I guess we all saw this coming right? I didn’t in all honesty. And it sure makes the feeling worse. But it could have been oh so different.
Whilst I don’t like making excuses for poor performances, we do need to caveat this with the absence of Ruben Neves. When a player of that outstanding quality is removed from any team, you have to expect a drop-off in performance. To Romain Saiss’ and Alfred N’Diaye’s credit, it wasn’t all that noticeable for the first half at least, but Fulham’s very high defensive line would surely have been put under more pressure had Neves been on the field. Nuno perhaps compounded that drop-off in quality by dropping Diogo Jota to the bench for the first time this season. It didn’t have the desired effect as we would find out in the worst kind of terms later on in the game.
The first half actually promised plenty. Very early on in the game Helder Costa found himself in an unbelievable position, driving towards goal, behind the defence, but he seems to be lacking a certain level of conviction in his game right now. The excuse of injury and no pre-season probably doesn’t wash anymore and he’s had plenty of minutes in recent weeks, but his decision-making and execution in the final third left a lot to be desired.
I maintain though, that we started the game well. Fulham had spells of possession, but as we like to see the game, we were well-placed to hit them on the break without conceding chances. When in shape and structured, with all players aware of their responsibilities, we are unlikely to concede chances and goals. Our problems yesterday began with a counter-attack breaking down. Alfred N’Diaye has his virtues as a player, especially against packed defences, but his athleticism and ability to break forward from midfield, does not lend itself to a disciplined performance. It was he who lost the ball in the build-up to the first goal, and had he been stationed in his regular position, the likelihood is Fulham would not have found their way to the edge of our box quite so easily. From there it was a calamity of errors, from Bennett’s poor clearance to Doherty switching off after Ruddy’s fine save.
I’ve spoken on many occasions about the ability of goals to change games. We’ve been behind in games so little, each time it happens it becomes a challenge to our character. We overcame Bristol City brilliantly and losing to Cardiff was in the formative stage of this incarnation of Wolves. But against Nottingham Forest we were clearly rocked, perhaps due to the fact we conceded two in quick succession. While we had an excellent Championship starting XI, we lacked a real reference point when we went a goal down. Cavaleiro, Bonatini and Costa are fine players, but they lack the personality of Jota, who almost creates opportunities through sheer force of will. Even when he’s having a poor game he’ll be a threat to the goal. Neves is always there to regulate our temperature, keep us cool or warm us up, whatever it is that’s required, but nobody was ready to grab the situation by the throat and lead the charge last night.
The second half was a similar enough story to begin with. We came out all guns blazing, fluency returned until the final throes of an attack. There were many nearly, not quite and if only moments. Again there’s no excuse for not converting these kinds of situations into something productive, but this isn’t a team so out of form that it’s lost its ability to play. Again we let ourselves down from an unthreatening position. Conor Coady is an excellent footballer, but when isolated by a striker of reasonable pedigree he tends to struggle. He’s the spare man at the back for a reason. What frustrates me most is that Mitrovic was able to impact a three-man defence pretty much single-handedly, without being massively involved in the play. I can assure you Leo Bonatini’s touches in the match dwarf that of Mitrovic’s but he was there to have an effect when required. Fulham are a nice tidy team, with some very good footballers, but the way they wrestled back control of the game was disappointing to see. Ryan Sessegnon is clearly an exceptional talent, but he’s not a spectacular performer in the way Gareth Bale was at that age, so the comparisons seem a little strange. What he does have is an amazing knack of poaching goals from a wide position, something our own forwards – Jota aside – could add to their game.
In an effort to take charge again, we bent ourselves out of shape and the familiar theme of looking uncomfortable away from 3-4-3 continued. It was an odd sight seeing Coady back in midfield, almost as if we had to be reminded this was his natural position once upon a time. His wonderful through ball released Afobe, who attacked the goal with all the thrust of a puppy attacking a burglar. Whilst he could have done more to grab the goal to give us a glimmer of hope, he could not have done more for Jota who contrived to put forward his own nomination for miss of the season. It really wasn’t our night.
I had a lot of confidence in our ability to win this game. We’ve proven our ability to stop teams in their tracks on a number of occasions. Perhaps the settled side we’ve been used to seeing is now becoming the stagnant side, but to Nuno’s credit he was decisive with one change to try and shake things up here. Fine margins often dictate the results of football matches, but much of what we did last night was positive. Problems occur when those positives don’t translate into results however. It’s a psychological challenge to overcome, when you know you’re doing things right but the outcome isn’t what you expect. Wolves and Nuno have to cross that bridge now. Perhaps it’s time to delve into the depths of the squad in order to bring some fresher ideas to the table, but whatever Nuno decides, i’ll be with him all the way. What I will say is that this was not the performance of a side unworthy of promotion.
I expect nothing other than a victory against Reading.