3 games. 270 minutes. 6 goals conceded, 2 scored in response. Zero points and thousands of deflated fans. It’s been a rough few weeks on the face of it. Questions are being asked and we’re all finding trouble finding some sort of answer, most of all Nuno. But in football you either win, or you learn, as Thierry Henry constantly reminds on Sky Sports. We will have learnt a lot about ourselves in that time.
Maybe this was the problem last season. Maybe we won so often, so well and in such untroubled fashion that we weren’t given enough lessons. Maybe we failed to spot some of the chinks in our armour because our opposition didn’t take advantage of them. Maybe it’s taken to this stage of the Premier League season even for teams to figure out what those chinks are. But now we seem to have been ‘figured out’ we can work on fixing it right?
So what are the problems then? We’re a soft touch? Giving up too many chances? We have the fifth best defence in the league. So the issues are going forward? We’ve had the third most shots of any team in the league. Scratching your head a bit? Yeah, well, football does that to you. We’d all love to have a clear sense of what is going wrong for Wolves right now but frankly, this is a complex, delicate situation whichcan leave us floundering if we get it wrong.
Last night’s game was a season in microcosm. There was good, there was bad, there was injustice and a touch of ugly in there too. But lest we forget – we were playing Tottenham Hotspur. The Spurs we all knew and loved are gone. They are a high-class outfit, despite the fact they played a changed side and Mauricio Pochettino is simply an excellent manager. But we matched them every step of the way. Anybody in attendance will be able to tell you that this had the look of a very high-standard Premier League fixture – and how good is it that it involves us? Can we take a moment to realise how far we’ve come? We’re going toe-to-toe with teams who routinely operate at the highest level, nationally and internationally.
That’s going to take some getting used to, for us and the club itself. There will be growing pains and a little recalibrating required. We suffered a few of those aches in a short spell in the first half where Tottenham asserted some of the dominance available to them. From an opposition perspective, they scored two good goals. Erik Lamela’s opportunism, taking a ball on the chest that clearly wasn’t intended for him, was the mark of an excellent footballer, while Kieran Trippier has a very obvious style when it comes to crossing a ball, but he has found a way of bypassing any pressure with his delivery. From our perspective, more could have been done, especially down the channel between Boly and Jonny who seemed to lose their bearings on a few occasions.
This conceding of goals in quick succession needs to stop as soon as possible. It’s a hallmark of a good team that if you concede you settle yourselves down, dust it off and keep your composure. We were a little frenzied at times and conceding a goal seems to rattle our cage a little too much. We’re going to be punished on occasion because we’re a fledgling outfit at this level but we can’t let one become two on a regular basis.
That said, the first half had been an even affair in terms of territory and it pains me that we didn’t make more of some good positions. Witness the way we work ourselves into shooting opportunities and don’t pull the trigger, versus Harry Kane and his extraordinary ability to crack off clean strikes from any angle. If it proves any point at all it’s that it’s a skill that can be honed and perfected, something we could do with working on. Other than that the first half was relatively tight, punctured by a refereeing injustice of the highest order. There is always a degree of hedging your bets with offside calls given the pace of the game, but even from my position, on the South Bank side of the family enclosure, there wasn’t an inkling that Doherty was offside in the build up to Jimenez’s ‘goal’.
These moments change games. Momentum shifts are so important. It’s what got Spurs into a 2-goal lead in the first place and had we gone in at half time at 2-1 the mantra and feeling for the second half would’ve been built less on hope and more on belief and strategy. As it was we went down 3-0 to an excellent team with a penchant for clean sheets.
Nuno tends not to delve into the depths of the emotion of his team’s performances because, frankly, we’re quite cold-blooded and robotic in the way we operate. But the second-half revival was built on an intensity and fever that no tactics board will ever give to anyone. It also hinged on substitutions that Nuno got spot on. Morgan Gibbs-White is always an effervescent presence but his youthful exuberance wrestled control of the game in our favour. For an 18-year-old to take this kind of responsibility in what many would consider a forlorn chase, is quite remarkable. He’s a player we’d all love to see more of, but more than just being a promising youngster, he’s a genuine tool in Nuno’s armoury. No other central midfielder in our squad offers what he does, and he seemed to bring the best out of Ruben Neves as well. Perhaps there’s an argument Moutinho and Neves step on each other’s toes a little but MGW vacated some of that space for Neves to wave bis magic wand a touch more.
Now I could talk about how we missed some golden opportunities, how Traore was brought on too late and how we could do with sharpening up our finishing over 90 minutes. But it’s simply a satisfying feeling for me, a Wolves fan whose top-flight experience with the club extends to the Dave Jones and Mick McCarthy eras, to see a Wolves side fight fire with fire with the best the country has to offer. We could quite easily retreat into a shell and defend our way through these games and be dealt the same result, in a tighter scoreline. But is that we’re here for? Are we clinging on to our Premier League lives or are we here to embrace that challenge? Do we not want to rock the boats of a few? The team is young, effervescent and full of ability, but it’s just finding its feet at this level. You only had to look at the opposition and Juan Foyth to see some of the pitfalls of youth in the second half. We have a number of Juan Foyths in terms of experience at this level and they will need some time to mould themselves as required.
But let me leave you with this. Our team has got the country’s attention. All those fixtures moved for television over the coming months are not token gestures, they’re signs that everyone wants to take a look at our back garden. They peer over the fence and they see a lawn with a few imperfections but they see all manner of floral fantasies that take the imagination. That’s our club. Our Wolves. Don’t let it be said we didn’t savour these moments because we are entering a great age of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Just expect a few bumps along the way.