REACTION: LIVERPOOL 1-2 WOLVES

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.

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But they will read guff like this. The world’s gone mad.

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.

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Deano hears that I might soon have to pay everyone in this blog by the mention. He’d be coining it in from yours truly. Probably pick up more than that time he made up a story about Brian Clough’s alcoholism on national radio for a cheap laugh and a few paltry quid. The fucking maggot.

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.

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Football genius.

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.

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This pair only had a couple of major hits and everyone still liked them.

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.

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I’m even willing to overlook his scarecut for now.

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.

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I can’t pretend I’m *that* thrilled that we now have someone playing for us who was born in 2000, but I’ll have to get used to it. Just like policemen will start looking younger and all music will start sounding like old stuff.

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.

MATCH PREVIEW: WOLVES VS ASTON VILLA

Lambert faces up against former club in mid-table derby

Preamble

First of all, welcome back to all my readers (all 17 of them) and I hope you had a pleasant Christmas and New Year. It’s been just over a month since I wrote a preview and since then we have morphed into a team that’s actually relatively interesting to watch. Wonders will never cease. Results have been up and down as you would expect from a squad which has serial fundamental barriers to competing at the top end of this league, but given that the season is pretty much going nowhere – you would hope that we have enough about us from here to stay clear of any serious relegation fears – providing some exciting football along the way is about the best that you can ask.

The Sky cameras are at Molineux tomorrow teatime – the first of three home games shown live in January and February, they do have an unerring knack of picking fixtures in clumps rather than staggering them across a season – to see Paul Lambert take on his former club in Aston Villa for the first time since leaving them in February 2015. It is perhaps fitting that the two clubs face each other in the same week that our mutual former manager Graham Taylor sadly passed away; although his spell in B6 was much more successful than his time at Wolves, there remains a great respect for the man himself at both clubs and indeed in the wider footballing world. You could question many aspects of his management, especially while in charge of England and Wolves, but you could never question his integrity and basic decency. He will be missed.

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Always proud to be part of our club.

The team

Our defence has come in for much criticism and rightly so; it’s been leakier than Donald Trump’s hotel room mattress. However, we’re coming off the back of a clean sheet at Sheffield Wednesday and followed up with another at Premier League Stoke. Both impressive feats given our travails over the course of the season, the complication being that there were three changes to the back four for the FA Cup tie last weekend, leaving Lambert with decisions to make. Instinct would have to be to retain those who played at the Bet365 Stadium; not only is a shut-out against a top flight club quite the coup for us in current circumstances, those players just seem to give us a better base at the back. There is surely no-one that would dispute that Dominic Iorfa, when playing anywhere near his capabilities, is a far superior option at right back than Conor Coady. We have been waiting over a year for Mike Williamson to make his comeback from injury and he didn’t disappoint in the Potteries. Not only is he our best out-and-out defender by quite some distance, what he brings in terms of organisation is off the scale compared to anything else we have and that is an aspect that has been critically lacking since well…he last played for us.

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Great to have him back, though I can’t get fully on board with having one of our players wear number 60. That’s not progress.

While dropping Coady and Richard Stearman from the last league line-up may seem a little harsh, we have to go with the team that’s going to best equip us to get a result in the upcoming game. Ruthlessness is part of management. Besides which, Coady isn’t really a right back and Stearman isn’t our player. Kortney Hause also had an excellent game at Stoke but it remains highly unlikely that barring a set of exceptional circumstances, Lambert will leave out our club captain in the middle of the season and so it is a racing certainty that it will be Danny Batth to partner Williamson in the heart of the defence. It might well be that he eventually decides that Danny isn’t the man to lead us in the medium term; that’s a call that’s going to be much easier to make once the campaign is over.

Further forward, Jack Price has firmly cemented himself as a Lambert favourite and he should resume his partnership with Dave Edwards. Again, this isn’t necessarily a combination which screams “promotion contenders” in the long term, but the form of both is decent and it would be fair to say that Edwards – for all his limitations and faults – is currently producing more consistently than he has at any stage of his Wolves career. Six goals since the end of October is a pretty impressive record for a midfielder by any standards. Long may it continue. Pleasingly, since the last preview we have finally reverted to playing 4-2-3-1; it long since being apparent that this is the shape most suitable to our current options. Connor Ronan excelled on his first start at Hillsborough but is likely to miss out here with a minor ankle injury. Nevertheless, it is very much to Lambert’s credit that he has offered opportunities to the likes of Ronan, Bright Enobakhare, Harry Burgoyne and Morgan Gibbs-White in his first couple of months at the club; many managers would shy away from this tack when coming in to a struggling team, but he has seen the potential in these youngsters and given them a go when merited. We have spent a lot of money on the Academy in the last decade and it is important that we can demonstrate that there is a genuine gateway to first team football here for those who have the quality and work ethic required.

The outstanding Helder Costa remains our predominant goal threat as we are still waiting – almost five months now – for one of our strikers to notch a goal. Joe Mason did his part in maintaining this streak by knocking the ball over the bar when presented with an open goal two yards out at Hillsborough. Good work Joe, worth £3,000,000 of anyone’s money. We look as threatening in that area as Elijah Wood did in Green Street. Eventually one of them has to score, surely, just by the law of averages. Jon Dadi Bodvarsson will probably get the nod this week and maybe the ball will hit him and go in or something.

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It worked for this absolute lummox up at Sunderland once. And yeah, Nobo, lol.

Carl Ikeme

Dominic Iorfa – Danny Batth – Mike Williamson – Matt Doherty

Dave Edwards – Jack Price

Helder Costa – Bright Enobakhare – Ivan Cavaleiro

Jon Dadi Bodvarsson

Subs: Harry Burgoyne, Kortney Hause, Richard Stearman, Lee Evans, Morgan Gibbs-White, Joe Mason, Nouha Dicko.

The opposition

Having sanctioned almost £60m worth of spending during the summer, it is likely that Walter Mitty-esque prolific Tweeter Tony Xia was looking for something better than 12th place and seven points shy of the top six as we pass the midway point of the season. Roberto Di Matteo always seemed a curious appointment – there’s rarely been any sense at any of his clubs that he has any particular playing style or much to recommend him beyond a relatively high profile – and he was dispatched at the start of October having won just one of Villa’s opening eleven games, putting them in a position of already having to make up serious ground in a chase for immediate promotion back to the Premier League. Steve Bruce was persuaded to take time out from his quest to become the North East’s answer to Agatha Christie and has since done a decent job in terms of getting this squad performing somewhere near their level; his ratio of 1.79 PPG since his appointment would have them very much in playoff territory if extrapolated over the course of a full season.

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Prolific writer and it seems at one stage a fat cyborg too.

While Bruce isn’t quite the unequivocal answer at Championship level that people will have you believe – the football is rarely enthralling, the quality of signings tends to be fairly mixed and at reasonably heavy expense, and you have to put up with listening to him complain about referees every week while prefacing it with “I don’t want to talk about referees” – the chances are that eventually he will succeed in the primary immediate aim of getting Villa back in the top flight. Whether that is this season, with the top six all looking well set and the likes of Derby, Norwich and Fulham also in with a shout, is another matter as Villa (much like ourselves) remain in possession of a squad that is overloaded in some areas while being seriously short of quality in others. No team that is fielding Alan Hutton on a regular basis can ever be said to be in a wholly healthy position.

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Now there’s a fight where you hope they both somehow lose.

The signings made in the summer have had a mixed impact; while James Chester, Albert Adomah and Jonathan Kodjia have impressed, Tommy Elphick, Pierluigi Gollini, Aaron Tshibola and Mile Jedinak have been largely disappointing and Bruce has thus far failed to find a role for headline signing Ross McCormack. Gollini has already been usurped by new loan signing Sam Johnstone and prospects for Tshibola in particular look poor as Villa remain in pursuit of Henri Lansbury. It will take time for Bruce to put his own stamp on the squad that he has inherited and in the short term they are significantly weakened by both Kodjia and Jordan Ayew being called up for the African Cup of Nations. This leaves them with McCormack, Libor Kozak and someone who looks a bit like a really old version of Gabby Agbonlahor but can’t possibly be the same person as their only forward options for the next month or so. At least Villa fans no longer have to tolerate Rudy Gestede controlling the ball straight out of play and flicking the ball on with the accuracy of a man with a sheriff’s badge for a head as he has mercifully been punted on to Middlesbrough, where Aitor Karanka bizarrely seems to think that he’ll end up being a more useful option than Jordan Rhodes. It’s a strange world that football managers inhabit sometimes.

Last line-up (vs Tottenham (A), 8.1.17, L 0-2): Johnstone; Hutton, Chester, Baker, Amavi; Adomah, Tshibola, Jedinak, Bacuna; Grealish; Agbonlahor

Form: LWWDLL

Top scorers: Jonathan Kodjia (9), Ross McCormack (3), Jack Grealish (3)

Top assists: Albert Adomah (5), Jordan Ayew (4), Mile Jedinak (2)

Last meeting

Saturday 15 October 2016: Aston Villa 1-1 Wolves

This happened to be Steve Bruce’s first game in charge of Villa and somehow he escaped with a point as we totally dominated them for the second half yet couldn’t force a winner. After a scrappy start, the home side were awarded a penalty when Jack Grealish went down under a challenge from Dominic Iorfa which Kodjia duly converted. Our equaliser followed ten minutes before half time as referee David Coote rightly penalised Aly Cissokho for handling a shot inside the area and Helder Costa tucked our own spot kick away. Unfortunately for us, it appears that Mr Coote works under the impression that referees are only allowed to give a maximum of two penalties per match which is the only explanation for him failing to award a foul when Micah Richards barrelled through the back of Bodvarsson in the second period. There was also a fortuitous clearance near the goal line from Hutton following a Cavaleiro shot and a couple of other close calls as it was one way traffic in our favour. The performance itself gave hope that all might not be lost under Walter Zenga; however little more than a week he was gone after anaemic, scoreless defeats to Brighton and Leeds. We just didn’t produce enough of this kind of football often enough.

Team: Ikeme; Iorfa, Batth, Hause, Doherty; Saiss, Coady, Edwards; Costa (Cavaleiro 72), Bodvarsson (Dicko 66), Oniangue (Mason 88). Unused subs: Lonergan, Stearman, Saville, Teixeira.

Past meetings

2016/17: D 1-1 (A)

2011/12: L 2-3 (H), D 0-0 (A)

2010/11: L 1-2 (H), W 1-0 (A)

2009/10: D 1-1 (H), D 2-2 (A)

2003/4: L 0-4 (H), L 2-3 (A)

1995/6: L 0-1 (A, LC)

Prediction

Wolves 1-1 Aston Villa (Costa)

Both teams are a lot better off than they were earlier in the season but can’t put together consistent runs of results. It should be entertaining enough and a point wouldn’t represent a bad result all told.