Perhaps everyone can settle down a little bit now…
For those of us who enjoy the inherent silliness of football managers – except when it’s happening to your own club and a Welshman with an IQ of 27 is banging on about chucking cheeseburgers up the wall and going on the X Factor – Steve Bruce has been a bit of a goldmine this season. When he’s not heftily slapping himself on the back for loaning youngsters from Manchester United and Tottenham (thus blocking Aston Villa’s own Academy products), making up stats about how many foreign players Wolves use, talking about “balancing wor books” while he has over £20m worth of players that he himself signed sat on the bench and having at least 4,183 senior right backs in the squad at any one time, he’s often talked about the “mass hysteria” that he faces whenever Villa have a negative result.
Now, as ever with everyone’s favourite early 2000s crime writer, he’s being more than a bit disingenuous when he says this. Villa fans tend to understandably get a bit twitchy when they get to Boxing Day and they’re outside the playoff places despite having an extremely expensively assembled squad under the charge of a purported promotion specialist. They tend to react badly to runs of five games without a win, as happened through December, or starts to the season which involve one win in seven. It is also tends to be Steve Bruce’s fault when Villa do go on such runs, which is why he cops the flak. It’s not “mass hysteria”. It’s “a fair reaction to a reasonably prolonged run of severe underperformance”. Which I’ll grant you, isn’t as catchy. No, an example of mass hysteria would be the reaction of Wolves fans through January. A draw and a defeat in the league and a cup exit to a Premier League team somehow translated into us inevitably throwing away our position at the top of the division and being condemned to “blowing it again”. Which is a little like waking up one morning to find someone’s swiped your newspaper and immediately declaring the neighbourhood to have turned into late 1970s New York.
Let’s examine the current situation in terms of pure numbers. We currently sit on 65 points from 29 games, running at 2.24 points per game (no other team in the division is currently exceeding 2 PPG). In the last 30 years, only one team (Sunderland in 1997/8) has ever failed to finish in the top two having attained 90 points. So, as it’s a fair bet that 90 will be enough – all of Middlesbrough, Watford, Cardiff, Hull, Reading, Southampton, QPR and Norwich have won automatic promotion this decade without reaching that mark – we require 25 points from 17 games to almost certainly get over the line. That equates to 1.47 PPG for the remainder of the season, which is slightly below what 11th placed Preston have achieved throughout the campaign so far. Over the last 10 games we have picked up 21 points (2.10 PPG). Even through our supposed “blip” during January, we kept four clean sheets in our six games in all competitions. Paul Lambert was sacked due to our results post-Anfield being totally unacceptable. In his final 17 games, we gained 23 points. This includes us embarking on a five game losing streak and a separate run where we lost four of our final seven games. Even mirroring the results of a man who literally lost his job because of a weak showing in the final third of the season would be very likely to get us in that top two. I think most people would expect Nuno to perform a fair way better than Paul Lambert. In pure mathematical and probability terms, the chances of us falling apart are close to nil. The best price you can get for us to win the league – let alone finish in the top two – is 10/1 on. And as the aforementioned Welshman with an IQ of 27 will tell you, the bookies don’t often get it wrong.
Etched on everyone’s memory is, of course, our collapse from a seemingly impregnable position in 2001/2. Harrowing as it might have been, comparing that situation to where we are now is a fairly flimsy argument. We were not the best team in the division that season and bar a scorching early season run of form, rarely looked as much – Manchester City were the standout outfit, boasting higher first XI quality and superior squad depth to us. After 29 games of that season, we had 55 points; a very decent return indeed and one which you would expect would have you competing at the very top end of the league, as indeed we were. But it’s a full 10 points fewer than we have now. Our manager at the time was, of course, vastly inferior to the man we have in charge now and our first choice team back in January 2002 contains few who would contend for a starting spot were they Marty McFlyed all the way to 2018 (Joleon Lescott and Alex Rae may have a shout, but there’s not much more than that). In fact how a team containing Mo Camara as the starting left back got so close is a mystery in itself. Back then, as City galloped to the title, it only required one team to overhaul us. This time, two teams will need to somehow pull an amazing run out of somewhere, as well as us totally collapsing beyond all comprehension and in the face of all available evidence. One of them will probably have to be Villa, which would involve them putting together a prolonged run of form that they have never shown since they were relegated to this level. Besides which, this episode was a full sixteen years ago. It’s probably time to let it go. There hasn’t really been a similar instance since of us throwing away a good position, so the label of “serial bottlers” can’t be thrown at us, nor is the current squad mentally scarred by any such recent failings. History can teach us much in football (as in life generally), but it helps if a reasonably fair comparison is being drawn in the first place.
Of course, any kind of negative results in January tend to lead to widespread clamour for new signings to be brought in. We’re in an odd kind of position currently; any player that we bring in for a significant outlay has to be both better than what we already have (and we have, as we have established, the best team in the division by some significant margin) and be capable of making the step up to the Premier League. As fatalistic as some of our supporters are, logic and reason dictates that we don’t need anyone else to secure promotion. Therefore buying players who are fit only for the second tier serves very, very little purpose. What we require is very difficult to pull off in January (even allowing for the fact that we can attract players that virtually any other second tier club would find completely out of reach); the selling club has limited time to replace whoever it is we’re tempting away, and this year we have the added complication of everyone in the Premier League from Everton (9th place) downwards nervously looking over their shoulder and facing a possible relegation battle. As much as I wish it were otherwise, other clubs aren’t obliged to hand over good players to us just because we want them.
With Leo Bonatini struggling for goals of late, attention has turned to our striking department and inevitably the name of Benik Afobe has cropped up. We all have some good memories of his time here (well, his first four months here) but when you assess him in the context of the above criteria…it’s not a signing that would appear to make much sense. Bournemouth would look to at least recoup the £10m that they paid us in January 2016; indeed, given the inflation in the transfer market in the intervening period, they may even wish to make a profit on him. We would be looking at an eight figure sum for a man who has scored 10 goals in 63 league appearances over the last two years and last scored a league goal in April of last year. Nothing about Afobe currently suggests that he would be particularly likely to be a success story in the top flight; he’s still young enough to find form elsewhere, but he is currently fourth or fifth choice for Bournemouth for a good reason. Added to which, in his spell at Molineux he was best used as an off-the-shoulder striker who used his pace to great effect. Whenever he was tasked with linking play he was largely incapable of doing so, and yet our current system tasks the striker with work outside the box more than anything else. Lest we forget his ego-driven trip into playing as a number 10, which invariably led to him running around in circles somewhere near the halfway line. Dennis Bergkamp he ain’t.
At this point, we have no need to make such a high cost signing where the evidence to date points to him possibly being a player who would need replacing in just four months. To look further at Bournemouth, in January 2015 they signed their own former player in Lewis Grabban for £7m from Norwich after he had failed to make an impact in the Premier League for the Canaries. 0 league goals and multiple loan spells later, Grabban is still on the books at Dean Court. It can be very easy to get lumbered with unwanted players, no matter if they were quite good a few years ago. It’s also unfair at this stage for Rafa Mir to be written off as he has been in some quarters; at just 20 years of age and with less than two hours’ worth of football in a Wolves shirt, he should be given more time. Early signs are at least that he isn’t some Frank Nouble/Yannick Sagbo-esque clown who doesn’t understand the concept of trapping a ball, and given the hit ratio of the club in the market since the summer, perhaps it’s best to give him the benefit of the doubt for now.
It is of course only right that fans criticise when we perform poorly or where the strategic direction of the club seems lacking. Relentless praise and positivity regardless of context or events is as useless as morbid pessimism. We were indeed well below par against Nottingham Forest with an odd tendency to funnel all of our attacking play out in wide areas, which has not been our most profitable route to goal this season (some praise should be due to professional dullard Aitor Karanka for at least partly forcing us in this direction, though I would say that the result was more down to our own failings than any tactical masterclass on his part). Some performances since early December have been a touch laboured, though that said, anyone expecting regular repeats of the displays that we saw against Leeds and Bolton needs to take a reality check; notice how the rate of thrashings that Man City dole out has steadily declined over the season as opposition teams look for damage limitation rather than a positive result. It would be fair to question why Ivan Cavaleiro had a run of games on the bench when he was frequently looking our most dangerous player. It should be recognised that Nuno is not infallible, he is not a Christ-like figure and he is still making his way in coaching as a whole as well as continually learning about English football. He will make mistakes, very good manager that he may be. Finally, it would seem to be a needless risk for us to go through the entire season with only one option at right wing-back, especially when it is such a pivotal position for us (it was good to see Matt Doherty bounce back with a goal yesterday after his horror show against Forest); however, we shall see what the next few days bring before the transfer window closes.
All of those are valid criticisms. There may be others. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out where the club have gone wrong or might be going wrong. This isn’t a quest to paint Wolverhampton Wanderers as the most perfect club in the world. Bloody hell, we all need something to moan about and it can’t all be on Steve Daley’s This Is Your Life style half-time interviews. But really, people should be enjoying this ride. The most talented squad many of us will have seen in our lifetimes. A manager that would be coveted by many other clubs across Europe. Miles clear at the top. Everything in our favour, at least for the next few months. A packed ground, a city full of buzz pre-match. Cherish it, you don’t know when it’ll come round again.
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