When news broke of Nuno Espirito Santo coming in to take over as Wolves manager, many players on the books at the club would have been forgiven for feeling a little insecure.
Sure enough, what started as a reshaping of the squad became a cull. Nuno’s new formation, the presence of a bloated squad as well as an absolute need to increase the quality within the ranks meant the revolving door was installed at the front of Compton Park once more. Many saw this move as a threat, but some saw it as an opportunity and the chance to reinvent themselves in the midst of a new era. One of those players was Matt Doherty.
It’s easy to forget how long Doherty has been a part of the fabric of Wolves, especially as he hasn’t always been seen as a solution or the kind of player who would form the part of a team winning promotion to the Premier League. Then you sit back and remember he’s actually already played at that level in a Wolves shirt. Credit must go to Mick McCarthy for spotting a talent signed in our own Cristiano Ronaldo-style swoop, when Wolves played Bohemians in a pre-season friendly. Back we went to Wolverhampton with Doherty in tow.
He’s had an odd Wolves career of comings and goings and yet he’s outlasted almost all except for Danny Batth and Carl Ikeme, who are no longer mainstays for very differing reasons. It’s his endurance that marks him out as special.in more than one way. Talk of signing cover for Doherty dominated the last transfer window, but the club hierarchy were adamant they would only bring in improvements on the current playing staff, With that in mind, they were either looking for current Premier League players, or asking very good players to come and play second fiddle to Doherty.
It’s a problem many super-clubs face with strikers, when they have one obvious star player in the Number 9 position – they need cover but who wants to be Plan B? It’s a testament to his form and unstinting desire to keep playing that Doherty has seen off any concerns that we need another right wing-back. Near enough every challenge he has faced he has overcome, from the very real challenge to his position from Dominic Iorfa, to the prospect of playing on the opposite flank for an entire season. Every time he seems to have a slight off day the issue of a lack of cover will no doubt be raised again, but there is no doubt who the best right-sided defender in the league is right now.
Doherty’s owned near enough every right flank he’s set foot on this season, in another role that he has had to acclimatise to. His combination of athleticism and deftness of touch is little seen in the Championship and he’s seriously underrated in both categories. Maybe it’s his odd, almost slow-motion running style, but it’s a rare thing to see Doherty ever outpaced by a winger and he’s nearly always haring down the outside of the forward operating in front of him. He also has a formidable aerial threat, regularly the focus of John Ruddy’s longer distribution and you almost see full backs quaking in their boots when Doherty is steaming into launch himself towards the ball, almost Andy Carroll-style.
The wing-back role requires so much more, even than a modern-day full-back. They are the key element of width in what is in effect a winger-less formation of 3-4-3. They must defend and attack in equal measure and this is where the technical side of their game is imperative and where the likes of Iorfa fall short. You only have to see the regularity with which Ruben Neves happily pings balls out to the right flank to understand Doherty is very proficient when receiving the ball in space. His first touch rarely lets him down and he combines well with whoever is on his side, most notably Ivan Cavaleiro. He’s shown on a number of occasions that he’s an excellent striker of the ball over the past few years, although his crossing can frustrate for someone who is relatively technically gifted. What his athleticism allows him to do, however is to get into positions on a regular basis. If you sling enough shit, some of it will stick. And Doherty slings plenty of shit.
So what does the future hold for Doherty? He’s clearly a consistently maturing player. Elements of his game you may have spoken of as deficient – defending, concentration – can no longer be mentioned in such terms. He has some work to do on his final ball, but we could be looking at a mainstay for years to come. He’s suffered the knock backs and the overlooks. Now is his time to shrug all aside as he plants his flag down the right flank of Nuno’s Wolves.