Head Coach departs after 87 days in charge
There’s very little that’s ‘normal’ about Walter Zenga, even in the context of the often absurd world of football. His CV is varied to the point of being borderline outlandish, his demeanour and persona are a world away from his straitened predecessor at Molineux. It was an unconventional appointment to start with and the reign has been cut short after less than three months, all of which it has to be says, is in keeping with his managerial career over nearly two decades. Given that so many of the articles I have written so far have centred around him in some way (understandably), it’s only right that I try to round up his time in charge.
What went right?
As any cursory examination of the “last meeting” section of the previews on this blog will reveal, last season was one of absolute purgatory for Wolves fans. Entertainment values were completely absent and we showed no signs towards the end of the campaign of being anywhere near a coherent attacking plan. Zenga did, at least to start with, take steps to greatly increase our goal threat. His tactics were fairly basic, but revolved around pressing high up the park with an emphasis on breaking quickly and in numbers when we won the ball. This was demonstrated perfectly in the second half of the 3-1 win at St Andrews where we looked an extremely well drilled outfit, completely taking apart a team who have since lost just two further league games. The return of eight points from our opening four games was very encouraging and further impressive victories against Newcastle and Brentford further showcased the potential in our squad.
Again in a contrast to the dying embers of the Kenny Jackett era, Zenga showed a willingness to make changes early and decisively when required, both in terms of personnel and formation. Another positive which brought the fans onto his side – despite the many and varied concerns regarding his installation – was his personality; no-one could doubt his desire to bring success to the club and there was a freshness and openness to his dealings with the media, which had long since been absent while Jackett remained firmly on the defensive and guarded in his troubled final season. His interviews were always engaging, especially when considering they were conducted in a language where he had by his own admission, little formal grounding.
What went wrong?
At the risk of stating the obvious, Walter has paid with his job for the current poor league position. 18th place with this set of players and the investment made in the summer is completely unacceptable. There are a number of issues which will have contributed to the board ultimately deciding that it was time to cut his time short:
We frequently started games extremely poorly. In seven of our fourteen league games, we conceded before the 25th minute and Burton also missed a penalty in that timeframe in their game at Molineux. Regularly having to chase a game is no recipe for long term success in the Championship and we seemed to make no steps in improving these sluggish starts as we moved into autumn.
In the early part of the season, there were far too many personnel changes from week to week. The opening seven games saw constant changes to the back four and midfield which meant that partnerships were not allowed to develop and there was a continuing uncertainty as to who would be in the starting line up. Even though this lessened to an extent after the victory at Newcastle, there were still sufficient alterations to mean that the tag of tinkering never went away (Dominic Iorfa for instance has been regularly shunted between right back and centre half, which cannot be healthy for his long term development). There is mitigation in this aspect as Zenga was denied a pre-season to get to know his players and was in charge of a squad subject to major change as the transfer window came to a close, but nevertheless a good portion of the changes seemed unnecessary and counter-intuitive.
Tactically, Zenga increasingly seemed lacking. We started every game bar last weekend’s fixture against Leeds in a 4-1-2-3 shape, which is perfectly acceptable and reasonably standard in modern football, but instruction in certain areas seemed either lacking or flawed. The two advanced central midfielders never seemed to have any particular brief; they weren’t asked to help us control possession, they weren’t asked to push wide at any point, there seemed little by way of instruction in telling them to support the front three and as a result anyone selected in that area was more often than not ineffectual. This lack of clarity has certainly contributed to the limited impact of Prince Oniangue since his arrival from Reims. Elsewhere, the front three largely remained narrow, which is fine in of itself, but the full backs were seemingly told to stay back and refrain from overlapping. This caused us to have very few options out wide when in possession, the central areas becoming more congested and us struggling for chance creation as time went on. Furthermore, if you are going to start Matt Doherty in every single league game (as Zenga did), you should know that his strength is very much as an attacking full back, asking him to concentrate purely on defensive duties will inevitably lead to disasters such as his display on Saturday. It’s also very much a black mark against Zenga that he could find no place in his regular starting line up for either of Cameron Borthwick-Jackson or Ivan Cavaleiro, both of whom are surely better options than anything that has been preferred to them in the last few weeks.
In large part due to the structural shortcomings detailed above, our goal output has begun to decline alarmingly. In our last eight league games we have scored eight goals; this includes a penalty, an own goal, a free kick from out wide which went straight in and a breakaway in injury time against Brentford when we were left with a three-on-one situation as they chased an equaliser. As we did not strengthen our back four to a sufficient degree in the summer – not a charge that can be levelled at Zenga himself as recruitment was almost entirely out of his hands – we can not afford to be struggling so much for goals and creativity at the other end.
Was Zenga unlucky?
Although “luck” is a nebulous concept in sport, there is certainly an argument to be made that Zenga didn’t enjoy the greatest fortune in his time here, albeit one balanced out by the fact that he was fortunate to get the job in the first place given his background and historical performance. Firstly, any manager will argue that 14 games is insufficient to demonstrate their competence either way, and in Zenga’s case this is amplified by having next to no preparation time with the squad, inheriting a group of players who were fit for nothing more than a bottom half grind at best, having a rapid influx of players and being completely new to English football and the demands of a 46 game league season.
There were also instances within his 14 game tenure where the result could on another day have turned in our favour; Jon Dadi Bodvarsson’s missed penalty against Ipswich, a wonder save from Danny Ward which preserved Huddersfield’s victory, a Burton equaliser deep into injury time (and following on from which, we really should have scored a further last gasp goal of our own), a dominant second half at Villa Park where we did everything but score and were victims of some incredibly poor refereeing. Small moments could have led to our league position being greatly improved from its current state.
The recent poor run has been characterised by individual errors and one could argue that there is little that Zenga, or any manager, can do about them. Danny Batth made a clear, basic mistake in both the Wigan and Norwich games which led directly to a goal. Carl Ikeme’s attempt at saving Brighton’s goal was comically poor. Matt Doherty’s efforts for Leeds’ goal last Saturday wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Wolverhampton Sunday League while the otherwise impressive Helder Costa should surely have buried his late chance in the same game to salvage a point. So while Zenga had faults of his own and undoubtedly his failings have been a major factor in the unsatisfactory overall progress in the opening third of this season, he rarely had the rub of the green which could easily have gone in his favour.
Was the timing right?
For all that sacking managers after such a short time in charge will inevitably attract labels of ‘panicking’ and ‘crazy ownership’, in this instance I feel Fosun have got it right. The decision has been made after a run of one point in five games which is clearly untenable. There have been few signs over the last month of sufficient improvement as results have remained poor and as detailed earlier, our attacking threat has dwindled. If Zenga knew he was under pressure going into the Leeds game – as we have to assume would be the case – then the response he provided was nothing like good enough. After conceding we degenerated into a disorganised mess, with the substitutions made only serving to give us no shape or coherence whatsoever. While many were keen to see Nouha Dicko and Bodvarsson partnered, they were set up with the Icelandic frontman positioned in a slightly deeper role in which he appeared to be highly uncomfortable and there appeared to have been little work done on the training ground to make this shift in formation work. The issues with the team remained unfixed and we were becoming an increasingly easy team to play against.
Going right back to the days of Graham Turner, there is a case for saying that every single manager employed by Wolves over the last 30 years has ultimately been given too much time, as whichever board was in situ at the time dithered and allowed a desperate situation to fester (in Turner’s case, he was probably here for at least two years too long). In all these cases, this has resulted in at least one season being deeply and irreversibly compromised; Fosun have acted quickly here to ensure that all is not lost for 2016/17.
The current position is poor and we urgently need results to propel us back up the table, but with so many games left to play there is still definite scope for the right man to at least have us challenging for the top six this season. Hanging on to Zenga for another month or two, presumably out of blind faith or trying not to be seen as trigger happy, would only have served to condemn us to another year of promotion hopes being written off pre-Christmas. It must be reiterated – Fosun have not bought Wolves to muddle around the middle reaches of the Championship for years on end. Promotion is the immediate aim and one which they want to be achieved in the shortest possible amount of time. Wasting seasons is not on the agenda at all.
Walter Zenga will not be considered a hate figure amongst Wolves fans as the likes of Dean Saunders and Glenn Hoddle are. He genuinely did care about the club, he stepped in at a point where our first choice of managerial candidate in Julen Lopetegui had left us desperately scrambling for an answer on the eve of the season and picked up an early return of points that Kenny Jackett would surely have failed to match. He was open with the fans and he showed small glimpses that there could have been something to work with, perhaps under different circumstances. Ultimately though, this wasn’t enough. After the last few weeks we all knew it wasn’t going to work out in the end, there was just too much that was going wrong and nothing like enough evidence in any sense that he was able to fix it. Ti saluto, Walter – I’d have liked it to have worked out, but it was always on the cards that it would end this way sooner rather than later.