For all the world I thought this game would be a slog. I had visions of stodgy Burnley defence, our attack running through the proverbial treacle of a rearguard staunchly defending its goal in the manner Burnley have built a whole reputation on.- a reputation which feels a little bit mythical right now.
I remember hearing last season that although Burnley conceded very few goals, they were one of the worst teams when it came to allowing shots on goal. Perhaps their goal has led a charmed life for a long time now and they’ve managed to escape from the clutches of defeat with their direct play and snaffling the chances when they come. Could it be that the rest of the league really are as bad as they appeared and they sat atop a pile of tripe last season? Whatever the explanation, they played like the team they ought to be, rather than the one we perceive them to be and we took advantage of this.
I spoke in length about how this game was something of a watershed for us. It was the first time since we had returned to the top flight that we were considered favourites in a game and it was important to hammer home that perception. We did that emphatically. Not by the scoreline, but by the manner of the victory. Anyone who watched the full 90 minutes would have had their opinion on who was the 7th best team in the land last year and who was the newly-promoted side. And it wouldn’t have been the truth.
What I really enjoyed about the performance is the pace at which we move the ball. How nice is it to see eleven players on the pitch who need no more than two touches to find a team-mate? This fluency, coupled with the general urgency the team seems to have upped since promotion, means teams cannot settle into their shape as quickly as they’d like, instead having to address the possession of the ball. The wing-backs are key to this. So often last year, we’d switch the ball out to the left, but things being done a split second too slowly meant the ball would have to be recirculated through the middle of the pitch. Now we have two wing-backs who do carry the ball, who are direct – contrary to Martin O’Neill’s belief – and who are able to link up with the man in front of them.
People often talk about relationships in football. It’s usually centre back pairings, two up front or perhaps a central midfield duo, but the way a flank is dominated during a game can often be the key to the outcome. We live in a footballing world where the battle for control of central areas is the holy grail and this often makes games attritional and congested, so the battle on the flanks is brought into focus. The way the two players out there link up is integral to this and we shouldn’t underestimate the power of relationship on a football pitch. Jota and Jonny are becoming formidable and Costa and Doherty have the benefit of a 3rd season of football together now. This was what brought about the goal and for all those calling for Adama Traore’s inclusion from the start, it’s important that he and Doherty have a synergy when they play together.
Jonny continues to carve out his place on that left flank and this was his most effective game in an attacking sense. It was my first game sitting in my usual vantage point of the family enclosure and to see Jonny at relatively close quarters. Phileas Fogg would have a job circumnavigating his calves.
What could be better than having Traore as an option on the bench though? Traore coming on at 1-0, of course. Burnley never once got the chance to commit fully to attack because he kept them honest and on their toes. He’s also keeping his competition for a place on their toes and Diogo Jota and Helder Costa responded this weekend. Jota was back to his buffeting, rugged best and he took his fair share of treatment from Phil Bardsley – a player I never thought I’d see back at Premier League level – but he mixed it in the way we know he can. Costa wasn’t at his absolute slaloming best, but like Jota was much more direct than has been the case in recent weeks. It seemed they’d been given a call to arms to be much more urgent with their forward play, not allowing Burnley to settle into their shape. This resulted in 30 shots at goal. Which leads me nicely to my next point…
We have to be more clinical. Well we don’t have to, as proven this weekend because our defensive structure and knowledge of our own system is the ideal foundation to build on. But our football on Sunday deserved a few more goals at the very least. Jimenez isn’t the ice-cool finisher we’d all love to have, but the way he oils the wheels of our attacks create the spaces we then exploit to create these chances. He’s a machine of a centre forward, providing every kind of service required of a striker and on this occasion also providing the winner. It’s important to note as well that even though substitutions were made we maintained our level of threat, which is credit to Leo Bonatini and Adama Traore even if they did miss a couple of chances.
In summary, we should probably just ignore what I said pre-match. There is no doubt this team belongs at this level. What do I know eh? We were favourites and we reaffirmed that status. That’s a big statement. We do tend to reserve our best for the TV cameras under Nuno and this was no different. It was a 1-0 pummeling and the real satisfaction probably comes from the fact this game was as comfortable as any of our simplest victories from last season. Burnley may look a bit Championship on paper, but we made them look like that in reality. There was a gulf in class, the like of which we haven’t seen between Wolves and another top-flight club in generations. Get used to it ladies and gents. Our trip to Old Trafford already looks tasty.