You may have noticed the recent marking of the 130th anniversary of the Football League. How apt then that two founder members of the football league collide at Molineux in the early afternoon of Sunday 16 September.
I imagine it was a pretty level playing field back then. As it happens, Wolves played out a 1-1 draw with Aston Villa, but Burnley were dealt with by their Lancashire rivals Preston North End, 5-2. Without the benefit of high-level scouting systems, previous results and television, all were an unknown quantity. Not now though. And what you begin to learn when you see both clubs’ current standing is the stark differences between the two.
Both of course have a storied past, one that has taken in the length and breadth of the football league structure and also brought the two together at Wembley for a fixture of slightly less glitz and glamour than the one Sky Sports will be promising us this weekend. But, whilst both appear to be operating on a level playing field on paper, the weight of expectation from home fans in particular will perhaps have a role to play in setting the tone for the game.
Nuno’s Wolves, in hindsight were dished out a pretty intense start to the season and have emerged with plenty of credit in the bank. Yes, we left it late, but we sit relatively pretty on 5 points from our first 4, having played 3 of last season’s top half, including the greatest side in Premier League history. Having had two weeks to bask in the glory of an auspicious start to the season, we reach the first fixture of the season where there will be an expectation for Wolves to emerge victorious. That’s not to do Burnley a disservice – I have no doubt this is a situation they face up to almost every week given the make up of their squad – but it is symptom of the fast-track nature of our recent successes.
Contrast that with Burnley, who have already fought their way through 10 games this season. This, a team who added just three players – prior to a campaign where they were to feature in Europe – to an already relatively thin squad. The two-weeks off will have come as a God-send to Sean Dyche’s men and they’ll no doubt be drawing a line under what has happened before and look to kick-start their season. And so we reach the crunch point. Team doing well, wants to assert their authority in front of their home fans in supposed winnable fixture. Team who has made a spluttering start wants to draw a line under their run of form and start their season as of this weekend. It’s an intriguing prospect and there’s more to the eye than just a tick-box exercise for Sky Sports to say they’ve featured all the teams in the league a set number of times by the end of the season.
So how will this one play out? Logic dictates that Wolves effervescence and enthusiasm will overwhelm a potentially stricken Burnley, but we all know logic doesn’t operate on a football field. You see in a way, Burnley arguably pose the biggest threat to Wolves of all the teams we’ve played so far. Everton turned up in the most feverish Molineux seen in decades, Leicester played as if they we were a newly-promoted, half-baked football team and Manchester City’s attack will always leave them open defensively. West Ham are a basket case of a football club, in a fruit basket of a stadium, which leaves us with Burnley.
We know about their playing squad, we know about their manager and we scratch our heads a little. But when it comes to the level of influence a manager has over the playing style of his team and how well-drilled they are, Dyche is right up there with Nuno and Pep Guardiola. That’s not to say his teams play the kind of football the latter two demand, but that his fingerprints are all over his time and he has had his worm-eating ways with it. There’s a humility to their play and while they have no where near the talent at his disposal, they have earned their right to be where they are.
With that in mind, I err on the side of caution when it comes to claiming victory this weekend. Burnley will happily sit deep, they’ll happily cede possession and happily ask us to ask the questions in the game. This is where our problems begin. There’s a reason why we’re so good when it comes to scoring the first goal. Because if we don’t we tend to struggle. We need the first goal in a game to be able to open it up and play our natural game. Being asked to pick holes in Burnley’s defence is not what this team is set up to do. so then sets in the frustration.
Yes, we are an excellent football team. Yes, we do possess the quality to beat Burnley. But don’t let that confidence in our own squad’s ability turn into some God-given right o take three points from any game in this league. We’ve seen the impact of pressure on managers and we will soon find out how desperate times can call for desperate measures. The pressure cooker of the Premier League leads to teams doing all they can in the name of survival and don’t be surprised if we become a victim of anti-football that we cannot overcome. Instead, take solace in the fact we’re becoming more and more respected as a club, as a playing squad and as a management team.
I’m really looking forward to this weekend, not only because it’s a return to league action and these Premier League slippers are getting quite comfortable, but because it throws up another conundrum for Nuno to calculate. I enjoy seeing what tactical innovation he might come up with next, or how Burnley plan to combat what is becoming a formidable forward line.
So my message to Wolves fans is this: don’t be surprised if we’re made to work very hard to beat Burnley. Don’t be surprised to see us struggle to get shots away. Don’t be surprised to see us dominate the ball without making too much headway. But instead, see the respect we are now being shown. Take these shows of defiance from the opposition as a compliment. And enjoy a top-flight fixture at Molineux where we, finally, are the aggressors. It’s been a long time coming.