Looking back over the first month of the season
First up, my apologies that there’s been no content of late. I just needed a bit of a break and then it made little sense to publish this piece before the transfer window closed. But anyway, I’m back now. May the world rejoice.
So, let’s break down how we’ve started the campaign:
You can’t really complain about running at two points a game. It takes a fairly freakish set of circumstances for that not to be top two form over the course of a season. It’s even more impressive when you consider who it is we’ve played; most would have Middlesbrough, Derby, Hull and Brentford pegged as top 10 teams at least, and Cardiff have won every single game to date somehow (as much as I dislike Neil Warnock, he deserves great credit for what he’s done in South Wales. The knob). Faced with a tough start, we’ve come up with the goods so far. Cardiff was deeply disappointing – it’s fair to point out that the refereeing in that game was criminally poor, but that’s not what cost us the game – but every other result has been a good one. Brentford may be struggling at the moment but in time I believe that will be seen as a decent point. We’ve also beaten yet another Premier League team away from home with literally a reserve team. Even allowing for the excitement surrounding our new signings, it’s been a better start than many could have envisaged.
The New Arrivals
What has been encouraging is that the vast majority of the new signings have fitted in straight away. Ruben Neves is a magician and has no business playing at this level; the same applies to Diogo Jota who will light up this league. Leo Bonatini looks to be a solid striker with a technical base that will allow us to play off and around him. Willy Boly is a man mountain at the back, although does have a slight penchant for the odd girly flick to put us in trouble, while John Ruddy looks like the keeper we’ve needed for the last five years and will be pushed hard by the very promising Will Norris. Barry Douglas is an actual left back and again, has strong competition from the exciting Ruben Vinagre. You might slightly quibble that Roderick Miranda has occasionally looked a little uneasy (although he’s been fairly decent overall), reports from his previous clubs on last minute arrival Alfred N’Diaye are mixed, Ryan Bennett looks…clunky to say the least, and we’re yet to see anything from Phil Ofosu-Ayeh who arrived with a slightly iffy injury record and is apparently yet to join full training. Overall though, this window represents exceptional incoming business with far from a huge outlay by current standards. By and large, they look players willing to accept what the Championship has to offer and to face that challenge head on. Admittedly we might need to wait until the temperature drops below 10 degrees to see what they’re really made of. Except Glasgow-born Douglas of course.
Credit is also due to the club in bringing in £8.5m for a raft of unwanted and unsuitable players, a figure well above what anyone could have envisaged when the 2016/17 campaign drew to a close. If nothing else, you’d hope it would end any flapping about Financial Fair Play for now (to reiterate, we aren’t in any danger of breaching that at all).
As we all know, we’ve shifted to a 3-4-2-1 system this season with Conor Coady at the heart of the back three, wingbacks pushed high up the pitch and two inside forwards playing behind a lone central striker. As we have seen, results and performances have generally been good so far. I do, however, have some concerns about the current set-up:
While this may be a vision of Nuno’s that he’s had for some time, he has never played three at the back with any regularity at any of his previous clubs. Indeed his past experience of playing this formation extends to one league game and two cup games at Valencia. Furthermore, very few of our players have much, if any, prior experience of playing in such a shape. This means that everyone is learning on the job as we go, in a division where three at the back predominantly tends to be an early season experiment which gets ditched before the leaves have started falling. It’s not to say that it won’t work, and early signs aren’t bad at all. But what we don’t have here is a situation where a manager has come in and decided to play in a way that he has stuck to for years at all his previous clubs; this is an experiment on his part.
Even in the past two seasons when we’ve been absolutely diabolical at Molineux, plenty of bottom half teams have come here and set up for a point. Now that we have upgraded our squad to the point where we should be expecting a top six place as a bare minimum, this is going to apply even more. With that in mind, do we really need three centre halves, two career full backs (no matter how much they are pushed on – and Matt Doherty is not a proper attacking option on the right hand side in any case) and two central midfielders who by inclination will tend to sit rather than push into the attacking third? That’s seven players who you could nominally describe as defensively minded. I certainly have no problem with clean sheets being a highly valued currency – and five inside a calendar month is encouraging – and I wouldn’t expect us to be ripping teams apart 4-0 and 5-0 with any regularity. However, when the onus is on us to attack, it does seem a little like defensive overkill in terms of balance. We may well need some flexibility in this respect and Saturday’s match at home to Millwall will be a good test of how we approach a game against opponents who won’t be looking to go at us from the off.
Not that I believe that the seasons will follow the same path (and we certainly have a far better squad and manager than we did then) but we ended August 2005 with a league record of P6 W3 D2 L1, playing possession heavy football with a new formation and looking well set for a promotion push. Then the rest of the season happened. Now, Nuno isn’t Glenn Hoddle. He isn’t relying on the current day equivalent of Darren Anderton to be our creative force. Nor is he that likely to stick Bonatini on the left wing. But the point is that if we set up in this way, we have to be very careful that we’re not easily nullified. Allowing for the fact that we have played one heavily fancied team and one team with a 100% record so far, we have not created much at all in our two home league games to date. If that pattern were to continue, then there would be cause for concern.
This leads in to the worry that the formation doesn’t allow us to get all of our attacking players on the pitch at the same time. There are three spots and when everyone is fit, all of Leo Bonatini, Helder Costa, Diogo Jota, Ivan Cavaleiro, Bright Enobakhare, Ben Marshall (if he is not employed in the right wing back role), Michal Zyro and Donovan Wilson will be vying to fill them. Of course, none of those players are going to play every game and having the likes of Cavaleiro waiting in the wings represents strong strength in depth. You do wonder, however, if there might be certain games where we’re better off ditching a superfluous defender in favour of getting an extra attacking option on the pitch. Jota in particular seems to have the skillset to flourish as a number 10 just as much as he’s an incredibly exciting option from slightly wider. We’ve already felt compelled to send Jordan Graham out on loan as he’s unlikely to get games in one of the inside forward positions; we could do without others becoming disenchanted because the preferred shape doesn’t allow them enough game time.
The End of Edwards
So finally, it’s over. Almost ten years of watching Dave Edwards has come to a close. Let’s get a few things out of the way first up; no-one at all would ever criticise Edwards’ effort, desire, ability to get the absolute maximum from his ability or affinity to the club. He’s clearly a very, very nice guy who does some fantastic work off the pitch and would never have caused a minute’s trouble for anyone even if he’d been forced into a peripheral role this season. He probably does deserve a testimonial despite falling just short of a decade’s worth of service. It’s nice to have that kind of character in football. All of that is inarguable.
Unfortunately, none of that in itself wins you any points at all over the course of a season. Not only did Edwards have no role whatsoever fit for him with the way we are set up to play under Nuno, but he didn’t even fulfil the brief given to him under much more traditional and prosaically “Championship” managers that we’ve had here. The Express & Star’s piece on his departure took a snipe at fans who “wouldn’t ignore what he couldn’t do”’; I’m not sure how we’re supposed to ignore the fact that a central midfielder can’t pass or tackle. The official site ran a saccharine-infused piece describing him as a “special player in a workmanlike McCarthy team” despite him averaging fewer than 20 starts a season under McCarthy and that team containing some of the best attacking players I’ve ever seen play for us in my 30 seasons of attendance. He didn’t have the ability to play in central midfield as his work in possession was so poor. It’s no coincidence that results slumped under Paul Lambert when he inexplicably restored Edwards to the number 10 role in February of this year. His infrequent runs of goalscoring were welcome, but there were at least an equal number of runs where he’d score at a rate of around 1 in 20 and contribute nothing else.
Had we been more brutal and ruthless in terms of squad management in the McCarthy days, his time would have been up upon promotion to the Premier League, or at very latest following our first season at that level. There have been many, many games where his deficiencies have cost us, no matter how much running he did. Most teams put their most creative and technically skilled player at number 10; we put our least creative player there, month after month under both Jackett and Lambert. This was a day which should have come long ago and the surprise is not that Nuno – unencumbered by existing staff members who might have sung Edwards’ praises – had no use for him, but that it’s Reading who have signed him despite playing perhaps the most possession heavy style of any team in the entire division. But that really is their problem, not ours.
He’s a great guy. I can easily name you 50 Wolves players I’ve disliked more and double that number who’d have had better careers here if they’d adopted Dave’s work ethic. I wish him every success, except when he’s in direct competition with us. But please, spare me the rose-tinted stuff. I didn’t enjoy watching him play and nor did thousands of others.
The Striker Shortage
Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Paul Gladon, Andreas Weimann, Joe Mason, Nouha Dicko. All first team strikers for us at various points last season, all no longer at the club. After a season in which not one of them scored more than three goals for us, it would be fair to say that a clearout was necessary. Of course, everyone hoped that we would sign more than one dedicated central striker to replace them, but our bid to bring in PSV’s Jürgen Locadia fell through at the last minute and any secondary targets failed to arrive.
The club don’t escape criticism here. Locadia was by no means the only player in the world that we could have signed and to leave the signing of a player in such a key position so late in the window always had an element of playing with fire about it – while accepting that strikers do tend to be the most difficult players to sign. We had ample opportunity to bring someone in and failed to do so.
Some of the criticism however is wide of the mark. Of those players listed above, surely only Dicko would class as someone who fans would actually still want at the club. Dicko himself had shown this season that he was a deeply imperfect fit for the role required from the central striker now and his inability to hold the ball almost contributed to us dropping points against Middlesbrough. He has rarely looked anything like the player he was before his devastating injury two years ago and picking up £3.5m for a striker who has scored four goals since May 2015 is not to be sniffed at. It doesn’t seem that likely that he’s going to be back to his best any time soon and the manager clearly didn’t fancy him as a serious option. His judgement has to be trusted. It is also better for us to stick with what we have than just sign anyone to be seen to be doing something. Every time Jordan Hugill was mentioned as a potential target, a chill ran down my spine in a manner I’ve not experienced since I saw Steve Corica’s name on the teamsheet every week. Dwight Gayle and Jordan Rhodes are fine goalscorers at this level but are they really equipped to do what we would need them to do? I would suggest not.
Of course, we are now crossing our fingers that Bonatini can build on his promising start and stay fit. There is some scope for Cavaleiro being able to play centrally, but at the moment we’re guessing whether he will or won’t be able to perform effectively there. It’s a state of affairs which could end up costing us dearly and I reiterate, a situation the club should not have allowed us to get into. But time will tell. If we are indeed loitering around 9th place come Christmas, it won’t be because we sold Nouha Dicko.
On we go to two eminently winnable home fixtures against Millwall and Bristol City; check back here next week for reaction to both games.
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