Football can often throw up a bitter pill for us to swallow. As fans of Wolverhampton Wanderers, we’ve gotten used to the idea of taking our medication and simply trudging on in the circle of footballing life, ready for the next disappointment, show of mediocrity or false dawn. Many of us will be suffering the side effects of yesterday’s pill, served up by Dr Mourinho, his own brand of vomit-inducing medicine to cure our You-Thought-You-Deserved-It-Itis.
There was still something different about this knock-back though. Here we were, facing up against last season’s Champions League finalists in our own backyard, with a quizzical look on our faces at the final whistle, a pained expression of what could, perhaps even should have been. Moreover, the backs-to-the-wall, heroic display had come from the opposition. We were thoroughly dominant against – nominally = the second-best football team in Europe last season. But here we also were, with nothing to take from the game, nothing to show for our excellence, perspiration and all-round quality.
As is usual when facing Mourinho, it was worth listening to his post-match interviews. Whether out of fondness for Nuno, or having just witnessed his team suffer in near enough every way possible for a team who has just won, Jose was effusive in his praise for Wolves. We all know Jose likes to make his presence felt in the media, but was this moment Wolves really became contenders for the Top 6? Now I’m loathe to dub Mourinho a Kingmaker, but he was adamant that his feelings about Wolves be known – he spent very little of his time speaking to Sky Sports about his own team, but rather the challenge that they had to overcome in order to win the game.
He spoke about the top-class midfielders, the ‘projection’ of the wing-backs (better than anyone in the country) and the ‘trains’ on the wing who left him too tired to even think about them. Wolves are worrying teams. Mourinho has always worked backwards from the opposition, taking into account their strengths and weaknesses before putting a plan into action, but we’ve seen what happens when you don’t offer up an effective plan to stop Wolves. Even here, you could argue that this wasn’t the most effective strategy, given how often Wolves found themselves in extremely good positions without capitalising on them. But the fact of the matter is, opposition managers will have to stand up and take note if they want a result against us.
I could delve into some of the methods that Spurs employed and it was noticeable how different this team was to last season’s rendition by Mauricio Pochettino. Poch’s side got themselves into a 3-0 lead with some excellent football, enjoyed lots of possession, but were also almost unhinged by a second-half Wolves comeback. This time, there were a few moments of individual quality, but Jose had set up his team to be stout, particularly around the penalty area, where they seemed to repel Wolves time and again. Cross after cross, corner after corner, shot after shot headed towards the Spurs box, only to be hacked, butted, shanked and palmed away at the very notion of entering Paulo Gazzaniga’s net.
The individual performances across the board give great encouragement. There wasn’t much Rui Patricio could do about the goals, despite the fact one was at his near post and the other seemed to slip into the net like a burglar into a property. The fact is he rarely makes mistakes and the rest of his work was more than adequate.
The back three, increasingly less and leas makeshift as the weeks go by, were solid enough and distributed the ball excellently. I lost count of the number of times Conor Coady picked out Matt Doherty or Traore and the only blot on the copybook of the other defenders was Leander Dendoncker being caught in possession prior to the concession of the goal. I mean, his discretion in pushing over the newly found shithouse that is Harry Kane was welcome in many respects, but it put us under unnecessary pressure.
The wing-backs saw plenty of the ball and linked up well with the other forwards. It’s worth noting though that Doherty didn’t seem to get a sniff of goal, something that tends to happen at least once a game. Delivery into the box left something to be desired as well, but often Wolves shirts were simply crowded out in the penalty area. Ruben Neves had an effective game in many ways, but was overshadowed once again by his midfield partner. More on him later…
Our forwards were also effective in a number of ways, except for their primary objective: scoring goals. You’d suggest Aurier, Sanchez, Alderweireld and Vertonghen will go a long time before having as tough a game as they did on Sunday, but they also gave little away. Aside from Jota seemingly being one-on-one with the keeper, before suddenly not being one-on-one with the keeper, and Traore’s thunderbolt, there weren’t too many clear cut opportunities to speak of. A little more composure around the penalty area is all that is missing it seems.
At which point I come to the Star of the show, a Man who seems to have some kind of gravitational pull, the game just orbiting around Him. If He plays well, Wolves play well. If there is a slight criticism, perhaps He isn’t necessarily a player with a final pass to open up a defence, but the lucidity with which He moves the ball around the pitch gives us our purpose. On Sunday I witnessed the best individual performance I think I’ve seen from a Wolves player, perhaps consequently the highest standard of football I’ve ever seen a Wolves team play. I don’t need to mention His name because you all know exactly who I’m talking about and I’m not being outlandish in my claims that He is one of the best players in the league, perhaps even the world at the moment. One particular movement, where two Tottenham players appeared to have Him within their grasp, only for Him to pirouette and flip the ball out to Doherty, all in one movement, drew near-orgasmic appreciation from the crowd. A genius at work, a privilege to witness it.
We have a few days to chew the fat on that last fixture, but heading to Carrow Road on Saturday, we should be full of nothing but optimism. This is currently one of the continent’s form teams and carries with ut a formidable reputation. Besides: just ask Jose.