DAVE PORTER TALKS ABOUT THE THINGS WE LEARNT FROM THE WIN AGAINST THE CHERRIES
1. It has been a very good start to the season.
Much has been made of the difficulty of the fixture list over the opening nine games. The distribution of four at home and five away already puts the club at a slight disadvantage. Home games have all been against clubs who are in European competition this year and expected to finish high in the league once again this season, but Wolves have collected four points. The away fixtures have been easier on paper, only Manchester United stands out, but they have been important games against clubs expected to be struggling at the wrong end of the table. Seven points have been taken from Everton, Bournemouth and Luton, the latter of which, Wolves played with ten men for the majority of the game. Only Crystal Palace stands out as a missed opportunity, but that was more than offset by the unexpected victory against Champions Manchester City. It is not only the points collected that make this a good start to the season, but also the points obtained away against clubs expected to be challenging for retention of Premier league status come the end of the season. When the points have been tallied after game week nine, Wolves have a seven-point head start over the bottom three. Whisper it quietly but it already feels like a gap that Wolves would have to throw away to be caught in a relegation dogfight. There is still a massive job to be done, but for the moment Wolves as a collective can be quite satisfied with the position and even start to look upwards to the heady heights of the upper mid table.
2. We missed the suspended players.
Matt Doherty was revealed after the game to be carrying a knock. Doherty does not need any more hindrance to an already diminishing pace statistic. Overall Doherty was solid not spectacular, and perhaps his injury concerns prevented some of the attacking dynamism that we have come to expect from seasons past. Semedo’s pace was missed in terms of attacking transitions. Where Wolves felt the difference more acutely was in central midfield. Traore and Gomes were a new pairing and it showed. In the first half in particular, the combative duo could not seem to find any consistency to their passing and too often gave the ball away. Lemina isn’t always easy on the eye or appreciated but the lack of his presence and assuredness on the ball was telling. Gomes and Traore are good footballers and it is far too early to write them off as a pairing but at the moment, you feel like they both need the more senior Lemina alongside them. Doyle’s introduction improved matters immeasurably and quickly. His first contribution was to find Neto in space with a progressive ball forward between players and between lines, leading to the equaliser. It would be a very good half for Doyle, although you feel that against better opponents, he may struggle to compete physically. It was the right time, for the right player and the victory here was in no small part owing to Doyle’s introduction.
3. Improvement of in game management.
One of the many criticisms levelled at O’Neil during the turbulent first few weeks was about changes and how he could affect and impact the game with substitutions or tactical changes. O’Neil seemed cursed with the antithesis of a Midas touch. That criticism has waned from the restructure against Luton and developed with solid changes against Manchester City and Aston Villa. Today however was the most obvious example of a positive and impactful adjustment. Realising that Wolves were unable to get on the ball in midfield, Doyle was introduced to replace Gomes. The change looks obvious in hindsight but at the break, it was Cunha who seemed more likely to be replaced. It was also of slight surprise that it was the less senior Traore to accompany him, but it was the correct decision and changed the course of this match. Where criticism had rightly been voiced at some of the early season management decisions, then so should praise be equally loud when merited.
4. Sasa is clutch.
He can’t really do much more. Questions remain as to his fitness levels which probably still reduces minutes on the pitch. The optics still look like a player likely to injure himself as soon as he sprints, but this is a man where aesthetics is skewed. His gangly frame belies a very good footballer who in only very brief cameos on the pitch has scored two match winning goals against rivals, should have won a penalty, and secured a point at Old Trafford and who perhaps should have been rewarded with a clever assist against Aston Villa. His late winners have contributed directly to 36% of Wolves point haul to date, whilst also denying a point to Everton and Bournemouth. His role today in firstly wining the ball back from the ever-problematic Billing following a ridiculously poor goal kick, before very calmly and assuredly despatching past the embarrassed keeper was pivotal. Sasa is knocking on the door for a start and Cunha should be looking over his shoulder.
5. Wide forward is a priority.
Neto and Hwang are in brilliant form. Two assists for the pair against Bournemouth and Hwang probably had the most important contribution of all in allowing Cook to get himself sent off. A headbutt not dissimilar to the severity that Diego Costa aimed at Ben Mee last season. The sensitivity to injury that footballers have to leaning of heads should be well known by now, and there can be no sympathy to Cook or blame on Hwang as to their respective reactions. What was clear however is that there is very little in the way of cover. Bellegarde you would think is first choice replacement, but this is not his favoured position. Sarabia was introduced early in the second half, his contributions were to continually give the ball away, leading directly to Bournemouth’s best counter attacking moments, and to provide one of the worst crosses of all time that lead to the errored goal-kick that caused the winning goal. As the club’s highest earner, his performances have continually been markedly below the required standard. Without Hwang and Neto, Wolves lack options. It is a position that Wolves have invested heavily on over the proceeding years. At times, there was an embarrassment of riches to deploy. Jota, Costa, Cavaleiro, Neto, Podence, Hwang, Adama, Guedes etc. Not all have been a success, but it is a position that Wolves have historically prioritised. An injury or dip in form of either Neto or Hwang would be almost catastrophic. With Neto likely to be a target for Europe’s top clubs in the summer at best, Wolves would do well to secure added depth and quality to this position in the January window.
6. A sweet moment for O’Neil
On a podcast with this website before the season began, Bournemouth supporters were very critical of O’Neill and his tenure. They highlighted a pragmatism of play, bizarre team selections and poor in game management. Those words over the first few weeks rung hauntingly true as Wolves struggled to find consistent form. What was striking at the time though was Bournemouth’s over estimation of the quality of their own playing squad when assessing O’Neil. They were comfortably the worst team on paper last year and it was an incredible achievement by O’Neil to stay up. Their judgement of O’Neil seemed to be predicated on the misnomer that they were a genuine mid table side with a mid-table squad. They aren’t and they weren’t. His achievement was admired from afar but unappreciated by the local support. There must be some concern now about the supposed greener grass. O’Neil was very clear that this game was not about him, but privately, the glass or two (or three or four) must have felt that little bit more satisfying on Saturday evening.
ARTICLE BY DAVE PORTER
Wolverhampton born, East Sussex based supporter. Old enough to have seen the descent to the bottom, young enough to not have experienced the days my friend. Not many Wolves fans to celebrate or commiserate with round these parts, so had to find an outlet to discuss the enormous highs, crushing lows and share the frustrations that only come with following Wolves.