DAVE PORTER LOOKS WHAT WE LEARNT FROM WOLVES DRAW WITH ASTON VILLA
1. Five at the back suits us
Some would say it is part of a longstanding Wolves DNA whilst others may point to it being a vulnerability of players to play in a back four. The reason why Wolves seem so much more comfortable since returning to a back five are open for discussion, but the outcome remains the same. Wolves look competitive in a back five. Thoughts of an inevitable relegation battle seem to be an ever-decreasing threat as Wolves obtained 4 points in two games against opponents competing in Europe this year. A period of only two weeks belies the seismic change in mood and form since scrambling a point against Luton and throwing away a two-goal advantage to Championship Ipswich.
Whilst the reasons for the improvement are multi faceted, what seems clear is that Wolves seem to have players who are simply more accomplished in the positions a back five offers. Wolves’ full backs are better going forward. The Centre halves look better deeper. The Central midfielders are no longer dropping into the back four to create an extra defender. Hwang and Neto are released of most of their defensive commitments. The only real outlier is the central striker whose positioning remains a work in progress. Whilst there may be something in the Wolves DNA argument, the most obvious reason for the upturn in form is most easily explained by the fact that the players on the books are simply better players in their adjusted positions. Whether O’Neil is a permanent convert to the adjustment remains to be seen, but it is hard to argue that Wolves have ever found any combination of formation involving four at the back, that has ever really worked. You could argue that Lopetegui found a way, but the performances whilst effective, had a bedrock of defensive pragmatism that would be unlikely to have been a long-term solution. O’Neil may have stumbled unwittingly into a successful set up, but he would be wise to stick with something that has markedly improved performances in such a short period of time.
2. Discipline needs improvement.
Wolves drive to retain the ball as high up the pitch as possible was always going to be problematic for the aggressive ball winning central midfielders. Suspensions are inevitable although not helped by earning bookings for kicking balls away or other elements of ill discipline. Lemina is suspended for the important game at Bournemouth as a result of the red card and a likely further ban shortly afterwards as the inevitable culmination of yellow cards comes into play. Bookings are an occupational hazard as a consequence of the playing style, but the petulant bookings need to be quickly stamped out. Lemina’s grab of the shorts with (as it turned out 20 minutes to go), completely changed the direction of this game. Lemina’s booking seemed harsh compared with the rest of a bad-tempered game, and no doubt many similar instances over this or any other weekend which go by unpunished, but we cannot continue to obtain yellow and red cards at such alarming regularity. First stop, eliminate the petulant bookings.
3. BOUBACAR DESERVES A START
Lemina’s suspension is tempered slightly by the ever-improving presences of Boubacar Traore. A succession of impressive substitute performances has shown that there is some serious potential here. He is a presence and has shown that he is totally deserving of his start. His energy was again vital in seeing out the game against Aston Villa and he looks to have acclimatised to the pace and requirements of the Premier league. More than his physical presence, however, what has impressed is his improving use of the ball and the pace in which he can move the ball forwards. Boubacar could be an incredible find for Wolves and it is testament to him that Lemina’s suspension is not the disaster that it may have been consider as being, just a few games ago.
4. SASA CAN PLAY
It is so easy to look at Sasa as a big target man. There is also still a fear that at any moment he will fall upon any quick change of direction. You can see why he has been injury prone throughout his career. What was evident in this game however is that Sasa can play. His excellent pass to Neto should have been converted. A Fabulous assist denied. Neto was again released by Sasa with another exquisite through ball that should have created more. Fitness remains an issue and for the moment, Cunha is secure as the first-choice central striker, but as that fitness improves, there will be genuine competition for a starting place. He is a much better footballer than a ‘gerrit in the box’ last 10 minutes target man.
Yawn. Total lack of control of the game. The (excellent again) Dawson v McGinn tussles were so badly handled that it brought the game into a comedic series of fouls, niggles and stoppages. The game lacked any kind of rhythm largely through the awful way in which it was officiated. Wolves were again reduced to ten, though the foul that ultimately led to Lemina’s walk off the pitch was widespread and largely unpunished throughout. The poor officiating wasn’t one sided at least. Matt Doherty’s push on Ollie Watkins as he was about to strike for goal was incredibly obvious. If this happens at the other end of the pitch, Wolves would be rightly furious at not only the non award of a penalty, but also the red card that must follow. Karma, has it seems, paid some of it’s debt but remains seriously overdrawn towards Wolves over the long term.
6. It all feels a little bit more stable.
Wolves are about on par with what they would like to have achieved over the tricky first eight games of the season. The points have probably not come from the games anyone expected them to, but they are on the board. The turbulent end of preseason and stuttering performances now seems to be stabilising, and there seems more confidence around the team and supporters. It all felt a bit panicked, a runaway train looking like it was going to leave the tracks. The last two games have however felt much more controlled. The team feels like it has a plan and a way of playing that makes it competitive. Performances over the last two games do not give the feel of a team that are likely to be in trouble come the end of the season. A win at Bournemouth now looks important, not in the context of must win, but in terms of the opportunity to go eight points ahead of their opponents. A position that may be particularly sweet for Gary O’Neil.
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.