Former Villa boss arrives with much structural work to undertake
After the failed experiment with Walter Zenga – a coach with a varied history of mostly middling-to-poor results and swift departures ending up living up (or down, if you like) to his reputation – Wolves have gone back to a tried and trusted British manager in Paul Lambert, one who knows the unique demands of this division and indeed English football as a whole. While there were certainly more alluring names from abroad which may have added more intrigue – the likes of Marco Silva, Andre Villas-Boas and Vitor Pereira featuring strongly in the betting at various points – the direction that Fosun appear to be taking from here on is one of steadiness; we simply cannot afford to enter into a cycle of poorly conceived appointments where not enough due diligence is done and the perception of the club is on a par with those who habitually change managers every six months. There are mitigating factors surrounding why we have ended up with our second manager of the new era before the Christmas decorations have gone up, the key from here on is to put together a solid foundation which gives us the optimum chance of realising our goals with minimal disturbance. My own standpoint on Lambert’s appointment is one of cautious optimism, in that I certainly feel he gives us a greater chance of success than Zenga did and offers more of a guarantee of smooth progress than his major competitor for the job in Nigel Pearson would have. As we approach his first game in charge at Preston this weekend, there are several key areas which need to be his focus.
Prove himself all over again
This is somewhat of a career crossroads for Lambert. Managers are invariably judged on their most recent jobs, so while he can point to solid work at both Wycombe and Colchester, and exceptional achievements at Norwich on his CV, there can be little doubt that his spell at Aston Villa did great damage to his previously burgeoning reputation. There were clear signs that Villa Park in the latter half of Randy Lerner’s time as owner was not the greatest place to work with multiple factors hindering multiple managers, but nonetheless Lambert’s results and overall style of football simply were not good enough. The tactics seemed to veer wildly between a style which allowed for extremely low possession statistics – at points it was routine for Villa to be “enjoying” around a 30% share of the ball, even at home – and later an emphasis on endless passing in inconsequential areas, neither providing suitable returns in any sense. This confused approach made it difficult for Villa fans to ever see what it was that Lambert was trying to achieve; he could hardly be said to be building a long term strategy when over the course of months the direction was switched from one extreme to another. Equally his work in the transfer market does not bear much scrutiny with arguably only Christian Benteke being the only unqualified success in his 20+ signings for the club. Once again there were constraints in place with the transfer spend being relatively paltry by Premier League standards and the wage:turnover ratio being consistently reduced, but Nicklas Helenius, Antonio Luna, Kieran Richardson, Jordan Bowery and Aleksandar Tonev are not names that are fondly remembered in B6.
His time at Blackburn proved nothing much either way, as he did an acceptable enough job in preserving Rovers’ Championship status for another year but little beyond that is ever going to be possible under the appalling stewardship of the Venkys. Therefore the onus is on him to make his time at Molineux a success for his own good as well as for us collectively. Portents aren’t necessarily that promising as it remains relatively rare for managers to have an outright disaster mid-career and proceed to turn it around – Mark Hughes wiping out his dismal time at QPR being a notable exception – but on the positive side, the Scot appears refreshed (both physically and in terms of how he speaks) and must know that this will likely be his final chance at a job of this size should he fail. We have to accept that in restricting ourselves to out of work managers with experience of working at this level, whoever we picked up would to an extent be damaged goods. After all, that would have applied to Mick McCarthy when he arrived at Wolves in 2006 and very few people would be unhappy if Lambert managed to replicate his work in the second tier – and we are working from a much more advantageous starting point now than Mick did. It is encouraging that Lambert has spent his time out of the game visiting foreign clubs (predominantly in Germany) to further his own education and understanding of alternative methods; he is manifestly not a man content to sit back and issue bland platitudes on Sky Sports News while looking for a new job. His knowledge of football in general has been pitched by Kevin Thelwell as a major selling point at interview and having a genuine student of the game in charge can only be of benefit to us in the long run.
Address our poor starts
The overriding theme of our first half dozen games under Zenga was that we would start extremely slowly, offering little in an attacking sense before improving in the second half. Rather than improve as time went on, this trait actually got worse from the end of September in as much as regular early goals conceded became the norm – we have now conceded inside the first 15 minutes in six of our last seven games. Lambert has already spoken of his wish to play from the front foot and this will be absolutely fundamental in stamping out this unwelcome trend; successful teams simply don’t find themselves chasing from a losing position game after game. It is possible that there were communication issues during Zenga’s time in charge, but the trend was just as bad with Rob Edwards as caretaker with a pair of appalling starts to the matches against Blackburn and Derby. Whether it is an issue of concentration, approach or setup, the first task is to ensure that we aren’t handicapping ourselves right from the off.
Get the defensive side well drilled
Our entire approach to defending all season has been haphazard at best – just three clean sheets in 19 games in all competitions testament to a flimsy rearguard. It extends to all elements of our defensive play; we’ve seen full backs tucking in to a ludicrous degree allowing wingers time and space to deliver from wide, increasing numbers of basic individual errors leading to goals, a midfield which seems short on instructions on what to offer off the ball and a lack of emphasis on keeping the ball which puts unnecessary pressure on an already struggling back four. The credentials of many of our defenders can certainly be questioned but it remains principally a question of organisation and structure. All of Carl Ikeme, Matt Doherty, Danny Batth, Richard Stearman, Dominic Iorfa and Kortney Hause – whatever your feelings on any of them as individuals – have been part of runs of games at this level where we have conceded very few goals. At the start of 2014/15 we allowed just three goals against in our opening eight games, and for all the tedium that last season brought, we saw four consecutive clean sheets at home in March and April of this year. Even mediocre defenders can be drilled in such a way to make a team solid at this level. It is entirely possible that the defence is an area where Lambert will look to make additions in January, especially with the failure of Stearman to make any kind of impact since he returned to the club. James Tarkowski – so impressive at Brentford but struggling for game time at Burnley – would be a superb signing, while we have received news this week of some progress in Mike Williamson’s long awaited return from injury, though after what will be over a year out of the game, no assumptions can be made on his reliability or availability.
Find a more suitable system
It can be said that no particular system is intrinsically good or bad; the quality of output depends on the individuals’ suitability to that shape and how the manager executes his ideas. However, it is increasingly apparent that for now, the 4-1-2-3 shape (with slight variants) that we have employed for most of the season is not serving us especially well. Chance creation is on the whole low, the defensive frailties noted above are in part down to the formation and what the players have been told to do and we are not getting the best out of our attacking players. Lambert must find a shape which does make best use of what we have available which for now would seem to preclude the diamond midfield he often favoured at Norwich; it is hard to see how Ivan Cavaleiro (who must be given more regular gametime), Helder Costa or the soon to return Jordan Graham would fit into that formation. He may be tempted to field Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and Nouha Dicko as a genuine strike partnership at some point, but it is difficult to see how he can do that at present. More goals, especially at home, are a necessity and it is an element of our game which needs improvement immediately. It may be that a subtle change to the setup and an overall change of emphasis in approach – as previously, starts which are timid at best, incompetent at worst need to be consigned to history – could help us in this regard rather than a revolution in style. It is a positive that Lambert has not been wedded to a single system during his managerial career so the scope is there for flexibility and finding a way to get the kind of threat from these players that their skillset suggests we should be able to offer from week to week.
Weed out the deadwood
In his unveiling as new manager, Lambert openly stated that our current squad is too big and he would prefer to work with reduced numbers. It is certainly the case that we have players that are either severely lacking in quality (and never likely to be good enough) and areas of the pitch that are way overstocked with options of roughly equivalent standard. I would personally like to see January bring a swift end to the Wolves careers of George Saville, Jed Wallace (the potential in both these two having not materialised, both of whom having had long enough by now to impress), Matt Doherty (inexplicably one of our most used outfield players to date despite long since regressing to his previous lackadaisical standards and constantly showcasing his lamentable defensive abilities) and Paul Gladon (a signing every bit as poor as Yannick Sagbo or Grant Holt), all of whom are simply not adequate options at this level and do not have it in them to make the necessary improvements. Should we sign at least one new centre half, Richard Stearman would be ever more surplus to requirements while the currently injured Ola John is highly unlikely to make any impression here in what has always seemed to be a superfluous loan spell. At least one of Conor Coady, Lee Evans and Jack Price could also comfortably be dispensed with as we seek to improve our central midfield, and in the longer term we surely require better than Carl Ikeme and Dave Edwards, though both have performed to an at least acceptable standard this season. New contract and captain’s armband notwithstanding, Danny Batth must return to his best to get the fans back onside after a very rough spell and Joe Mason has to do more to justify the money spent on him in the previous January window. There are many, many question marks over much of our squad and a degree of ruthlessness has to be exercised. 2016 has been an extremely poor calendar year for Wolves and we cannot tolerate mediocrity if we are to significantly improve.
Consider playing youth
There will be funds made available to Lambert in January but he would do well to look at what we already have in the ranks of our Academy. The U23s have made encouraging progress through to the knockout stages of the Checkatrade Trophy and prior to Monday’s goalless draw at Portsmouth had scored 21 goals in their previous six games. With emergency loans now off the table, the exposure of our youngsters to first team football is now more limited and so as not to stifle their progress, it would be beneficial and potentially very exciting for the likes of Christian Herc, Niall Ennis, Bright Enobakhare or Conor Ronan to get some senior action after some extremely impressive signs in age group football. The principle of the Academy providing a solid base to build from has long since been engrained at Wolves – it is time that we reward those young players who show genuine signs of progress and serious talent with tangible first team prospects.
Good luck Mr Lambert – there is much to do, it’s down to you to prove you’re the man to take this task on.