MATCH PREVIEW: WOLVES VS BRENTFORD

Another high flying team to face in deceptively tough start to season

Preamble

First of all, apologies for the last fortnight’s hiatus in blogs. Partly for technical reasons (I couldn’t access the admin part of the site for a little while, for reasons best known to WordPress) and partly for personal reasons which aren’t worth going into here (maybe in a separate blog); suffice to say I need some time out every now and then. Hopefully everything’s back on track now and we can get back to regular content going up.

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Watching “defending” like this can throw a man’s welfare into chaos. I should be used to it, but still.

Back to more important matters and tomorrow’s game at home to Brentford. Looking at the fixtures when they were first published, it appeared to be a fairly gentle start to the season on paper, yet as it transpires we have already played the teams currently sitting in 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 8th places and tomorrow’s visitors from West London are 6th in the table. With that in mind, going along at 1.5 points per game while still trying to bed down our plethora of new signings is not bad early progress. The biggest issue at this stage has been consistency, displayed no more so in losing 4-0 at home to Barnsley and winning 2-0 at Newcastle inside four days. Stating the obvious, but from here it’s about putting together more of the latter performances as the talent is clearly there within the squad to beat anyone in this division. We have to hope that last week marked a watershed with the end of us starting games far too slowly and allowing opponents to get a foothold in the game, which is not a luxury that any Championship team can get away with on a regular basis.

The team

We all know by now that Walter Zenga is an advocate of squad rotation. It’s fairly clear that over a 46 game season, it is beneficial to have the option to swap players in like for like without impacting on the quality of the starting XI, ensuring that everyone remains fresh, particularly as we now have a sizeable foreign contingent unused to the unrelenting grind of the Championship. However, this is only acceptable to a point; there is protecting players and there is making changes for the sake of making changes, which Zenga has already been guilty of on more than one occasion. It could be that having been denied the opportunity to view his players in pre-season, he’s been taking an extended look at what is available to him in these opening few weeks. By now, it has to become apparent to him who our best options are and we must start developing a consistent heart to the team which remains the same week on week; this being the basis of pretty much any successful team at this or any level. Even when Claudio Ranieri picked up his ‘Tinkerman’ tag at Chelsea in the early part of the century, he wasn’t changing the back four every week.

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Passion and enthusiasm are all very well, but I’d like to know pretty much who’s playing at centre half every week.

With that in mind, we should be using the superb win at St James’ Park as a template and making that the starting point when we come to select a team. I would only make two changes from that game; Dave Edwards very rarely has two good games in a row so I would be removing him and installing Conor Coady who had possibly his best game in a Wolves shirt against Burton a fortnight ago. It’s a perfect illustration of why ‘never change a winning team’ is a fallacy really; I can more or less guarantee you that if Edwards starts tomorrow, he’ll provide absolutely nothing positive and be a waste of a shirt for the 45-65 minutes that he lasts before being hauled off, we’ve all seen it time and time again. Don’t wait for that to happen before you take action. Elsewhere I would bring in Ivan Cavaleiro for Joao Teixeira who is beginning to tail off a little after his excellent start; there is of course plenty to be encouraged with regarding Teixeira and he would remain a fine option from the bench.

It’s on the bench where I hope to see further encouraging developments in the return to the matchday squad of Nouha Dicko. 80 minutes and a goal for the U23s against Middlesbrough on Monday, in a performance which from the highlights provided appeared to be full of his trademark pace and power, added to previous gametime should see him ready to be able to make a contribution as a substitute from here. He would represent a far superior option should we need late impetus than Paul Gladon who has struggled thus far to demonstrate why we saw him as a viable option. There is time for the Dutchman of course, though it would probably be wise for him to learn the offside rule ahead of his next appearance. Not jumping like Stefan Maierhofer might be an idea too.

Rapid Vienna's Stefan Maierhofer celebrates after scoring against LASK Linz during their Austrian league soccer match in Vienna
Ok, maybe that’s a bit harsh.

Carl Ikeme

Matt Doherty – Dominic Iorfa – Danny Batth – Cameron Borthwick-Jackson

Romain Saiss

Conor Coady – Prince Oniangue

Helder Costa – Jon Dadi Bodvarsson – Ivan Cavaleiro

Subs: Andy Lonergan, Silvio, Kortney Hause, Dave Edwards, Joao Teixeira, Joe Mason, Nouha Dicko.

The opposition

Ex-Walsall boss Dean Smith overcame a slow start to his time at Griffin Park (only 12 points collected from his first 13 games) to rally well and finish last season strongly, as Brentford won seven of their final nine fixtures to end up in a creditable 9th place. That good work has extended into the new campaign as they shrugged off an opening day defeat at early surprise package Huddersfield and have since picked up 14 points from their last seven games. As such, this is a team in a long standing run of excellent form and they will provide a tough proposition this weekend. Much of the recent success has been built on the goals of one time Wolves target Scott Hogan, who has recovered from a serious knee injury and has scored 13 times in his 16 Brentford appearances to date.

While Alan Judge remains sidelined with a broken leg, highly rated Danish defender Andreas Bjelland has made a return from his own long term injury this season and Smith can also call on the services of early 2010s Chelsea wunderkind Josh McEachran who may finally be fulfilling some of his vast potential after years of nondescript loan spells. Romaine Sawyers and Rico Henry have followed their former manager from Walsall to Hounslow and the loss of keeper David Button to neighbours Fulham has been more than offset by the arrival of Daniel Bentley from Southend who has long appeared to be an excellent prospect.

Last line up (vs Preston, 17.9.16, W 5-0): Bentley; Colin, Dean, Egan, Bjelland; Yennaris, Woods; Kaikai, Sawyers, MacLeod; Hogan

Form: WLDWDW

Top scorers: Scott Hogan (6), John Egan (3)

Last meeting

Tuesday 23 February 2016: Brentford 3-0 Wolves

Oh dear. This was a true horror show of a display and left Kenny Jackett’s stock as Wolves manager at perhaps its lowest, with this being our third straight defeat and leaving us with a mere three points in a seven game winless run. The goals came from feeble defending showing little commitment to the cause and it was a game where a three goal defeat was almost a mercy as Brentford peppered the Wolves goal with 20 attempts. This was Rajiv van La Parra’s final game in a Wolves shirt; coming days after he had made some unnecessary comments towards the fans on Instagram (our Raj being a very 21st century kind of wastrel), he lasted just over an hour of being constantly harangued by the away fans before being mercifully withdrawn. There were no positives to take from this game.

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Apart from this dickhead getting binned for good, of course.

Team: Ikeme; Doherty, Batth, Ebanks-Landell, Hause; van La Parra (Le Fondre 63), Coady, McDonald, Byrne (Saville 62); Mason, Sigurdarson. Unused subs: Martinez, Iorfa, Price, Rowe, Hunte.

Past meetings

2013/14: D 0-0 (H), W 3-0 (H)

2014/15: W 2-1 (H), L 0-4 (A)

2015/16: L 0-2 (H), L 0-3 (A)

Prediction

Wolves 1-1 Brentford (Cavaleiro)

This is an occasion where Brentford’s perceived status as a club in terms of size needs to be disregarded, they are a team that has found their niche in the Championship and as above, have been in top two form for what equates to a third of a season now (albeit stretched over two campaigns). A point would represent a decent if unspectacular return.

MATCH PREVIEW: WOLVES VS BURTON ALBION

Return to action after the international break

Preamble

The two week hiatus caused by the international break is almost over, with surveys yet to find a single person in Western Europe who enjoys their season being broken up just as it’s getting going. Wolves head back into action with a home double header against two teams newly promoted from League One, with Championship debutants Burton Albion first up. After a narrow and perhaps slightly unfortunate defeat at league leaders Huddersfield Town last time up, this would seem to represent a good chance of getting back to winning ways and pushing back up towards the two points per game target that any team with serious aspirations for promotion would target having looked at our first seven games.

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This man is an international footballer of sorts. That is what we put everything on hold for.

The team

An extremely busy summer’s transfer business has been concluded and Walter Zenga now has a wealth of options to choose from right across the park, a world of difference from his first game in charge a little over a month ago at Rotherham where many of the starting positions were taken up by default. Zenga has made little secret of his desire to have ready made replacements in every position where possible to aid frequent rotation without impacting on the quality of the starting XI. As noted in my reaction to the Huddersfield defeat, rotation as a concept is fine but there would have to be a suspicion towards changes for changes sake; successful teams at this level are fundamentally built on key partnerships throughout the first choice line up, exemplified no more than our 2008/9 vintage under Mick McCarthy. While there were options available for Mick to freshen things up or fill in gaps due to injury and suspension, when everyone was available there were few question marks as to the make up of the best team and each of those players knew how to link with those around them. This is an aspect of Zenga’s management that we shall need to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.

Thus far, the new signings of the Fosun era have largely been eased into the team gently, partly as some were lacking fitness after disrupted or minimal pre-season campaigns. However, this should no longer be in question after nearly a fortnight on the training pitch and furthermore it would defy logic to continue to hold these players back; they were, after all, signed to improve what was a fairly ordinary (at best) squad and help us push on towards our ultimate goal of promotion. They aren’t going to have much hope of doing so with sporadic appearances from the bench while those we all suspect of being short of the quality required continue to hold down starting spots. As such, I’d be getting as many of the new arrivals into the team as possible although my personal preference would be to persist with the partnership of Dominic Iorfa and Danny Batth at centre half. Richard Stearman’s return to the club was not one I especially welcomed as while he can produce excellent displays at this level from time to time, we know all too well of his many flaws; a tendency to lapse into runs of poor form, weaknesses with marking and dealing with the high ball, over-confidence on the ball and an inability to act as the leader of the back four. It was puzzling how a man derided for many, many years by the supporters became a fans’ favourite for producing the same kind of displays that he’d always produced in the latter half of 2014/15, and as ever, he was never more popular than on the day that the club chose to sell him. He’ll doubtless have some kind of role to play as the season progresses and he does indubitably represent a significant upgrade on the now loaned-out Ethan Ebanks-Landell, but I would be very disappointed if his return were to limit Iorfa’s development.

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Upping the collective hair game of the squad is welcome, but I’d have preferred a centre half who doesn’t make a rick a game.

Lee Evans, Silvio, Nouha Dicko and Jordan Graham remain unavailable.

Carl Ikeme

Matt Doherty – Dominic Iorfa – Danny Batth – Cameron Borthwick-Jackson

Romain Saiss

Prince Oniangue – Joao Teixeira

Ivan Cavaleiro – Jon Dadi Bodvarsson – Helder Costa

Subs: Andy Lonergan, Kortney Hause, Richard Stearman, Jack Price, Jed Wallace, Joe Mason, Paul Gladon.

The opposition

It’s customary for newly promoted teams to be tipped for relegation before they’ve finished celebrating the previous season’s success. This applied especially so to Burton; coming off the back of successive promotions and playing in the Conference as recently as 2008/9, they looked like to go the way of Yeovil when they reached this level, a club that had become victims of their own success and ended up playing in a division where in all aspects they were palpably out of their depth. Examining their League One record didn’t throw up many promising signs either; a mere 57 goals scored (the same amount as relegated Colchester) and a sense of falling over the line in the end as they won just two of their final nine games and failed to score in five of those fixtures.

Whether Nigel Clough has realised the futility of trying to play in the same manner at this level is unclear, but they appear to have abandoned the previous approach and entered games with a willingness to throw caution to the wind. Their five games so far have produced 19 goals and it seems that they have entered their first ever season in the second tier with a mindset of trying to outscore teams. Not that all has been lost defensively; their win over Derby in the last outing before the break (sure to pass into local folklore) saw them restrict their more illustrious neighbours to just three shots on target and they dealt comfortably with the visitors having vastly more of the ball following Jackson Irvine’s early and eventual winning goal. At this stage, having also defeated heavily fancied Sheffield Wednesday at the Pirelli Stadium, The Brewers are making an admirable start to life in the Championship and certainly don’t look to be any kind of whipping boys (on that note, hello Blackburn Rovers).

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Those are shorts with a belt, trust me.

Clough has thus far set out his teams in a 3-5-2 shape with the returning John Brayford slotting in for the last game on the right of the back three. Lloyd Dyer and Lucas Akins play as the wingbacks while Irvine and Tom Naylor have each notched three goals from the central midfield positions so far. One time Wolves loanee Stephen Bywater is the back up goalkeeper and ex-Blackpool and Derby man Shaun Barker has made a heartening return to full time football after four and a half years out of action with a terrible knee injury.

Last line up (vs Derby, 26.8.16, W 1-0): McLaughlin; Brayford, McFadzean, Turner; Akins, Naylor, Palmer, Irvine, Dyer; O’Grady, Miller.

Form: LLWDW

Top scorers: Tom Naylor (3), Jackson Irvine (3), Lloyd Dyer (2)

Last/Past meetings

Sadly there is nothing to add for this section this time out as Burton are one of only four current Football League clubs that Wolves have never faced in competitive action (the other three being Fleetwood Town, AFC Wimbledon and Yeovil Town). We did beat them 1-0 in a pre-season friendly last July with Nouha Dicko grabbing the only goal, but we aren’t so desperate for content to be reviewing games like that. Yet, anyway.

Prediction

Wolves 3-1 Burton (Oniangue 2, Helder Costa)

While this shouldn’t be a walkover by any means, a big home crowd and the impetus provided by the new players (if selected!) will hopefully see Wolves come out on top.

SAM ALLARDYCE: FIRST IMPRESSIONS

New boss makes a start which seemed to be defined by problems of his own making

Eventually, Sam Allardyce managed to come away with a victory in his first game in charge of England, a last gasp Adam Lallana goal resulting in a 1-0 win in Trnava. It was an uneven performance which failed to suggest that we really are on the brink of a brave new dawn for the national team, a display which can be largely attributed to Allardyce contriving to cause issues which he could easily have avoided.

It must be said that this isn’t an easy job for the former West Ham man. After the disastrous European Championships defeat to Iceland, goodwill towards the England team is extremely low, with significant work to be done before the fans will have anything approaching belief and optimism regarding the future. There’s little he can do during the qualification phase for the next World Cup; England are expected to progress comfortably, Roy Hodgson got little by way of credit for winning ten out of ten qualifiers prior to the last tournament and judgement will very much be reserved until we face serious competitive action (as it is, tonight’s fixture was, on paper, the toughest assignment on offer between now and 2018). Allardyce is also very much a Marmite appointment, for every person who believes his particular brand of ultra-pragmatism and robust self-belief is what’s required to take the team forward, there’s another who has never warmed to his methods and never enjoyed watching his teams play, and as such is indelibly predisposed to viewing him with extreme suspicion. However, even allowing for those circumstances, there were enough factors tonight within his control that he could have addressed yet oddly chose not to.

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I’ll be honest, there is a very small part of me which would like to see a modern version of this, even allowing for it requiring England to be rubbish.

Firstly, following a result which must be considered possibly the worst in a tournament since losing to the United States in the 1950 World Cup, the post-Euro 2016 period represented a fine opportunity to make a completely clean break and for a new manager to go completely his own way, whatever the merits of that might be. Strangely for a man who has frequently given the impression that he insists on getting whatever he wants throughout his club career, Allardyce turned down this opportunity and picked broadly the same squad and team as employed in the summer. This meant a continuation of puzzling selection decisions, with Danny Rose preferred to Luke Shaw even before the Manchester United full back pulled out of the squad, Jordan Henderson selected today as the most advanced of a midfield three despite being given a berth in front of the back four at club level, a reluctance to pair Dele Alli and Harry Kane in close proximity to each other despite the two having immense success combining for Tottenham – Alli starting this game on the bench and Kane withdrawn shortly after his team mate came on – and Marcus Rashford not included in the squad despite being one of the few to escape the Iceland debacle without scorn and providing an option completely different to that offered by any of the other forwards in the squad.

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Seriously, the lad is awesome.

Furthermore, the tactics remained entirely unchanged from those used in Euro 2016. This did not look in any way like a Sam Allardyce team; he has surely not been brought in by the FA to serve up a tame imitation of a Roy Hodgson team as this would not seem to suit anyone’s wishes. The approach remained a possession heavy, low tempo one; while the ball was kept acceptably enough, all too often it was in non-threatening areas and movement in the first half in particular was as good as non-existent. This led to the majority of the game being played in front of the Slovakian defence and midfield, lacking in penetration and with a distinct lack of clear cut chances produced. This 4-3-3 set up with this set of players relies far too heavily on the full backs for width, leads to the centre forward often being isolated, struggles for fluency and results in limited opposition teams becoming increasingly confident that they can hold England at bay. Indeed, the late, late Lallana goal was pretty much the only thing which separated this game and the 0-0 draw played out between the two teams in Saint-Etienne less than three months ago. England probably did just about deserve to win this game but that applied in the previous meeting too and quite rightly wasn’t enough to prevent the display from being subject to heavy criticism.

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Tapping the ball around with no obvious aim is the domain of idiots like this, not international managers.

All of which leads to the man who has been a central issue for England for many years; Wayne Rooney. He was a big issue before Allardyce arrived, with his influence clearly now declining and there being superior centre forwards in the squad. Post-Euro 2016 would have been the ideal opportunity to move on from his era, the national scoring record safely under his belt and with his game only heading one way, it’s hard to see him ever impacting significantly on a major tournament again. However, Allardyce spurned this option and chose to retain him as captain, stating that he would play him “where he plays for Manchester United” – we can only assume that this was referring to his role under Jose Mourinho, where he plays loosely as a number 10 off Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Instead, Rooney reprised the exact same role he filled in Euro 2016, on the left of a three man midfield. This creates a double issue; firstly, he cannot really play in this position. While his endeavour cannot be faulted, he is always keen to get on the ball from deep and the effort levels never drop – he simply does not have the required quality of distribution to have any kind of serious impact on games from that position. In a midfield alongside Henderson and Eric Dier, the onus is very much on him to be the creative hub of the team, but his passing between the lines is less than incisive and often his only offerings are heavily telegraphed switches to the right sided players (oddly, he rarely passes out to the left). There really are better central midfielders in the country than Wayne Rooney. Secondly, Allardyce explicitly stated that Rooney would not play in midfield. It is not a good look to essentially outright lie to the supporters before a ball’s even been kicked and to be directly contradicting your own public statements in your very first match in charge. Post-match, the manager seemed to suggest that Rooney had licence to play wherever he saw fit – a baffling statement if ever there were one, especially from a manager famed for tactical rigidity. Pandering to Rooney’s whims and not selecting teams on merit are dangerous roads for Allardyce to be going down at this very early stage.

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“Today gentlemen, we’ll be playing 4-2-wherever Wayne wants to play-3”

As stated, Allardyce is very much a pragmatist and he will doubtless see a narrow away win against the second seeds in the group as a triumph, that his methods have been validated (leaving aside that Slovakia managed to significantly handicap themselves by keeping faith with Martin Skrtel, who inevitably lost control and was sent off, as he threatens to do so virtually every time he plays) and that any criticism is moot as the end ultimately justified the means. However, should he remain wilfully blind to the weaknesses in the current way in which the team is set up, it’s an inevitability that England will be condemned to the same results as the Hodgson era. Plenty of managers could get England to be semi-efficient flat track bullies; it’s up to Allardyce to live up to what has been mostly his own hype over the last two decades, and produce some form of tangible success. Based on tonight, he has much work to do across the board before that can be considered realistic.