Away days – there is truly nothing like them. A 292-mile round trip, a whole load of laughs and all in the name of three points, which we duly brought home with us. It could only be a Punjabi Wolves away day.
You can definitely feel the pressure on each game is ratcheted up being back in the Premier League, rightly or wrongly. We’re under the microscope, each opposition team is swinging from one crisis to another and the media have put the hype machine into over drive. The reality of yesterday’s game was that it didn’t really matter if we won or not. We’re doing our thing, we’re producing performances that warrant results, but things just haven’t quite fallen our way so far. But the narrative leading up to this would have you believe this was a must-win for both sides. That pressure can freeze you into submission and one team for sure allowed that to get the better of them.
West Ham looked like a team in crisis. Lest we forget, we were away from home, against an established Premier League side, as a newly-promoted club. But West Ham were frozen by the fear of their situation. Manuel Pellegrini is a stellar manager, with an exceptional CV, but he allowed his men to submit to external factors here. It looked like Audrey from Coronation Street was in the dugout and it may as well have been. For all the investment in the playing staff, this was a hollow football team in a hollow football stadium.
The battle for control of a game is often won and lost in central midfield. The fortunes of each player in this zone pretty much dictated the way the result went. It wasn’t a coincidence that Ruben Neves robbed Carlos Sanchez of the ball in the build-up to the goal. West Ham’s midfield simply couldn’t get near the Moutinho-Neves axis, which is quickly establishing itself as one of the most complete in the league. Jack Wilshere and Carlos Sanchez felt like a contrived effort in comparison, one former boy wonder placed next to a supposed midfield destroyet. People will tell you that there’s perhaps more balance in the latter pair, but it all comes down to perception and the interpretation of the roles of each. Wilshere’s career has been an unfortunate one so far, but his reputation simply doesn’t match up to the influence he’s able to exert on a game. His ability to ghost past players earlier in his career has clouded the judgement of the nation, and with injuries taking their toll he was a shadow of what people perceive him to be. In stark contrast, you had a man who has had the career everyone expected Wilshere to have at one time.
Joao Moutinho is an absolute marvel. I’ll save my in-depth take on his ability for another time, but consider the fact we were treated to a Ruben Neves masterclass for all of last season and we still stand here awestruck by the diminutive diamond. Whilst not necessarily opening West Ham up (it’s not really his game), he asserted a quiet authority throughout. Combine this with Neves’ more outward exuberance and you have a midfield capable of mixing it with, or indeed overcoming, any in the league. I would have been seething if we didn’t win this game.
The Hammers had turned into The Pickaxes and their fear of Wolves’ counterattack was epitomised when a corner looped up into the air in the first half and instead of challenging for it, anyone within 10 yards of the ball had started trotting back to their position, allowing Rui Patricio to catch the ball with ease. It was to the fans’ frustration that we didn’t open West Ham up more often during the first half, but the deserved win came in the end.
This is where Adama Traore comes in. This was one of his more frustrating cameos. He found himself – as per usual – running past defenders at will, getting into good positions but he more often than not took the wrong option. He does give us an attacking dimension we’ve never had at the club though. 9 times out of 10 you know he is going to beat his man. It only takes one of those opportunities to come to fruition for him to justify his presence on the pitch. He seems to be a question that cannot be answered by defenders currently. I found it interesting reading that Darren Campbell, the former 100m sprinter worked with Traore at Middlesbrough and he actually worked on slowing him down. I imagine when you possess that kind of pace the temptation is to use it at every opportunity, but Traore’s best work seemed to come at a slightly lower rate of knots. He picked out Doherty for a good chance and he composed himself well when taking his goal. There was a moment prior to him striking the ball where time seemed to stand still, there was an intake of breath and to be totally honest I hardly remember seeing the ball hit the net as limbs went AOTS.
Players all over the pitch are proving their Premier League credentials. Ryan Bennett continues to operate in a manner befitting his status as the most experienced Premier League player in the squad. He’s like a comfort blanket for me now, as anyone who seems to run at him is rebuffed with the minimum of fuss. This was an exceptional performance and Leander Dendoncker has plenty to do to shift him from the team. Rui Patricio was in exceptional form again, and you almost tend to forget we have a world class keeper in our ranks until he pulls out worldie saves with is face. He looks right at home. Matt Doherty continued his riposte to those who doubted him post-Leicester as he dominated the right hand side. I noticed a clever move, where Helder Costa would hang out to the touchline and Doherty would underlap him. This meant the winger marking Doherty would have to track his run all the way, rather than pass him on to the full back. It was a testing game for Michail Antonio who was rightfully hooked. Leo Bonatini offered us a more elusive option up front as well and his goal midweek seems to have done his confidence a world of good.
And so the garden is looking all that more rosy again. It’s amazing what a win does for you. Someone commented that Traore’s goal could be one of the most important in a generation to the club. It’s an affirmation of Nuno’s plan and the club’s general strategy. Winning that game was important (although not critical) if only to back up the hype behind out start to the season. That frustration we felt during the 90 minutes is also telling. We believe we should be winning these games. We can hang our hat on these players and the performances they are producing. We’re frustrated because we’re slipping more and more into our comfort zone. This isn’t arrogance, but merely a feeling of belonging. Each and every one of us involved with Wolverhampton Wanderers was on that express train, driven by Adama Traore, willing the ball to go in. We’re a force of nature in our own right now and the 16.53 to Premier League-ville will be coming to a station near you. Stand behind that yellow line though – this train does not stop here.