Another victory in Europe takes us on to seven games unbeaten in all competitions. We’re back, aren’t we? The buccaneering, giant-killing, defence-slicing Wolves is back and no-one is going to stop us on our march to European glory and a top six finish. Right?
The Guardian posted a statistically-led article on Wolves’ performance this season in the run-up to last night’s game (see here). The headline was rather incendiary, but once you got into the detail of the piece, it started to paint a concerning picture. In particular, it called out our figures for ‘Chances Created’ and ‘First-Half Goals’, two statistics where we rank the lowest in the league. The lack of goals int he first half does mirror our performance last season, where we only managed 17 across the whole campaign.
This points to a clear ploy of Nuno’s where it is obvious that we look to the second half for spells of pressure where we can capitalise on an opposition perhaps tired from attempting to break us down, who have been lulled into a sense of control of the game, before we strike like a cobra on the counter-attack. It went swimmingly last season of course, but last season we simply weren’t making the simple errors we seem to be making this season.
The ‘Chances Created’ figure should make us all sit up and take notice though. Admittedly, it is anybody’s guess what constitutes a chance for the statisticians, but whether or not it fits your own description, it’s a worry. At which point, you see Nuno’s team selection for Slovan Bratislava.
Patricio, Doherty, Boly, Coady, Kilman, Vinagre, Saiss, Gibbs-White, Moutinho, Cutrone, Jimenez.
It was curious starting line-up. Nuno’s lack of faith in Jesus Vallejo was pointed, and despite the fact Romain Saiss was fit to start the game, he plumped for Max Kilman. He has repeatedly altered the Cutrone-Jimenez front pairing mid-game, but decided to persist with it anyway. And he started Morgan Gibbs-White, which doesn’t really need any commentary alongside it at this moment in time. The rest was either as you’d expect, or a pretty 50-50 decision anyway, but it didn’t exactly fill you with hope of a barnstorming performance.
Cue the 11th minute and Bratislava taking the lead, from another sloppy piece of defending where Coady was – once again – isolated in a one-on-one with an in-form striker. Immediately we’re up against it. We’ve become pretty used to going behind in games this season and we really are exceptional when it comes to getting ourselves back into games, but if this is the plan, why are we leaving so much to chance?
Just consider the last two fixtures. At Southampton, even if you include Jimenez’s two disallowed goals, we created very little by the way of ‘chances’. This was also a game that featured a half-time substitution to give us more impetus. We then fall behind to a defensive error and were it not for a penalty, would have gone on to lose the game. Last night, again we fall behind and again we struggle to create anything meaningful. Again, we make a half-time substitution and while the second-half performance was much improved, were it not for a goalkeeping error and another penalty, we could be talking about a defeat (admittedly I do think the pressure would have eventually told in other ways, but you see my point).
Hark back to the Besiktas and Braga games and you notice further oddities with Nuno’s selection. For a manager who approaches things ‘game-by-game’, a lot of his team selections seem to have been dictated by the next one on the list. Gibbs-White and Pedro Neto flanked Jimenez in Turkey. Traore was nowhere to be seen versus Braga, until ten minutes from the end. I firmly believe nobody we face in Europe will be able to cope with Traore’s threat and he’s a must-starter in each European fixture.
But what do I know? Maybe this is all just part of Nuno’s grand plan of rescue mission after rescue mission. Maybe last night he knew all along that we had enough in reserve to ensure victory, even with Diogo Jota getting himself sent off towards the end. I’ve written at length about Nuno’s obsession with control, but he appears to be increasingly leaving things to chance at the moment. There’s no clear indication of a priority for the season, whether it’s league position, European progression or other cup competitions.
Of course, this is all caveated by the wealth of information Nuno will no doubt have at his disposal prior to fielding a side before a game – Ryan Bennett’s injury perhaps vindicates him being rested earlier in the season – but much of our poorer performances can be traced back to the manager. He isn’t the one making the mistakes, misplacing the passes or missing the chances (the few that we create), but he is laying the foundations for all that to happen.
But hey, who are we to question him?