DAVE PORTER LOOKS AT THE THINGS WE LEARNT FROM WOLVES WIN OVER BRENTFORD
1. THE SMALL DIFFERENCES
The 2-0 home win, the game usually featured at the end of Match of the Day, except for any drab goalless draws that do not include the big 6, and that predictably proved to be the case for this game. It all sounds so routine, but the truth is that this game, like many others this season, was closely contested. Most Wolves fans will feel that the victory was deserved, and they would be right, but this was a fairly even game that Wolves just managed to edge. It is the slight difference in performance that shifts this from a narrow defeat to a narrow win. We shouldn’t forget that Brentford had chances. A combination of dogged defence and profligate finishing were responsible for another clean sheet. Thomas Frank may be a little ‘beesotted’ with his own team to suggest they should have come away with anything from this game, but he is correct to suggest that this game swung on fine margins. The difference in Wolves landing on the right side of success is not an enormous improvement in performance. It is the additional 5% that moves the balance slightly in their favour. Wolves have been poor in certain games this season, but in general, they have never looked like a Norwich. Defeats have often been by a single goal because they have been just short of what was required. Today they were just over, but those final percentage points are the ones that see defeats turn into victories, and so it proved. Luck isn’t given, it is earned.
2. you've got to be in it to win it
Both of Wolves’ goals had an element of brilliance and fortune to them. However, the consistent factor was that Wolves had players in the penalty area, and that is where things happen. All too often this season, Wolves have played reasonable football but had nothing in the box to force anything to happen. Defenders would be able to take their time and comfortably deal with what was coming their way. Costa’s strike was more of a rebound from a tackle into the bottom corner, while Hwang profited from a forced error. Both incidents would not have happened if Wolves did not have bodies in the box. You can argue that there was an element of luck to both, but you have to be there to benefit and force those moments. If the finishes themselves were slightly fortuitous, the build-up for both goals certainly wasn’t. Costa started the move that he would eventually finish in his own half with some exceptional forward play, holding the ball and creating his own space driving forward before releasing Toti. The movement to return to the box and create space was reminiscent of the title-winning Costa at his best. For the second, Nunes took five players out of the game with some outrageous dribbling before forcing the error with his cross. The final strike for the goals may have been scrappy, but the preceding moments for both were top class and matched by a willingness for Wolves to get players in the box and make things happen.
3. A future without Neves is brighter than we thought.
You will not find a Wolves fan who can stomach the thought of Ruben Neves leaving. He is, at the very least, in the conversation of Wolves’ best ever footballer, after all. Few Wolves fans, by the same token, would deny Neves the opportunity to move on to brighter lights. The Champions League is where Neves should be playing. The thought then of losing the iconic talisman has been almost too much to bear. How do you replace someone like that? Well, that fear has abated considerably over the last two games. Any team in the world would miss Neves, but Wolves have stumbled upon something very promising here. The combination of Gomes, Lemina, Nunes, and Cunha in and around the middle of the park offers something different. It has energy, pace and no little quality. The aggression and tempo have been electric, swarming and suffocating both Chelsea and Brentford. Such is the impact, the conversation of how do we survive without Neves has been replaced by one of can Neves get in the starting line-up. In the short term, Lopetegui has some decisions to make as to whether to return his best player to the team, but the long-term fog of a future without Neves now feels a lot brighter than it appeared just a few weeks ago.
4. Cunha is the key.
Whilst back-to-back wins have been achieved without Neves in the team, it is easy to look at the midfield as being the reason for the improvement in performances. Whilst the obvious personnel change has happened in midfield, it is easy to conclude that this must be the reason, but it could be argued that this is a red herring. In the last two games, Cunha has been deployed as a number 10, behind a central striker. No matter what is going on in the midfield behind him, this change is perhaps more critical. Wolves have another body at the top of the midfield linking the play, whilst also adding additional midfield cover. Cunha is not, however, the archetypal number 10. He is big, has energy, he gets up and down the pitch. He is not the luxury player you often associate with this position. Cunha operating in this space also allows the central striker to stay up front. Even prime Jiminez was forced to come to the ball to create something. With Cunha in this space, the central striker can operate more on the shoulder of the last man. He has a dual benefit both in an out of possession. The final ball eludes Cunha at the moment, but overall performance is continuing to improve, and the overall contribution to the team is a large part of delivering back-to-back wins for Wolves.
5. Bad decisions are becoming less vital.
All teams receive bad decisions, but they feel more important to Wolves than any other team. Not only because Wolves have been on the bad end of a succession of shockers – every team has those – but because it was all we had. The importance of a penalty not being given is drastically heightened if that is the only chance that the team creates. No one really talks about bad penalty decisions when you go on to create other chances, score goals, and win games. Wolves will be aggrieved that they were yet again denied a strong claim for a penalty when Gomes received a clothesline from hell from Raya in the Brentford goal, but it is a side issue this week because Wolves created other opportunities and scored two goals. As to the incident itself, some have said that Toti goes down too easily or that his touch is too heavy. The logic here is confused. Toti only takes a heavy touch because Raya is running at him. If Raya stays where he is, then Toti doesn’t take a heavy touch. Whether there is too much attention on the feet and not on the upper body, which is what sends Toti over, who knows. Refereeing has issues; it doesn’t know who is meant to give the decision, with the on-field official thinking VAR will give the penalty if it was one, and the VAR not willing to overturn the on-field decision. It’s a mess, so Wolves have adapted to create more and lessen the importance of bad decisions by creating more chances.
6. A MESSAGE TO THE FA
In the only change to the line-up, Daniel Podence was replaced by Pablo Sarabia. This could easily have been a tactical change with no hidden meaning, but you do wonder if this was a subtle message to the FA. Podence is facing the prospect of a lengthy ban over spitgate. It is therefore possible that Wolves were trying to make it clear to the FA that the decision to contest that charge is not simply one of footballing necessity (unlike the other parties involved). Defending a player not making the team or taking any part in the game may have just been a bit of tactical positioning and a message to the FA that Wolves are supporting a player because of his ‘innocence’ and not just because they are trying to avoid the ban. It may also have just been a tactical coincidence, but the argument positioning is slightly improved as a result.
7. ON THE BEACH USED TO BE A CRITICISM
We all know the old cliché applied to a mid-table team going through the motions, with nothing to play for at the end of the season. Back-to-back wins have not got Wolves to that point just yet, but they are close. Another win probably sees them safe for another year in the Premier League, and hopefully a coming year not dominated by a fear of impending doom will follow. The suitcases aren’t being packed just yet, there is work to do, and hopefully they can get it done fast. Whilst the ‘words on the beach’ were used with great disdain in the past, there will be no better compliment to give the team this year.
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.