Far be it for Wolves fans to exaggerate, but talk of Nuno’s side being the best ever promoted to the Premier League always did feel premature.
In my mind, this Wolves side is actually a paler imitation last season’s Championship winners, never mind the best newbies to step foot into the Big Time.
Amid all those giddy proclamations back in the Autumn, I’ve had a nagging feeling that the side we’ve been watching is actually less effective than the one that went before. Ok, the standard of opposition is now vastly superior to Barnsley and the like, but however seductive Moutinho and Raul have looked at times, the whole no longer looks greater than the sum of its parts.
Arguing whether Jonny is a better footballer than Barry Douglas is missing the point. Even if Jonny is a more rounded player, it is undeniable that Barry Douglas would offer more to the side, courtesy of his vicious set-pieces that almost always found the sweet spot. A total of 21 of 82 goals were via set-plays last season, while Douglas was accountable for 14 assists and five goals overall. Improved opposition or not, this 2018/19 alternative has rarely looked less threatening over dead balls, with feeble corner after feeble corner barely clearing the front post.
Speaking of Barnsley, who remembers Alfred N’Diaye marauding upfield to plunder a late winner against the Tykes this time last year? His 33 appearances might not have got the South Bank singing from the rooftops, but when Nuno was having a dream, Alfred was usually a nightmare for opponents in the middle of the park. He was what rugby’s Eddie Jones would call a ‘finisher’, precisely for that physical element that would have been heaven-sent in a Neil Warnock monsoon-mission. Like the Jonny / Douglas comparison, nobody can honestly claim N’Diaye to be better than 113-cap Portugal legend Moutinho but again, I’d wager him to be a more effective influence.
And how about Romain Saiss’s 44 appearances as Ruben Neves’ unofficial bodyguard last season? A vision of him collapsing into the Riverside turf at the business-end of last season will live long in the memory, as was his raw effort and endeavour in a nine-man rearguard that night. It can be no coincidence that our wonderkid from Porto is down on influence without his midfield partner-in-crime doing the dirty stuff?
A final glance to the subs bench gives the last cause for regret, when we’re chasing games and in need of a goal. In just nine appearances last season, Benik Afobe plundered six goals, most of them on the shoulder of the last man and running in behind defences with pace. (see Blues at home and Leeds away as two prime examples). That we don’t have him when caution is thrown to the wind is folly, when every other option we have is inferior in terms of pure goal threat.
For all the hyperbole about European football and world domination, many more conservative fans (like I) would have accepted 17th place without question. Indeed, ex-skipper Paul Butler argued the same at a recent sportsman’s dinner. He of all players should know.
When his side finally reached the Promised Land in ‘03, that play-off winning side was infinitely stronger than the one that was supposed to be better three months later, with Murray, Lescott, Ndah and Sturridge all crocked and their replacements offering no obvious points of difference. Five years later and history was duly repeating itself, with Richard Stearman, Michael Kightly and Chris Iwelumo either jettisoned or injured for our PL return, with the likes of Greg Halford, Andy Keogh and Michael Mancienne chosen instead. Nenad Milijas was in our opening day defeat to West Ham under Mick. Sure, a better bet than David Jones technically, but was he really a more effective alternative?
As I sit here contemplating what is currently going wrong, I can only deduce that history is again repeating itself, albeit not quite so glaringly obvious.
For what it’s worth, Brendan Rodgers’ 2011/12 Swansea City side will always rank superior as the Premier League’s most committed possession-based new boys, at a time when ball retention was coveted more than ever before. Only two sides in the division, Manchester City and Arsenal, averaged more possession in Swansea’s debut season – and they outpassed, and beat, both those sides at the Liberty Stadium. For a newly promoted side with such modest resources that they didn’t even have a training ground, it was a huge achievement.
Compare and contrast with our current habit for squandering possession in a way we’ve never done before. Whether Nuno is obsessed by possession – with four teams having a larger average share last term – is unclear anyway, but to give the ball away like we’ve seen in the last two games is quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen, with a long-ball tactic way less effective than keeping the damn thing in the first place.
As a result, Nuno is now copping some flak for being inflexible, stubborn and minus a Plan B.
Irrespective of our frailties to Huddersfield and Cardiff, I still don’t think Plan B is needed just yet, with plenty more juice to extract from our previously untouchable system. Due to a summer of questionable thinking on personnel (Dendoncker the new Mouyokolo?!) and some off-colour individual performances and errors, our form has truly turned.
It’s time to keep a cool head, back the boss and remember that players win games, not necessarily systems.
I’ve no doubt that mistakes have been made in this area, but having Nuno on the training pitch to galvanise what we have remains our biggest asset – ahead of an increasingly significant shopping spree in January.