MATCH PREVIEW: WOLVES VS CARDIFF CITY

First of six home games in the run-in

Preamble

We return to action tomorrow after the ever interminable international break and enter an extremely busy month with eight games to be played in 29 days. We should, of course, never have got ourselves in a position where relegation was a genuine fear but we can at least remove that more or less completely with a strong showing at home this week against Cardiff and Nottingham Forest. It’s not exactly what any of us were aiming for earlier in the season, but the priority for now is merely to secure our divisional status as playing in League One again doesn’t bear thinking about. Talented players don’t want to be playing at Gigg Lane and Kingsmeadow.

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Exhibit A.

The team

After the confusion of the Rotherham set up and performance which followed our catastrophic run of defeats in February, we seem to have eventually hit on a formula which can actually produce rewards going forward; the two wins over Brentford and Fulham were unexpected given our form yet were underpinned by a consistent attacking threat which we haven’t shown for quite some time. Ben Marshall finally getting up to speed has given us a genuine outlet out wide, he looks a good footballer and is justifying why Paul Lambert brought him in, even if remains unacceptable that he turned up looking like he’d spent a couple of months working as chief taster for Greggs. The return from injury of Ivan Cavaleiro is also key as he offers a different dimension to anyone else currently available – casting him in the #10 role appears to be a good move as he is more than comfortable at operating from central areas and this also to a large extent removes defensive responsibility from him. I don’t wish to have a go at Dave Edwards (this time) but he just isn’t suited to playing in that role any more – if he ever genuinely was at this level – and it is no accident that our goal output decreased when he was incomprehensibly deployed there through February. A switch that we made after he produced his best ever Wolves form in a deeper role in the preceding 2-3 months. I’ve said it before and I’ll be saying it for as long as I’m around, managers do strange things at times.

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This might be a good time to mention that this cockrash once played 3-5-2 against Cardiff. Who were top of the league. And we’d never even practiced it. Because he was too scared to make a decision on who to drop. I’m not still bitter, honest.

Andi Weimann has responded to being played in what he asserts to be his best position as a central striker with two goals in two starts. We all like the endeavour of Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and Nouha Dicko, but it just isn’t sustainable to play this system and have as good as zero genuine goal threat from the lone striker. The goals that Weimann has scored for us so far indicate that he has definite finishing ability and we don’t lose anything in terms of movement when he plays there. Added to the ever impressive Helder Costa, this is a front four which can cause damage against any opposition in this league.

Elsewhere, there are serious and long standing issues with quality, but we are where we are and there’s little that can be done about that until the summer at earliest. While it’s been proven beyond reasonable doubt that the likes of Carl Ikeme, Conor Coady, Matt Doherty and Danny Batth simply aren’t acceptable options for a team with any kind of designs on the top six, there is little alternative but to play them as it stands. The paucity of the quality beyond them is shown up with an injury doubt over Ikeme after picking up a small muscle strain on international duty; no-one can be seriously comfortable with picking Harry Burgoyne (at this stage of his development) or Andy Lonergan (at any stage). We are rapidly approaching crunch time for Mike Williamson – he simply has to feature in a high number of games this month to have a realistic chance of earning a new deal. Whether Lambert is going to remove Batth from the starting XI after he featured in the two away wins is another matter.

Carl Ikeme

Conor Coady – Mike Williamson – Kortney Hause – Matt Doherty

Dave Edwards – Lee Evans

Ben Marshall – Ivan Cavaleiro – Helder Costa

Andi Weimann

Subs: Harry Burgoyne, Danny Batth, Romain Saiss, Morgan Gibbs-White, Bright Enobakhare, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Nouha Dicko

The opposition

Let’s be clear about this – I don’t like Neil Warnock. Never have done, never will do. Whether it’s imploring his Notts County players to “fucking break Bully’s legs”, sending numerous teams to Molineux in the most mind-numbingly negative setup imaginable (his Sheffield United outfit were once timewasting after two minutes in a game here) or just generally being an objectionable wazzock, he’s just not my cup of tea. However, it can’t be denied that for two straight years, he’s done a superb rescue job at two separate clubs. After saving Rotherham from what seemed an inevitable relegation last season – leading them to a scarcely credible 11 game unbeaten run along the way – he saw the writing on the wall in South Yorkshire and resigned. Cardiff’s summer appointment of Paul Trollope failed to pay dividends and with the Bluebirds second bottom of the table, Warnock took the reigns in early October, presumably saying that this would be his last job and that he would do two more years in football, like he’s been parroting since about 2001. Early results were mixed but a run of seven wins in nine games through January and February pulled them well clear of the relegation fight and sitting on 51 points at present, would consider themselves to be all but mathematically safe already. You have to respect that, even if I don’t like him. And I really don’t.

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Displaying his legendary charm.

It’s all the more impressive an achievement given the clear downsizing of ambition over the last couple of years; Vincent Tan has toned down the lunatic behaviour in favour of essentially leaving the club to run itself in greatly reduced circumstances. Long serving stalwarts Peter Whittingham and Aron Gunnarsson are still at the club and play key roles, but gone are the days of big money signings on huge (by Championship standards) wages. Warnock has done a familiar job of picking up waifs and strays and gelling them into a coherent team; Sol Bamba looked a walking disaster at Leeds and Junior Hoilett had done nothing for years since leaving Blackburn, but since arriving in South Wales they have performed superbly in the club’s rise into mid-table security. After failing to even start a game until mid-December, Danish forward Kenneth Zohore has notched 10 goals in 16 games since Boxing Day while they have also been bolstered by the loan arrival of Allan McGregor – although he will have unhappy memories of Molineux having gifted James Henry a goal against Hull in August 2015. Craig Noone has the unhappy knack of turning in a performance against us and absolutely tore Matt Doherty to shreds in the meeting here last January, so will need to be watched carefully. Greg Halford should be on the bench, ready to provide his unique blend of lumbering around and displaying less commitment than Cheryl Cole to a marriage if required.

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It’s a tight call whether Halford has worse body language than Doherty. Greg probably needs to invest in some personalised gloves.

Last line-up (vs Ipswich, 18.3.17, W 3-1): McGregor; Richards, Morrison, Bamba, Bennett; Noone, Gunnarsson, Whittingham, Harris; Hoilett; Zohore

Form: WDLDDW

Top scorers: Kenneth Zohore (10), Anthony Pilkington (7), Peter Whittingham/Joe Ralls (6)

Top assists: Peter Whittingham (6), Sean Morrison (4), Kadeem Harris/Junior Hoilett (3)

Last meeting

13 December 2016: Cardiff 2-1 Wolves

Oh dear. The breathless 4-4 home draw with Fulham was followed up with this limp display where despite being gifted a goal start – the hapless Ben Amos flapping at a Doherty 30 yarder which would have hit him in the face if he’d just stood there – we allowed Cardiff back into the game, offering little by way of inclination to push on for a second goal and eventually succumbed to defeat, as Matt Connolly (unmarked three yards out off a set piece) and Anthony Pilkington (strolling through one of our trademark yawning gaps right through the heart of our defence) notched second half goals. The win pulled Warnock’s men out of the bottom three and since then it has been steady upward progress for them.

Team: Burgoyne; Iorfa, Batth, Stearman, Doherty; Edwards, Saiss, Saville; Costa (Teixeira 45), Dicko (Bodvarsson 76), Cavaleiro (Enobakhare 66). Unused subs: Flatt, Hause, Coady, Price.

Past meetings

2016/17: L 1-2 (A)

2015/16: L 1-3 (H), L 0-2 (A)

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

2012/13: L 1-2 (H), L 1-3 (A)

2008/9: D 2-2 (H), W 2-1 (A)

2007/8: W 3-0 (H), W 3-2 (A), L 0-2 (A, FAC)

2006/7: L 1-2 (H), L 0-4 (A)

2005/6: W 2-0 (H), D 2-2 (A)

2004/5: L 2-3 (H), D 1-1 (A)

Prediction

Wolves 2-1 Cardiff (Weimann, Costa)

It’s time to really start to step it up at home; results and performances at Molineux just haven’t been anything like acceptable for far too long. Facing a Warnock team is never especially pleasant but we should be able to take confidence from the wins in West London and pick up the points here.

REACTION: WOLVES 1-0 ROTHERHAM UNITED

Bleaker than a Ken Loach film

On the face of it, if a week ago you’d offered me two clean sheets and four points from our next two games, I’d have snapped your hand off. Points are everything in our current position and it was vital that we picked up results in two of our (theoretically) less challenging remaining games. However, what can’t be ignored is how overbearingly grim yesterday’s performance was. We were up against the worst team to play at this level for a good 15 years. They have picked up one point away from home all season. They’ve been effectively down since about November. And they should have won. Two weak one-on-one attempts (credit to Carl Ikeme for saving them, though the ball hit him as much as anything) which came from our own slackness in possession and a gilt-edged chance popped over the bar from four yards out right at the death should all have been converted and they should have been returning to South Yorkshire with a full haul of the points. We really couldn’t have complained if they had.

Sometimes, players let a manager down. They don’t put the effort in, or they make inexplicable individual errors, or they don’t follow instructions properly. Yesterday was all on the manager. There are three key areas where Paul Lambert let himself (and us) down:

The formation

The line-up came through at 2pm and it all seemed fairly straightforward; we’d be going with our familiar 4-2-3-1 shape with Romain Saiss and Jack Price holding in front of the back four. Not so. Within about five minutes of kick off it was evident that Saiss was playing incredibly deep…so deep that when in possession, we were operating with a back three. Sometimes Saiss would then shift himself 10 yards further forward into midfield, then he’d be playing as the deepest player, right in front of Ikeme. It was a formation change which made little sense and we didn’t seem to have done much preparatory work in getting it to function; the first half in particular devolved into Mark McGhee era-style possession where we knocked square balls right across our back five without advancing a yard, and the two first half chances that Rotherham had came from us losing the ball with a poor pass and there being a yawning 40 yard gap between Mike Williamson and Kortney Hause to allow a free run on goal right down the middle of the pitch. It’s hard to fathom exactly why we switched to this system – three at the back systems are all well and good if you have the players to do it. We don’t. And if you don’t, they invariably look an unholy mess.

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I’d love for this to get pulped, “Bouncing Back” style.

The personnel

If you are going to play a variant of three at the back, your wingbacks become absolutely crucial to your attacking play. When McGhee played the system at Wolves, we had a stellar away record thanks to the pace on the break of Steve Froggatt and Jamie Smith. Chelsea on a permanent basis and increasingly regularly Tottenham also currently use three centre halves; Marcos Alonso, Victor Moses, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker all offer relentless energy up and down the flanks with a consistent attacking threat. Yesterday we used George Saville and Conor Coady. Yep, two nondescript central midfielders with the pace of an Austin Allegro. They barely crossed the halfway line and played more or less as orthodox full backs, leaving us with a flat back five and a defensive midfielder in Price parked ahead of them. At home to Rotherham. Saville was actually one of our better performers on the day (not a high bar, it has to be said) and it was nice to see a left back who is naturally left footed and at least understands the basics of defensive positioning, but in that role it is difficult to see what Lambert was actually expecting of him. You might have gathered by now that I don’t like Matt Doherty one bit but if there was ever a game for him to play, if there were ever a formation switch that might have been designed specifically to benefit him, this would have been it. It’s also odd that Dominic Iorfa was brought back in from the cold for the Reading game, by all accounts did fairly well and has since disappeared from view with us going back to Doherty (rarely played at right back at all in the last 18 months, and is somehow actually even worse there than he is at left back) and Coady (not a right back and cannot cross for the life of him). It’s bad enough to switch to a system which doesn’t suit us and has the potential to fall apart like a bad meringue. To do that and then pick pretty much the least suitable players to fit, it just compounds the issue.

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Conor gives us a gesture demonstrating his “Crossing” attribute on Football Manager.

Lack of attacking threat

The almost total absence of goals from our strikers has been a constant throughout the season. One justification you could make to switching to a back three is that it allows you the opportunity to get two strikers on the pitch without sacrificing numbers in midfield. We didn’t do this and ended up (as best as you could work out from the chaos that was unfolding) most closely resembling Tottenham’s 3-4-2-1 shape:

Ikeme

Williamson – Saiss – Hause

Coady – Edwards – Price – Saville

Costa – Marshall

Weimann

Ben Marshall had a decent first half whereas Helder Costa looked lost in this new shape, his weak penalty summing up his day. We failed to provide Andi Weimann with much by way of service, his goal coming about largely through his determination more than anything else. Price did his usual job of sitting right in front of the defenders and contributing little in the opposition’s half while Dave Edwards continued his 2017 form of offering practically nothing. The excellent Whoscored site reliably informs me that he attempted 22 passes in the entire 90 minutes plus injury time. As a central midfielder, in a game where we dominated the ball (to little effect, it has to be said), that is incredibly low. It really is a strange situation; in Lambert’s early weeks, he employed Edwards as one of the deeper midfielders in the 4-2-3-1 formation and he responded with the best prolonged form of his entire Wolves career. The player was even on record as saying that the deeper role aided his goal threat as he was able to make runs from a position where he was less likely to get picked up. Yet since the Burton game last month which kicked off our losing streak, we’ve changed his role and he’s reverted to contributing nothing, and still gets a guaranteed shirt. I would never question his attitude, character or personality and when he’s performing at his absolute maximum he has a role of sorts to play…but he isn’t doing that at the moment. It’s a familiar blindspot for Wolves managers. When Morgan Gibbs-White and Ivan Cavaleiro came on, we looked more threatening (not by a huge amount, but by enough) with the former’s calmness in possession and the latter’s unpredictable running with the ball asking different questions. Both should be playing a more prominent role, fitness permitting.

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Over nine years here and we still haven’t found a manager that can work out that he goes on little bursts of goalscoring then goes on a run of about 2 in 25. Every time.

It’s difficult to know where we go from here. No-one of any repute is going to step in and take this job with 11 games to go and with us perched so perilously above the relegation zone. Talk of Gary Rowett coming in now is completely fanciful, I want Mauricio Pochettino to take over but it isn’t going to happen. The kind of managers who would take the job on, you wouldn’t want here. You can’t keep sacking managers after a handful of months. There are the games available where we can target wins which should see us avoid the drop. But if we set up like that again, the likelihood is that we’ll get beaten most weeks, it was poor on so many levels and it’s all on the manager. If Lambert wants a long-term future at Molineux, dramatic improvement is required, and fast.

PLAYER RATINGS: WOLVES U23 1-2 ASTON VILLA U23

Dodgy keeper, dodgy keeper

Harry Burgoyne: There’s been a fair amount of talk lately that with Carl Ikeme in one of his regular runs of giving up terrible goals, we might look to bring young Harry back into the first team after a short spell on loan at Barnet. He really, really isn’t ready. Villa didn’t threaten a huge amount last night but when it mattered, Burgoyne was found wanting. Beaten at his near post for the opener with a shot which burst through his hands and then no attempt to claim a fairly routine cross which led to the penalty for the winner. A couple of Andy Lonergan-style sliced kicks to add to that. He’s a long way at present from being a serious option at Championship level.

Aaron Simpson: Defensively very solid, sadly missed a glorious chance late on to grab an equaliser, fluffing his lines from six yards out, centre of goal. Not been getting a look in during his loan spell at Portsmouth but there seems to be enough there to work with going forward.

Anthony Breslin: I’ve heard it said by more seasoned viewers of the Academy teams than me that Breslin isn’t likely to make it at any kind of serious level. Seems strange to me as the two times I’ve seen him this season, he’s looked very good. It’s a real novelty to see a Wolves left back who is actually left sided and can actually stay in position. Gets forward pretty well too. Given that we’ve resorted to playing George Saville there in the first team after Paul Lambert has hopefully worked out that playing a tubby right back with a stinking attitude isn’t helping us out, we could do worse than give Breslin a go. Not like anyone else is really sticking their hand up.

Regan Upton: Definitely tends towards the “cumbersome” side of centre halves but did well enough last night. Had a reasonable effort saved in the first half and wasn’t really troubled by anything Villa had to offer.

Connor Johnson: Another impressive outing, his short passing is better than you might expect from a big centre half (maybe we’re just too accustomed to Captain Danny’s shortcomings in that area). Can’t be too far away from making a first team breakthrough.

Aaron Collins: Unequivocally not a winger. Looked lost for the majority of the game and conceded the penalty with a rash challenge. Didn’t really take his man on, didn’t deliver the ball well, didn’t link up with the forwards; if we can’t find a spot for him up front in this team then he probably needs to move on, be it temporarily or for good.

Morgan Gibbs-White: His quality on the ball is undoubted, so calm in possession and produced a marvellous pass for our goal – the kind we haven’t seen in the first team since Kevin McDonald decided that he didn’t fancy trying any more. It will be interesting to see what position he finally nails down, it is hard to see how he wouldn’t be a better bench option than some of the midfielders we currently put on there.

Christian Herc: Perhaps a little subdued in an attacking sense but always on for a pass, used the ball well and generally looked a cut above his Villa counterparts. Another one who should make the step up sooner rather than later.

Joe Delacoe: Replaced after 45 anonymous minutes, did nothing of note at all.

Bright Enobakhare: Has comprehensively outgrown this level, there is nothing left for him to do in U23 football. Easily the best player on the park in the hour he played, full of invention, tight skills and unlike his recent first team appearances, picked the right option more often than not. At a time when we’re badly lacking creativity and goals it is odd how he’s drifted a little from the picture. Especially when we’re playing Dave Edwards in the number 10 role, with stunning results.

Donovan Wilson: Very much an off the shoulder type striker which means the first team would have little use for him at present as we never supply any of our forwards with that service. When Gibbs-White did feed him, he took his goal very nicely with a calm finish. In the right setup with the right players behind him he could have a role to play.

Nicu Carnat: Didn’t do a great deal more than Delacoe, no impact on the game.

Connor Levingston: Replaced Enobakhare at which point we lost control of the game. Not to dig the lad out because clearly Bright is several levels above the rest of this team at present, but that’s where we lost it.

Niall Ennis: A welcome return but as he came on after Bright had already left the field, service to him was lacking. Has had a bit of a growth spurt it seems, certainly looked more gangly than the last time I saw him. If he can get a bit more football this month in these games then I expect him to be making the first team bench at least during the run-in.