Well we certainly can’t accuse Nuno of stubbornness anymore. At least for the foreseeable future anyway. It’s tempting to wonder if the club actually take stock of the fan reaction to results and performances on a week-to-week basis. We’ve seen pressure from supporters causing a manager to be ousted over in the East Midlands earlier this week and it does beg the question if that goes even further into the minutiae of tactical decisions and team selection. We are only human after all and there was some genuine public outrage at Wolves’ midweek performance up at Huddersfield. It stands to reason the club will feel that.
Growing up in the South Bank, I’ve often questioned what game some of the people in my vicinity may have been watching. But football fans aren’t stupid. When you spend your time watching as much football as avid fans do, you pick plenty up along the way. There’s never in the course of history been more football content to be consumed than there is today, from standard sports reporting to the hipster, tactics-board style blogs that seem to pop up every other day on social media. Nuno has opened our eyes to a new footballing world, but us Wolves fans know our onions: something needed to change.
The response from NES was emphatic. Five changes, with five fully-fledged internationals – all cornerstones to our success – being demoted to the bench. In came John Ruddy, Romain Saiss, Adama Traore, Ruben Vinagre and Morgan Gibbs-White. It was bold and it was brave, and it kind of felt like Nuno had locked himself in a room with a bottle of vodka and a tactics board and this was the result of his musings. In all fairness, these felt like positive changes and a leaning towards a more direct, proactive approach.
As you would perhaps expect, things didn’t get off to the best start. It was a bit untidy, frazzled and Cardiff managed to pin us back for spells in the best way they know. Ruddy almost fumbled one in, the act of a man who hasn’t had a run of games for a while. In many ways being chucked in against Cardiff, with their unique threat is a more difficult challenge than a more orthodox, but more talented side. They were perhaps less direct than earlier in the season – almost to their own detriment – but in came the throw-ins and the set pieces and it took us a little while to get into the swing of things.
Everything was a little less well-grooved and automatic. But we always had outlets to get us further up the pitch. Having those weapons of Traore, Vinagre and Diogo Jota, players who can carry the ball at pace, means you can always break the pressure and that’s what it took for us to get a foothold. Watching Traore is an experience in itself and just seeing him slaloming away from defender after defender is honestly worth the entrance fee alone. He dragged us up the pitch and from there we grew into the game. The first goal in this game owed nothing to that though.
The selection of Morgan Gibbs-White was an interesting one. I’m sure he’d be the first to admit he hasn’t been impactful in his cameos over the last couple of months. But lest we forget it was his selection vs Chelsea which encouraged an upturn in form previously. He provides a genuine link between midfield and attack and this was never more profound than in the build up to the first goal. Gibbs-White, Jota and Jimenez were all within ten yards of each other and without that, this goal doesn’t happen. It could still be argued that Gibbs_White wasn’t quite at full tilt and at his best he is an impish, infectious and fearless presence. He tries things and they don’t always come off, but you take away that fearlessness and you remove what makes him such a promising talent.
There were two 19-year-olds on the pitch of course and Ruben Vinagre put in his most mature performance so far at this level. Another player underpinned with a pure fearlessness that everyone must enjoy. How many other 19-year-olds do you see insistent on nutmegging players with such regularity? But Vinagre isn’t just for show either. There’s an increasing productivity in his game and you can certainly see he has worked on his crossing. You think of the best players in the world in his position and you think of the influence they have in all areas of the pitch – Marcelo, David Alaba, Jordi Alba – all have goals in their game. Vinagre was a direct threat to Cardiff’s goal on a couple of occasions and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine him reaching those levels given his immense natural ability.
Romain Saiss is a man who could consider himself to have been treated harshly this season given his performance levels across the season. He seems to be Nuno’s go-to in the event of a drop in performance levels though, a man quite happy to engage in the dark arts in order to get the team revving again. He is of course not lacking in quality either but it’s his nasty edge that sets him apart in this team.
Finally it also seems we have struck upon the perfect formula in the striking positions as well. Jimenez and Jota complement each other like a ballroom dancing duo at times, and like the Chuckle Brothers at others. To me, to you, to me to the back of the net. It’s lovely to see two players on such a wavelength. Jimenez in particular is imperative to us doing well. I commented earlier in the season I expect him to tail off at some point due to his lack of action as the main striker for a number of years now, but each time we’ve seen a slight drop from his supreme standards he comes back to prove once more how important he is.
Ultimately, this could be considered a successful experiment by Nuno. Is it the way forward for the rest of the season? Perhaps not. Ryan Bennett suffered from having Traore in front of him and will now be missing for the next two games as a direct result of a lack of protection. That’s not to say that was a bad decision but calculated rick is just a part of football. I don’t anticipate that being the starting line-up for the Chelsea game, but it would be nice to see a bit more of a horses for courses approach for the rest of the season. Again, we were slightly profligate in front of goal and as astoundingly good Neil Etheridge was, we did give him the chance to make saves when he shouldn’t have been able to. But this was a good afternoon’s work and maybe, just maybe we will have the opposition guessing as to how we will set up. Another tool added to the armoury.