I usually have a series of notes after each game that informs the content of my blog. It didn’t happen this weekend. Partly because my fingers were frozen, but also partly because I spent a significant portion of the game with my hands on my head in disbelief at some of the football I was witnessing. Now when I come to think about my thoughts and feelings from Saturday evening it all just seems a bit of a blur. This is probably a lot like how Sheffield United’s defenders are feeling right now.
They were caught up in a Portuguese whirlwind of attacking football, a veritable February footballing feast for us all to devour. Like a tornado, the Sheffield United defence was whisked away, swept along and placed back where they were at the start of the game, entirely unaware of what had just happened to them. It’s amazing how the day our long awaited forward signing was in attendance, our strikerless forward line found their groove. All of their best qualities were on show.
Cavaleiro’s ability to combine beautifully with those around was evident in the second goal, where his two 1-2s opened up the opportunity for Jota to slot home. Jota is clearly the sharpest point within the triumvirate, almost poacher like in his ability to snuff out chances. Costa is the most intriguing case at the minute. People may consider his performances in the context of last season, when he was the main man, everything went through him and he was injury free. These days he’s just a high-spec part in a well-oiled machine. He performs the function that the team needs him to, no longer required to be the one-man attacking fulcrum that he was for Paul Lambert’s Wolves. There was a lovely moment in the second half where Costa had the ball at his feet and slowed down, waiting for two defenders to converge on him, before Cruyff-turning his way in the other direction, leaving both standing. And that’s ignoring the ‘see-you-later’ nutmeg that created a chance for Cavaleiro in the first half. As a consequence there wasn’t a stand out man who you could say tormented Sheffield United in particular. What a thing of beauty the first half performance was. Ruben Neves set the tone though…
I have more words for Ruben Neves lined up, but the man defies description sometimes. The game had a big-match feel and he clearly enjoys the bigger occasions and a television audience. Much like his beauty against Sheffield Wednesday, not too much seemed on, but given time and space, he took the invitation to shoot. And how. What’s beautiful about this goal is the absolute futility of the keeper guarding the net. It was as if Neves had decided it was time for the ball to go into the net and he duly obliged. The way he measured the finish, it looked as if he intended the ball to come off the inside of the post and nestle in the other side. I did wonder why no United player felt compelled to press him but they’re just not worthy of being within 5 yards of the man. He is the jewel in the crown and we are merely his loyal subjects.
I actually thought Sheffield’s 3-5-2 would pose an interesting proposition for us, as well as the rest of the theatre surrounding the game. It felt like a Class of 2015 reunion, hosted by Benik Afobe, where Richard Stearman and Lee Evans were in attendance and Leon Clarke turned up uninvited.
Every great story needs their floundering pantomime villain and Clarke’s performance was a poignant reminder of how far we’ve come as a club. Clarke is an irritant of a footballer but he’s also a very average one, who gets found out when he’s not in his comfort zone. That smug look he seems to take on when his career has one of it’s mini-peaks is akin to seeing the one relative nobody likes celebrating their birthday, knowing everyone has to be nice to them for one day. He returned with the Captain’s Armband no less, wearing it like it was his sweet 16th birthday badge. Lucky for us this was not Princess Clarke’s day and the sight of him deflecting the third into the net only added to the storybook performance on show.
The only thing missing from the 90 minutes was a fairytale flourish from Afobe. What I really enjoyed about his time on the pitch, other than how comfortable he looked back on the Molineux turf, was the extra dimension he brought to our play. The boy is perpetual motion, whether it be coming towards the ball, in behind the defence or hitting the box to attack a cross. When was the last time we came close with a headed chance from a floated cross into the box? I couldn’t tell you. The other interesting aspect of Afobe’s deployment was seeing us line up in a 3-5-2 for the last 10 minutes, with Morgan Gibbs-White deployed behind a front two of Bonatini and Benik. This seemed to liberate Leo a little as well – maybe there is a Plan B after all.
A word for Conor Coady, who continues to produce astonishingly consistent performances from the centre of defence. The real purpose of having Coady in that position isn’t actually a defensive one. Even when Neves isn’t available for a pass – although he nearly always is – we still have someone who can dictate play from the centre of the pitch with long, sweeping passes that take out entire defences. Witness Cavaleiro exploiting the space in behind Sheff U’s wing-back for the first goal, expertly found by Coady.
A word also for the sights and sounds of Molineux. In all my years supporting Wolves, I’m not sure I’ve heard some of the sounds that this team seems to evoke from supporters. There are a lot more ‘Ohs!’ and ‘Oooos’ these days. Bill Leslie, the Sky Sports commentator is usually a good barometer for how Wolves are playing and he often fails to contain his excitement regarding some of the skill shown by our front three. Listen back to his reaction to Costa’s nutmeg in the first half. He sound like a man thoroughly enjoying his job, as does Danny Higginbotham who is generally one of the more insightful co-commentators around.
This victory felt notable. It will be looked back on in the years to come, not just as an astounding performance but also a way of juxtaposing just how different Wolves are as a club now and just how serious our ambition is. The Stearman-Evans-Clarke era, the bridging of the gap by the likes of Coady, Doherty and now Afobe and finally the nouveau-riche Wolves, defined by Nuno, Jota and Neves. This is no longer a chasing pack, or a widening of gaps. Each game for the rest of the season represents an opportunity to further prove our Premier League credentials, to take a step up the ladder from the previous game and to make sure everyone knows that we are Just Too Good.
And yet at 3-0 up against 10 men, with few minutes left to play and Sheffield United allowing us to play around at the back without an opposition player within 20 yards of us, there was Nuno, cajoling, castigating, encouraging, applauding and coaxing even more out of his players. That restlessness will take us to within touching distance of the elite.