Quite simply one of the best performances we’ve pulled off in decades
Remember how we played at the back end of November in Paul Lambert’s first home game against Sheffield Wednesday? If you’d told anyone that a few short weeks later, we’d managed to beat Stoke, Aston Villa and Liverpool all inside a month and deserve to do so on each occasion, we’d have seen some Peep Show style sectioning on the cards. But that is the scale of the improvement that we’ve shown in a short space of time. Some notes on today’s game – I won’t do individual player ratings for this one as everyone is going to get 9/10 or more and no-one likes reading anything that saccharine.
A tactical masterclass from Lambert
Lambert really did get everything spot on today. From his selection – retaining faith in some of those fringe players who got the job done at Stoke in the previous round – through to his instructions to press extremely high and force mistakes out of a shaky looking back four and for us to break with purpose whenever we won the ball back. It’s no exaggeration to say that we could have won this by three or four clear goals. It is a novelty to see a Wolves manager vary his approach from game to game depending on the qualities of the opposition – and not in a Dean Saunders way of “I’ll do something absolutely batshit mental in the hope that the other team are driven delirious by my obvious and contagious insanity”. We’ve played this style today and our second goal – breaking from just outside our own box to the ball being in the back of the Liverpool net in about six seconds – is endemic of a style which many Wolves fans will be very happy to see going forward, fast, ruthless attacking play. It’s been done today with Bright Enobakhare unused on the bench, Ivan Cavaleiro not in the squad at all (Andi Weimann did a superb job in his stead on his full debut) and with Jordan Graham and Michal Zyro to return eventually. If we carry on in this vein, there are exciting times ahead. We certainly won’t be dull to watch.
Helder Costa is worth every penny
News has broken this evening courtesy of Tim Spiers that we are set to complete a permanent deal for Helder in the region of £13,000,000. And who am I to doubt Tim. Crazy money you might think for a Championship club – especially one that has a less than 1% chance of promotion this season – but he genuinely is worth it. In this market, where Crystal Palace have just spent a combined £26,000,000 on Jeff Schlupp and Patrick van Aanholt (two footballers who don’t have a quarter of a brain between them), that fee is daylight robbery on our part. He is every inch a Premier League player. His ball carrying ability is of a standard I have never seen from any Wolves player as long as I’ve been watching – dare I say it, there is a hint of Gareth Bale about him when he flies at defences. He has noticeably bulked up over the course of the season to the point where it’s now very hard to shrug him off the ball, even allowing for his diminutive stature. His record for involvement in goals is absolutely top drawer by any standards. At very least, even if his stay in here is only a relatively short one of between six and eighteen months, we stand to make a hefty profit on him. In an ideal world, he’ll stay here for longer. I’ve rarely been so excited to watch someone in a gold shirt, not even Bakary Sako hit these heights so consistently and so thrillingly.
Everything but the goal
The struggles of both Nouha Dicko and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson in finding the net are well documented. Clearly, it’s not sustainable for any first choice striker to be going 20+ games without a goal. However, both are providing so much in terms of general play that it’s tough to be too hard on them. Dicko’s pace – not in any way diminished, no matter what has been at times rumoured – is invaluable to us in stretching defences and working down the channels, and Bodvarsson’s hold up play and baffling ability to seemingly miscontrol the ball out of play only to retrieve it and beat a defender out of nowhere are frequently a source of great discomfort for defences late on in games. It’s true, both need to stick a few away between now and May, we cannot go into next season with forwards who simply don’t score. But there really is so much to recommend about the two of them as footballers, hopefully one or both can get off the mark soon and start to go on a run. It’s testament to their work rate and genuine affinity for the club that despite such a long barren streak, neither are attracting much by way of overt criticism from the stands.
George Saville is doing his best to extend his Molineux stay
It would be fair to say that George Saville’s impact since arriving from Chelsea two and a half years ago has been limited in a Wolves shirt. There was a brief run of goals last spring but otherwise he’s been largely consigned to the sidelines and then was horribly miscast as a left sided midfielder in the very early Lambert days. It should be remembered though that we have rarely played him in a deep lying midfield role which is broadly where he played through his Academy years. In 2017, he has made two starts there against Stoke and Liverpool as well as a brief cameo in that position against Aston Villa and done very well on each occasion. Full of willingness to make tackles, a renewed energy in his closing down and simple use of possession that rarely goes to waste. Helder Costa was my Man of the Match today but Saville was genuinely not far behind. It is never likely that he’s going to be a fans’ favourite at Molineux, but if he continues this improved form and can finally nail down what kind of midfielder he actually is, it’s not out of the question that he’ll get a fresh contract when the current one expires in the summer.
The kids are alright
As I’ve said previously, it is of critical importance that we use our Academy properly and don’t let the better players in our youth teams have their development stunted and eventually see them drift out of the club without them getting a proper opportunity. Like so many managers, Lambert expressed his desire to play youth when he was appointed as manager. Unlike so many managers, he wasn’t merely paying lip service to the idea in attempt to curry easy favour with the fans. How many managers, entering a high stakes cup tie at the team currently 4th in the Premier League, at one of the most hallowed stadiums in the country, would have played Harry Burgoyne (2 career appearances) ahead of Andy Lonergan (almost 400 career appearances)? It would have been very easy to leave at least one of Connor Ronan, Morgan Gibbs-White or Bright Enobakhare out of the matchday squad in favour of more experience, but Lambert decided it was better for them to take in the feel of a big game atmosphere. The message from both him and the club is now clear to any aspiring talented players; not only do we have top class training facilities here, if you are good enough then you will play. It’s as simple as that. I would very much hope that Christian Herc, Conor Johnson and (subject to fitness) Niall Ennis also get some first team football this season – no longer should we see decent players farmed out on endless loan spells to lower league clubs and going nowhere from a promising start.
The cup can provide a feel-good factor of its own
Today was the first time we had participated in a Fourth Round FA Cup tie since 2011. Our Fifth Round tie next month will be the first time we have reached that stage since 2008. You have to go back to 2003 for our last appearance in the quarter finals. For far too long we have disregarded the FA Cup and treated it as an inconvenience more often than not, with predictably awful results. However, you can sense the uplift in mood amongst the fans from the victories against both Stoke and Liverpool, and it is widely acknowledged that our run in 2002/3 was the catalyst to our superb second half of the season run which pushed us into the playoffs. When we talk specifically about this season, it is clear that the cup is now our only serious focus – we have too much talent and are playing too well (we have now won five of our last eight games in all competitions, and should really have beaten both Sheffield Wednesday and Queens Park Rangers in that sequence too) to be in any serious danger of relegation, and we are way too far back to make a tilt at the top six. In future years, we should remember how special victories like today are and continue to make a proper effort in the premier cup competition (I will accept that the League Cup is an increasing irrelevance) – there is no reason why a club of our size cannot challenge on two fronts.