How to dispose of Champions League quarter-finalists
Possession with a purpose
We’ve seen managers at Wolves try to go down the road of possession football in the past. With Mark McGhee, this usually ended up with us knocking the ball aimlessly around at zero pace around the halfway line before eventually thumping it upfield in the vague direction of Iwan Roberts. Paul Lambert produced a fantastic cover version of that in last season’s home game against Rotherham (for which I’m still receiving therapy). The most successful (in relative terms) exponent of it was, for a while, Kenny Jackett until that plan fell on its face when he started including Tommy Rowe, Ethan Ebanks-Landell and Leon Clarke in the team.
This is somewhat different. Now yes, this was only a friendly, and Leicester approached it with an attitude which made it look like they had 11 Carl Robinsons on the pitch at times. But still, the style of play is evident; while we look to keep the ball and dominate possession, the first thought of everyone is to move forwards, not backwards and sideways. There should always be a pass on and a run being made, the wingbacks are pushed right on to the opposing full backs when we have the ball around halfway, defenders step into midfield, inside forwards drop in deep if we need support…it’s all quite alien to anything we’ve seen before. All that was lacking was an out and out forward to give us a focal point through the middle; it appears that this is being addressed with the impending signing of Leo Bonatini. It would be fair to say that our fans will never be receptive towards a sterile variety of this kind of play, which is one of the reasons why Aitor Karanka would have been a terrible appointment this summer. But if we’re able to play in the fashion that we did on Saturday – albeit in games where the intensity will be a great deal higher – then it should prove popular. The aesthetics are there, married to a coherent plan and a genuine threat. All of this with Helder Costa currently missing. Wonders will never cease.
The new signings will not be bullied
I wrote last week about how “Championship experience” is an overrated commodity; while there is a possible upside from having players on the books who have played in successful teams at this level in the past, the key to recruitment should focus on quality rather than an arbitrary number of games played against fellow second tier teams. However, the trope persists that our new foreign lads won’t like it up ’em at Burton or Ipswich. Having seen them in action, this seems unlikely.
Ruben Neves is not only a wonderful player – his ability to perpetually find a couple of yards of space is the most striking of his many qualities – but more than willing to dig in defensively and stand up to challenges. Diogo Jota shrugged off challenges with ease and even withstood an out-and-out assault from Harry “head possibly bigger than Grant Hanley’s” Maguire just before he was replaced in a pre-planned move. Willy Boly is a man mountain with a “they shall not pass” mentality. Roderick Miranda strolled into midfield effortlessly and also looks to be solidly built.
There might be times when teams do a number on us; it would be unrealistic at this stage to suggest that we’re going to sweep all before us with virtually an entirely new team being built. What they won’t be able to do is knock us out of a game physically.
Conor Coady may have found his niche
It’s fairly apparent now that Conor Coady is not going to be able to do the job he was initially signed to do. As a midfielder he looked lacking in technical ability even to do what Kenny Jackett, Walter Zenga and Paul Lambert wanted; in a Nuno team, he has no chance of fitting in (I would say the same also applies to Dave Edwards, but then again I saw him complete three passes in the space of around 30 seconds on Saturday. Scenes). He performed competently and creditably in an unfamiliar right back role for much of last season but Nuno switching him to the centre of our three man defence could turn out to be a very shrewd move. It was noticeable in the pre-season games in Austria that Coady was extremely vocal, both on the pitch and when he was on the sidelines and on Saturday he was tasked with keeping that backline organised. He did it in an extremely impressive fashion. For all the good work as club captain that Danny Batth does in the community, being vocal and making sure everyone else is well drilled has never been anything like his forté. Judging from his showings for Norwich, it wouldn’t really appear to be Ryan Bennett’s game either. Kortney Hause has yet to feature this summer following an injury picked up on England duty. Coady doesn’t have to do anything fancy; just hold the line, sweep up any danger, don’t get pulled out into the channels, pop it off to someone else when he makes an interception. There was also time for what is becoming something of a trademark in a heroic goal line clearance (although there’s little doubt that Jamie Vardy should have given him no chance). I’ve criticised him a lot in the past and with good cause, questions may still remain regarding how he might deal with more of an aerial threat, but these were good signs at the weekend.
Getting the best out of Romain Saiss
There were three principal problems with Saiss last season; firstly, he frequently looked leaden and lacking in dynamism. Secondly, he was deployed far, far too deep, meaning that his range of passing was largely useless to us. Finally, he suffered from alarming inconsistency within a game; 10 minutes where he looked dominant would be followed by 10 where he would be passive, a further 10 where he struggled to make even the simplest of passes, 10 where he’d do his best Seyi Olofinjana impression by seeming to completely disappear from the park altogether…seldom did we see a joined up performance from him over a whole match.
An effort appears to have been made to address the first two of those failings. Saiss definitely looks trimmer and sharper (an observation which can also be applied, shock horror, to Matt Doherty…there isn’t really an excuse for professional footballers to look like they have a sack of spuds shoved down the back of their shorts). With the extra centre half in our team now and with how comfortable Miranda in particular is on the ball, there is no longer any need for Saiss to park himself five yards in front of the defence and he can actually play in er, midfield. At times on Saturday he was the furthermost player pressing Leicester on the relatively rare occasions they managed to get on the ball. When he himself picked up possession, he was in a position to pass the ball into dangerous areas and materially influence the game.
The final part is, of course, up to Saiss himself. We know the ability is there and it might be that having such a quality partner as Neves will be the making of him as he tries to forge a career in this country. All the ingredients are there for him to make a success of it now and it appears that at least to start with, he will be given the opportunity to cement a place. What he can’t afford is to slack off in games again or have spells of play where he’s finding opposition shirts more often than he’s finding gold ones. Nuno simply won’t tolerate that.
A friendly should not mean the rules change
Our final three pre-season games have been characterised by some shall we say robust challenges. Shrewsbury seemed intent on hacking us out of the game, leading to the early, precautionary removal of Ruben Neves, there was an awful challenge on Doherty in the Peterborough fixture that could easily have led to a serious injury and as mentioned earlier, Harry Maguire decided that the best way to stop Diogo Jota was not to defend like you might expect a £17m signing to do, but to hack him down with the kind of challenge you’d see in the Wolverhampton Sunday League. The latter two in particular would almost certainly have been punished with a red card in a competitive game. There remains the opportunity for referees to invite the manager to substitute a player in a friendly under these circumstances; nothing was done bar a token booking for Maguire. The laws of the game have been interpreted in recent times to protect creative players such as Jota and for his appalling, cynical, brutal play on Saturday, Maguire should be missing the opening three games of the season. As it is, he’s free to carry on. We are fortunate that our player is available to us. There should be no way that referees should be allowing that kind of treatment to be meted out and to go effectively unpunished, friendly game or not.
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