First league victory for Zenga as Wolves cruise to easy win
After the dissecting of managerial statistics cribbed from Wikipedia, the endless speculation surrounding potential transfer targets, a rocky start at Rotherham last week and amid much intrigue about a new era for Wolves, many of us got our first proper look at a Walter Zenga team on Saturday. It would be fair to say that the signs were extremely encouraging as Reading were swatted away and ultimately left fortunate to only lose the game by two goals.
Zenga retained the 4-3-3 shape employed in the Rotherham and Crawley fixtures but on this occasion the nominal wide options deployed were Joao Teixeira and Joe Mason; they combined with Jon Dadi Bodvarsson to form a genuine, fluid front three, rather than a central striker being isolated with the two wider players (in James Henry and Jed Wallace) offering little by way of support. Conor Coady retained his place as an auxiliary right back with Dominic Iorfa playing at centre half while Kortney Hause dropped to the bench. These switches all came off for the Italian; Coady had a perfectly serviceable game in an unfamiliar position, looking more at home there than he has done on many occasions playing in central midfield. Having played virtually all his Academy football as a centre half it should be no surprise that Iorfa looked more than comfortable in the heart of the defence, and while we miss his charging runs from right back, playing him centrally gives us some added mobility to what can at times be a fairly lumpen combination. The front three caused Reading problems all afternoon with excellent movement throughout and feeding off quick, direct service when we won the ball back. By no means did we play long ball football, but our transition from defensive possession to having the front three running at the Reading defence was rapid and had us looking threatening for the whole game.
For all that we put on an impressive show, it should be added that Reading were extremely poor. Jaap Stam may have been able to showcase football with the Ajax Academy teams where passing out from the back was de rigueur, but attempting the same with Ali Al-Habsi, Paul McShane and a centre half in Joey van den Berg who should have had ‘wide load’ displayed on the back of his shorts is inevitably doomed to failure. The Royals were wedded to this philosophy to the point of self-destruction; the first goal ultimately coming from a failed attempt to pass the ball out by Al-Habsi from which they never really recovered. The centre halves’ inability to pass the ball into midfield effectively (and indeed, the failure of any of Reading’s central midfield trio to show for a pass on many occasions) meant that the bulk of their possession – 66% over the course of the match – came in their own defensive third and was frequently squandered as soon as anything more ambitious than a sideways five yard pass was attempted.
Their wide players in Roy Beerens and Garath McCleary never got into the game and as an attacking force they were limited to a handful of hanging crosses and a couple of tame long range efforts on target, all of which were comfortably fielded by Carl Ikeme. Had we conceded either of the two goals netted on Saturday I’d have been livid; it should be no secret that Matt Doherty is virtually entirely right footed, so letting him cut inside while making his way into the penalty area was highly negligent, and Joe Mason didn’t even have to jump for a header from a corner inside the six yard box for the second goal. A flawed approach to possession, next to no attacking threat and slack defending throughout; this was an extremely bad day at the office for the men from Berkshire.
The sole criticism that could be aimed Wolves’ way is that we only managed to take two of the many opportunities we had. Joe Mason missed two clear, one-on-one chances and as noted in my reaction following the Rotherham game, this is an aspect of his game that needs significant work. He rarely looks confident in these positions, frequently hesitating a half second too long and allowing the goalkeeper to shut down the angles. Jon Bodvarsson will be disappointed not to have capped his excellent display with a late header when left unattended at the far post. George Saville was denied by a quality Al-Habsi save and Joao Teixeira followed a superb piece of skill by shooting over the top when a pass would have been the better option. Some credit should be due to Al-Habsi who has many shaky moments but has always been a very decent reaction stopper.
Overall, this was a very encouraging performance, the fans once again demonstrated that if you hand us a team willing to attack and play with the intensity, the atmosphere will look after itself. It was such a contrast to last season’s dreary fayre and served to remind us all why we actually bother forking out to watch games. There will undoubtedly be stiffer tests as the season progresses but it has been such a long time that we’ve managed to put away even modest opposition with any degree of conviction that this showing was more than welcome. Zenga already appears popular with the fans and has his players committing to his brand of football and if nothing else, we would seem to be in a position where we won’t often be bored at Molineux. More of the same will do nicely.
Carl Ikeme: Came off his line to claim crosses in a manner not seen since at any point last season. He has it within him to be a reasonably dominant keeper at this level so he really should grasp that opportunity rather being the timid, error-strewn presence he was in 2015/16. Fielded a couple of long range efforts with no drama.
Conor Coady: A makeshift solution but didn’t let anyone down. Stuck to his task well, looked solid defensively and passed the ball when required with more precision than he normally manages in midfield. Early days but could yet be a reasonable squad option in this position while we await the debut of Silvio and/or further new signings.
Danny Batth: Seemed to benefit from the extra pace of Iorfa next to him. Kept it simple in possession and won most things in the air. Steady game.
Dominic Iorfa: Looks to be at least as good an option at centre half as he is right back. Never really looked troubled and gives us some much needed pace in the middle of defence. Passed the ball fairly well, should probably now get a run of games alongside Batth.
Matt Doherty: Let’s be honest, I give him a lot of stick. Most of it justified. But it would be churlish to deny he had a good game on Saturday, much like the rest of the back four never looked overly threatened defensively and got forward well. Excellent finish for his goal even though the defending was questionable at best. Still not a long term option but looked much better for not being teamed down that side with Henry.
Lee Evans: Did a good job in frequently being there to pick up the second ball after Batth and Iorfa won the ball aerially, which in turn led to him playing a very deep role. Does lack pace and not all of his passing came off, but for the time being seems to have the trust of Zenga ahead of Jack Price.
Dave Edwards: Did the unglamorous yards as he often does, but had very limited impact on the ball. It’s easy to see why managers trust him, but as we progress then we are going to need better quality. Doesn’t offer any attacking threat at all in this shape.
George Saville: A trademark 2016 game from Saville; periods of anonymity, some loose work on the ball, but popped up with an assist for Mason’s goal and continued his trend of making a key contribution at some point. Linked well with Teixeira at times. Another who may still have a squad role to play having been written off at various points.
Joao Teixeira: Another tremendous display from the Portuguese youngster. Full of skill and tormented Gunter throughout, he is surprisingly tenacious and is no wallflower, he doesn’t shirk when there’s physical treatment aimed his way. Picked up an assist for Doherty’s goal. Subbed not long after a Cruyff-style double dragback almost produced an outstanding individual goal.
Joe Mason: Had a decent game from a starting position as the furthest right of our forwards, though was clearly instructed to drift infield when possible to link with Bodvarsson. He’s a tidy footballer and shows decent movement on occasion, but that finishing really needs significant improvement if he wants to be a regular starter once Nouha Dicko is back to fitness. Got his goal with a simple header following some risible set piece defending.
Jon Dadi Bodvarsson: The fans have a new hero and rightly so. Chases everything, is mobile for a physical striker, can carry the ball, holds it up well and wins plenty in the air, never afraid to get a shot off; the only blemish was not capping it all with a goal. On this form will be a nightmare for Championship defenders as he never gives them a moment’s peace. Man of the Match.
Subs: Jed Wallace (for Teixeira, 71); A few nice touches after losing his starting place. Jack Price (for Mason, 84); Not much time but almost picked up an assist after his set piece found Bodvarsson unmarked at the far post; James Henry (for Saville, 89); Late change to run the clock down.