Well, well, well. That was eventful. And what a horrible feeling it left us with. It’s important to remember that this game was not lost. We are another point closer to promotion, with one game less to play and a 13-point gap to third place. Perspective is important in these situations. I would also say that despite the title, it would be far too simplistic to lay the blame for this result at John Ruddy’s door and Nuno isn’t exempt from criticism either. So, here goes….
It was all looking so good after 25 minutes! The front three were dovetailing, as they do, the defence was keeping Norwich at arm’s length and we were all having a lovely time. One point that I do think is worth bearing out is that we are excellent at set pieces. No, do not be ashamed of that. Being good at set pieces has almost become a taboo, a stick to beat a team with in recent years. The likes of Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis have cultivated this philosophy through their percentage football, but you can be a very good footballing side AND take advantage of set pieces on a regular basis. You’ll probably find most of the top 6 do this as well, but don’t get nearly enough credit for it. So well done Barry Douglas, your delivery is as welcome and timely as my Aunt’s new baby girl (Congratulations Massi). The other point to make here is that although we conceded from a set piece, the delivery and timing of Zimmerman’s dart across the front post was ultimately indefensible. How far do you go when tt comes to protecting the front post region on a set piece? The cons of zonal marking were perhaps borne out here, but on the balance of the season we’ve done well defensively from dead balls.
Having gone 2-0 up, I understand there is a degree of comfort around the scoreline. We are by our nature a cautious, protective, counter-attacking side. But in the last 2 home games we have been up 2-0 and allowed the opposition to creep back into the game. It wasn’t fatal against QPR, but against Norwich we were left with a bloodied nose. Wouldn’t it be nice to see us, with our foot firmly placed on the throat of the opponent, go for the jugular? We have the personnel to do it. At 2-0 we should be able to suffocate our opponents. This was compounded by the half time change. Playing with a 3 at the back and then with 3 midfielders more comfortable starting deeper in front of them, is overkill.
I can see what Nuno was thinking, in trying to wrestle possession back in our favour, but we’ve been so comfortable out of possession all season, why not just ride a little pressure and keep up our counter-attacking threat? The centre of gravity of our team became deeper and deeper, the front two as it now was became isolated and we invited Norwich on to us. We can get away with it when there’s a lack of potency in the oppositon’s attack, but everytime James Maddison and Moritz Leitner linked up nervousness descended upon Molineux. Leitner was reared at Borussia Dortmund and he was key in allowing Maddison to roam around the Molineux turf. Maddison is an excellent player though and I would snap Norwich’s hands off for him. He has a lovely ability to know exactly when to show for the ball and when to simply stand still, allow play to develop around him and suddenly find himself in acres of space. By far the best opposition player at Molineux this season.
Whilst we looked a little dishevelled at times, we didn’t concede many chances and still remained some sort of threat on the break. Cavaleiro missed a decent chance and his substitution for Afobe, was one of Nuno’s more questionable decisions. Jota was toiling – although he toils much better than most footballers – and wasn’t getting much change out of Norwich’s three centre-backs. Afobe’s addition meant we had two toilers up front, neither coaxing much out of Norwich’s defence. Afobe’s eagerness to do well seems almost to hinder his natural, more effortless game. Yes, we appreciate the hard work, the running, the chasing of lost causes, but my memory of Afobe is of a player whose every move and interaction with the ball was relatively effortless. He’s making hard work of most things at the moment and he won’t be earning starts off the back of cameos like last night. It all looked a little fragmented, that is until Morgan Gibbs-White appeared.
in the 3-5-2 shape that we had taken to match up Norwich, there was a lack of diversity in the midfield. All 3 of Neves, Saiss and N’Diaye are happiest playing deeper and it created a very congested centre of the pitch, which Norwich clearly dealt with better. MGW’s introduction brought about a shift to more of a 3-4-1-2 and a player who could play further up field on the half-turn. This was surely his best cameo to date and there’s a case to be made he was our best player despite only playing 20 minutes. Attacking players can broadly be split into two camps: those looking for space and those looking for the ball. What I love about MGW is that he is constantly in search of space where he can receive the ball, turn and be productive. He played across the width of the pitch and Norwich just couldn’t get to grips with him as he slithered from their grasp. Some of his decision making smacked of a 17 year old learning the game but he was nothing if not threatening.
All of this and we still went into the final knockings of the game in the lead. This team has an ability and desire to resist pressure. The shape and structure allows us to retreat into an impenetrable shell, almost tortoise-like and to withstand barrages of possession. You won’t be able to recall many chances for Norwich and we probably should have scored at least once in the second half. That said, the final 30 seconds of the game will serve as a lesson in how to ensure victory. I remember watching the Manchester Derby at Old Trafford and Man City were holding the ball in the corner by continuously knocking the ball off defenders to win corners and throw ins. I have never understood why professional footballers would rather shield the ball in the corner instead of aiming for a target no further than a yard away to gain something from their position. What ended up happening was that Benik Afobe and MGW were both out of the game as Norwich regained possession, worked their way upfield and took a potshot at goal. Now we come on to perhaps the most contentious issue of the day.
I think we can all agree that Ruddy should have done better with the goal. I have no doubt based on his prior interview he will admit that himself. It’s not as if this was a strike like James Henry’s vs Bolton or Nenad Milijas vs the same opponents. It was speculative and well-hit enough but within his grasp and an awkward bounce in front of him put paid to his attempts at saving it. The bottom line is though, we shouldn’t be losing leads like that. Maybe we’ve been brought up on a goalkeeping feast in recent years with the likes of Wayne Hennessey, Carl Ikeme and most pertinently of all Matt Murray. We have rarely had bad goalkeepers at the club – the less said of Andy Lonergan the better – and by no means is Ruddy a bad keeper. But he’s a massively underworked goalkeeper, the kind of keeper whose real test is concentration and focus, so that when he is called upon he is ready to react. While he holds the record for clean sheets, he hasn’t had a massive amount to do with that, bar Reading away. Where we are heading, we can’t accept that kind of error and there’s an argument that Will Norris has worked much harder for the clean sheets he gained than Ruddy has. It’s a question mark that Nuno will have to find an answer to.
Talking of Nuno, he has been severely tested in the last two home games and not responded in glowing terms. The problem with having such a settled team and shape is that when you do decide to mix things up, everything feels a little uncomfortable. The jacket doesn’t quite fit right and you’re trying to mould yourself into it. This was clearly the case yesterday. He also has to deal with the absence of Ruben Neves – my bad – for two important games. How he responds will be of real interest to the watching masses of Wolves fans.
Final word goes to the league table though. 1 point closer. 1 game less. 9 points ahead of 2nd. 13 points ahead of 3rd. The least squeaky bum in the house.