effect of leading to a dip in performances from Tom Lees, who always needs a dominant centre-back partner.
Michael Hector, on loan from Chelsea, represented a temporary solution last season and in 2019, the hierarchy found the correct permanent signings in Dominic Iorfa, who arrived in January and Börner, who joined this summer.
The versatile Iorfa’s athleticism has been a huge boost to a squad that has been lacking in pace in recent seasons, while Börner is an organiser as well as a battler and he seems to bring that bit more out of Lees.
Finally, the Owls have three reliable centre-backs on their hands and that could be a huge boost to their Play-Off prospects.
Credit to Garry Monk
Garry Monk might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
There have been question marks about his involvement with agents, the nature of his exit at Leeds and Birmingham, his touchline dispute with David Wagner in 2017 and his comments about Pep Clotet in the last week.
What few can question though, is his record.
Aside from an underwhelming stint at Middlesbrough, Monk has always performed above or at least in accordance with expectation.
He oversaw an eighth-place finish in 2014-15 in his only full season with Swansea, who did the double over Arsenal and Manchester United that year.
In 2016-17, he guided Leeds to seventh-place with 75 points, which was on paper their best season in 11 years.
The following season, he saved Birmingham for the drop and, under a subsequent transfer embargo, turned them into outside Play-Off contenders for much of the 2018-19 campaign.
This year, he has steered Wednesday to a return of 30 points from 17 games which is, incidentally, form that would have led to automatic promotion in 2012-13; maintain performance levels and a top six finish looks well within their range.