Well that hurt. A kick in the unmentionables after a week of digs, diatribes and dastardly goings-on. We kept our counsel. We let everyone else work themselves up into a frenzy. Our response should have come at 5.30pm on Saturday evening. We should have harnessed all of that siege mentality and unleashed the wrath of a woman scorned on Aston Villa. But did we allow them to get under our skin?
The nature of football fandom means we often fluctuate our emotions based on the results of our teams. It’s hard not to get wrapped up when so much is at stake and so much of our lives are based around the fortunes of our team. Call it foolish but I’m sure for many of us there have been times when Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club has been the shining light in the otherwise moribund churn that we like to call life. It’s for these seasons that we go through it all and each team has their moments throughout a campaign. On Saturday it was Aston Villa’s and it felt like a match lost through the medium of emotion.
It’s difficult to garner much tactically from the game and frankly I don’t think that had too much to do with the result. We failed to get hold of Jack Grealish in any way and his role of running with the ball and winning free kicks set Villa up to put pressure on us in an area where we have not looked that vulnerable recently. The pitch looked slow and heavy and the ball seemed to be bouncing up off first touches which are usually as sleek as velvet. Everything just felt a little off and despite this we were the more threatening team in open play for the majority of the first half. We got into some excellent positions and despite the fact our goal came about without the need to have a shot, we simply do not strike the ball towards goal enough. This is actually something that has been a theme of our season and while we’ve been winning games it’s nothing to be concerned about, but all three of our forwards were guilty of passing up opportunities to just leather the damn thing. Birkir Bjarnason need only show them his goal to explain the virtues of doing such a thing.
Beyond that I could talk to you about how Danny Batth may never be seen in a Wolves shirt again and our inability to arrest going behind in games, but the fact is this wasn’t us being outplayed or out-thought in any way. This was a game won on intangibles. A bit more fight, a bit more luck, a bit more drive and work rate. Making that second ball yours and not giving us a second’s breath. Villa put us in a strait jacket after the second goal and we couldn’t escape. Is that something to worry about? Perhaps. But this doesn’t mean we’re going wrong anywhere. Out basic plans and system are way advanced of any team in the league. You’ll have to go a long way to see a game where every shot on target from a team results in a goal. You hear the buzzwords from the Villa camp and it’s very much emotionally focused. They talk about ‘confidence’ and ;running through brick walls for each other.’ The funny thing about confidence is that it goes when you least expect it – just ask Leo Bonatini who had scored in 6 consecutive games before his drought. Even their ‘vociferous’ celebrations looked forced, a little uncomfortable.
This isn’t pant-wetting or happy-clapping. There are clearly issues to be addressed and a lot of this probably comes down to the pros and cons of a settled side. The last 4-5 months, from when Ryan Bennett was introduced to the team, the squad has relied on around 14 players regularly. These players may well be running on empty right now, although Ruben Neves break was perhaps quite timely in that sense. We have squad depth – we just need to utilise it and flex those muscles to reassert our position. It started on Wednesday night at Leeds. There’s an argument for the likes of Ruben Vinagre, Ryan Bennett, Kortney Hause, Romain Saiss, Morgan Gibbs-White, Benik Afobe and Helder Costa to all feature on Tuesday night. That list of names would be the envy of almost the whole of the Championship.
I referred earlier to the emotional whims of being a football fan. It’s a large part of why it’s never a good idea to employ a fan in a high-ranking position at a football club. You could argue much of the decisions made by Sir Jack Hayward were that of an emotionally-charged human being. Not much is made of the mental fortitude it takes to be a part of professional football. I imagine many of us are irked by criticism in the workplace, but imagine if your workplace involved thousands of emotionally unstable, whimsical and foul-mouthed Wulfrunians, happy to chastise you in a moment’s breath based on a weekly 90-minute showing? Jeff Shi’s comments in today’s Express and Star interview should put some of us at ease. It’s a well-known staple of Chinese business to remove emotion from any kind of decision-making. He talks about the level-headed mindset required to operate effectively in this kind of pressurised situation. Thankfully, the men at the helm seem to possess exactly this trait. Now is not the time for panicking or outlandish claims. As they’ve done all season, Nuno and his men will take the rest of this challenge game-by-game. The pressure has been ramped up on Tuesday’s game, but this is what we’re here for. This is where we swing the balance in our favour. Whatever team is selected, appreciate that there is a methodical approach that underpins it. Everything about the Wolves set up is based on the tangibles of football, the ability, the formation, the geometry of a football pitch. Nuno won’t be seen post match deriding how ‘they wanted it more than us’, because that in essence means so very little to the outcome of a 90-minute match.
Both Cardiff and Villa seem to be relying on momentum to career themselves up towards the top of that gap, but that’s not something that they control themselves entirely. One thing in our favour is the control – everything is in our hands. Win our games and everyone else is an irrelevance. We are still the best-placed, best-equipped and simply the best team to get out of this division. Our weakness as football fans is that we allow our emotions to get the best of us. What we need is cold-blooded, ruthless, results-based football. So put your emotions to one side. Hide the league table from view. And trust in Nuno.
In the great man’s words: “Game-by-game. We make our ideas stronger than theirs.” It’s served us well so far.