The apprentice overcomes the master as Hughes and Watford edge past Bannan’s Wednesday


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Barry Bannan has been one of the most enjoyable players to watch in the Championship across recent seasons thanks mainly to his ability to pick out a pass that no one else in the ground can see.

Since joining Sheffield Wednesday in the summer of 2015, Bannan has established himself as one of the second tier’s finest playmakers. He earned a spot in the 2016 Championship Team of the Season after helping the Owls reach the Play-Off final under Carlos Carvalhal, and even though recent seasons have been devoid of team success, the former Aston Villa midfielder has remained a handful for even the toughest of opponents.

The success of the likes of Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Andrea Pirlo in the past decade has made the position of the holding midfielder far more fashionable. It has gone from being a role primarily associated with bruising ball-winners to one fit for stylish passers of the ball, meaning a technical player like Bannan can now thrive in the middle of the park even in the physical environment of the Championship.

The Scottish international does not have a great deal of pace but that has hardly held him back from being able to impact games thanks to the quality he has when in possession of the ball. The fact that he can interpret what is happening around him far quicker than opponents and team-mates alike means that his lack of physical attributes hardly holds him back.

Not only can Bannan carve teams apart with his pinpoint passes, but he also has a level of balance and poise that often allows him to skip away from opponents that are intent on shackling him.

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Whilst Wednesday have slowly began to sink down the league table during the midfielder’s time at Hillsborough – they are currently 23rd in the Championship and seven points from safety – the steady decline in the quality of the team has only made Bannan’s ability stand out to an even greater extent.

During the Owls’ 1-0 defeat to Watford at Vicarage Road, Bannan showed the full range of his midfield mastery on what was his 250th appearance for the club, but ultimately came up short against a side who might just have found their own maestro in midfield.

Despite regularly starting attacks from a deeper position, the 31-year-old had a free role with Joey Pelupessy and Sam Hutchinson stationed alongside him to do the dirty work, meaning he was able to drift around the pitch and collect the ball in dangerous areas, providing a few specks of hope for a Wednesday side that appeared devoid of confidence and imagination in attack.

Once the Owls fell behind after just seven minutes when Tom Lees turned an Ismaïla Sarr cross into his own net, Bannan took it upon himself to try and find a route back into the game with the South Yorkshire side desperately in need of points as they try and plot a route to Championship survival.

Despite ending up on the losing side, the Scot was the game’s outstanding individual. He created gilt-edged opportunities for Josh Windass in the first-half and Jordan Rhodes in the second, whilst also remaining an elusive presence as far as Watford’s midfield was concerned – an issue that was only addressed when Dan Gosling was summoned from the bench to keep close tabs on him with half an hour left to play.

“We’re disappointed not to leave with something today I think.

“We performed really well against a top team and come away with zero points, so we’re a bit down obviously.

“We came here to take three points and we think we should have left with at least a point so we’re a bit gutted that we’ve missed that chance today.”

– Sheffield Wednesday Captain Barry Bannan

Watford’s Will Hughes was more often deployed as an advanced midfield player during his time at Derby County, and had been used in a wider role in his time at Vicarage Road so far, but since Xisco Muñoz became the Hornet’s manager he has found himself at the base of Watford’s midfield.

The Spaniard’s decision to change to a 4-3-3 formation has not only brought about a run of 10 wins in 11 to establish the Hornets as the favourites to gain automatic promotion to the Premier League alongside league leaders Norwich, but it has also got the best out of a host of talented individuals who were struggling to deliver under his predecessor Vladimir Ivic.

Sarr, Joao Pedro, Nathaniel Chalobah and Ken Sema have all been excellent in the new system, and although Hughes missed the majority of Ivic’s reign due to injury, he has quietly established himself as one the most vital cogs in the Muñoz machine.

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When he burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old, it was his creativity in possession and attacking instincts that saw him linked with high-profile transfers to the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United and Barcelona, but now that he is anchoring a midfield it means that Hughes is more regularly utilising his ability to read the game to make interceptions, win tackles, and start attacks.

Although outsiders may not have expected to see him used in such a withdrawn role, the ex-England under-21 international has cited Xavi as one of his footballing influences, and although it would be an exaggeration to suggest Watford’s number 19 played anything like the Barcelona legend against Wednesday, it was a passable impression.

Hughes made more key passes than any other player on the field, had the highest pass completion percentage of anyone that played the entire 90 minutes, and also made the joint-second most tackles and interceptions out of players from both sides.

William Troost-Ekong and Francisco Sierralta at the centre of the Watford defence both struggled to begin attacks through their passing, creating an extra emphasis on the midfield metronome to build from the back, and he certainly delivered with inventive balls into the feet of full-backs Kiko Femenia and Adam Masina, or accurate passes to Chalobah and Philip Zinckernagel that broke the lines of Wednesday’s press.

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Whilst it was Bannan who caught the eye more regularly with forays into the opposing half and cutting through balls in the final third, Hughes went about his business in a far more workmanlike fashion, yet did so with a similar level of effectiveness.

Wednesday often found themselves with possession in the Hornets’ half, searching for a forward pass to try and fashion attempts on goal, but with a flash of bright blond hair the ball would be taken away from them by Hughes with a well-timed interception or a determined tackle.

With Hughes positioned behind both Chalobah and Zinckernagel in the Hornets’ midfield three, his role was a far more disciplined one than that of Bannan, contributing to a number of scenarios where the two came up against one another in the middle of the park.

There was a delightful moment midway through the first-half when Bannan lifted the ball over Hughes’ head to begin a Wednesday attack, although the younger man got his own back in the second period as he twice dispossessed the usually faultless veteran to break up Wednesday attacks.

When Chalobah was substituted deep into the second-half, Hughes even took the captain’s armband to further mirror Wednesday skipper Bannan, and it was he who was celebrating come the final whistle as a stark lack of creativity from the visitors meant Watford sat on their single goal lead fairly comfortably in the closing stages.

Although Hughes will be hoping to re-establish himself as a Premier League player by helping Watford to promotion at the end of this season, taking Bannan’s mantle as the Championship’s premier pass-master would hardly be an unwanted accolade to pick up along the way.

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