58 seconds. That was all it took for Wolves to lose this game. Of course this wouldn’t be much of a blog if I analysed 58 seconds of football so we’ll do our best to draw some conclusions from the remaining 89 minutes.
It’s often said that the Premier League is the best in the world. I say it’s ‘said’, but it’s really shoved in our faces, down our throats and probably up our back passages too. It’s often taken with a pinch of salt, but some days you do have to applaud the ability and intelligence on show. Watford, a relatively run-of-the-mill Premier League side, arrived on the back of a 4-0 shellacking at the hands of Bournemouth, which completes the trio of current media darlings beneath the elite, ourselves included. Each of us have been lauded for our enterprise. brave approach in the face of supposedly superior opposition and just general excellence.
Watford’s poster victory so far this season was against Tottenham where they displayed plenty of brute strength and athleticism. This was the version of Watford we expected to see. The reality was quite different. There was plenty of that on show, but what took me by surprise was the fluidity of movement and slickness of their play. Etienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure may look like a bruising pair but they possess as much quality as any of the gigantic midfields on offer at Premier League grounds in the country, as displayed by Capoue’s goal. What happened next was so far removed from what Nuno Espirito Santo has over seen at Wolves that we seemed to fall into a state of paralysis.
The signs weren’t good prior to this though. The old international break fears were the topic of conversation prior to the game and the team started with a lethargy that screamed jetlag, aeroplane food and possibly even some bowel trouble. The problem for Wolves is that it affected our two lynchpins, Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves. It was so strange watching both appear to lose control of their bodily functions at times, which was slightly unnerving. They were running in slow motion in comparison to Watford’s Will Hughes, Gerard Deolofeu, Capoue, Doucoure and Roberto Pereyra. This was part of the problem though. The zone Moutinho and Neves usually control was crowded out by a multitude of green shirts and they were left chasing shadows. This isn’t necessarily a problem at 0-0. You can recalibrate, adjust and history will tell you that the Portuguese duo have the nous to do that. But before they could get this out of their system we were 2-0 down.
There was a response, as naturally there would be and the raised tempo after half time told me that the international break argument doesn’t really fly. But there was plenty of ferocity, energy and a distinct increase in urgency, but it pretty much lead to nothing. Watford were settled. We managed to get into some half-decent positions but as has been the case on the few occasions we’ve been behind in games under Nuno, we struggled to create anything of note. What I saw, was Watford quite willingly allowing the switch out to the flanks from deep positions, as long as the supply line to the midfielders and inside forwards was cut off. These are the positions where we can unbalance defences, but we simply weren’t allowed to get that kind of foothold, try as we might. And so we pick ourselves up and move on.
Other Premier League clubs have good players, Each and every game comes with its challenges, nuances and opportunities in equal measure. But the attention to detail and appetite for a specific plan for each game at this level is so much greater that we need to be more flexible. We have the options within the playing squad, but we could perhaps do with an alternative system. I anticipate changes for the next fixture, as this line-up appears to have gone stale. There’s a reason the record for the same team being selected eight games in a tow was such – the team becomes quite rotten eventually. Fortunately we have plenty in reserve and what we know about this team is that there is always a reaction.
To the detriment of Brighton & Hove Albion let’s hope.
Before I leave you a word on the match officials. You’ll notice I devote very little of my coverage to the officiating of matches. I’m a big believer as a football man that you should make the referee as much of an irrelevance as you can by being simply better than the oppositon, added to the futility of discussing good/poor refereeing decisions after the event. But my Sunday League side and Wolves have both suffered at the hands of officials this weekend so there’s a bee in my bonnet.
Wolves were blown up for 23 fouls on Saturday, the most of any team in the football league this weekend. That says one of two things: we were slow and clumsy in getting to Watford who kept the ball away from us well and the referee was very much whistle-happy. Now both things can be true and it is without question that Watford did a good job of keeping us off the ball. But when you see the inconsistency of decisions that Lee Mason making you can’t help but wonder what a more competent official would have made of the match. The situation was encapsulated within a few minutes, where Helder Costa was accused of fouling Adam Masina on the touchline, seemingly for just being in his general vicinity but when Costa was being physically harassed by two players in the same corner, the linesman and referee seemed to be loathe to offer us a reprieve. This builds frustration. This throws players off their game. This is the problem and as much as you may ask players to remain professional, if the referee isn’t doing his job properly, there is bound to be a reaction. The officials will of course get off scott-free as there were no major decisions to make during the game, but for a Premier League fixture to feature 37 fouls in total questions should be asked. I’m not suggesting in the slightest we deserved more from the game, but the officiating left a lot to be desired.