First home game for Lambert
Last week’s goalless draw at Preston North End represented a solid if uninspiring start to the Wolves reign of Paul Lambert. With ticket prices cut to a much more realistic level – there’s a whole blog on that subject which I need to get written at some point – a crowd of over 27,000 is expected for Lambert’s first home game at Molineux and it is fair to say that those attending will expect to see more adventure than a display where we failed to have a shot on target until the 85th minute. It’s now over two calendar months since we registered a victory and we’ve lost three successive home games for the first time since Terry Connor was taking time out from crying in post-match interviews to nominally manage us (that’s right, even Dean Saunders didn’t manage that kind of run). Tomorrow will be no easy task against a very decent Wednesday team but eventually we do have to start winning games; bobbling along picking up a smattering of draws amid regular defeats will only lead to a winter of scrapping to stay out of the bottom three, which is not what any of us wished for or expected a couple of short months ago.
It was the right move last week to switch our shape to 4-2-3-1. Our flimsy looking defence – where all combinations tried right across the backline have looked suspect all season – badly needed more protection in front of them and it’s also a formation which theoretically should help us look after the ball better. Where most would quibble would be in the choice of personnel, although some of Lambert’s thinking would undoubtedly have been driven by our barely credible record of conceding in the opening 15 minutes of six of our prior seven games. It is understandable why we set up first and foremost to be solid and to ensure we weren’t immediately chasing the game, but it isn’t a viable strategy to set up that way for any great length of time in this division.
Carl Ikeme has reportedly trained all week and should be fit to make his return to the starting line-up; Andy Lonergan’s rare brand of top class close range saves, inexplicable howlers and U7s level kicking isn’t really suitable for a genuine first choice keeper at this level. Danny Batth is suspended after picking up a fifth yellow card of the season at Deepdale; after a series of rocky displays and the poor reception from the crowd that he received against Derby, this may prove to be a welcome break for him to get his game back to the standards we require. It’s likely that Richard Stearman will replace him in what will be his first appearance since the 0-4 calamity at home to Barnsley in September. With him thus far having failed to make any kind of impression on the first team since his return on loan from Fulham, this may well represent his final chance at making a go of his second spell at Molineux, especially as Lambert is likely to look at strengthening the defence during the January transfer window.
Elsewhere, I would bring in Romain Saiss – a late arrival back from international duty last week – for Conor Coady to give us more quality on the ball in midfield without compromising the much needed solidity in front of the back four. Saiss alongside Jack Price should theoretically be a good combination with a left foot/right foot balance, both players being comfortable on the ball and both having the requisite discipline to hold position at the base of the midfield. Perhaps the most obvious change is to bring in Ivan Cavaleiro for George Saville on the left hand side; with us already being relatively goal-shy, there is no room for ersatz attacking solutions, especially at home and when it’s to the detriment of our record signing who offers much needed creativity. Personally I would leave out the risible Matt Doherty for Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, but I accept this is unlikely having kept a clean sheet in the previous game, so I guess we’re in the familiar situation of waiting for a clearly substandard player to have a poor game (to our inevitable detriment) or outright cost us a goal before he loses his place. Whether Borthwick-Jackson or indeed the lesser-spotted Silvio are ultimately up to the task, in the long term we simply cannot use Doherty as a serious option at left back. A handful of acceptable games at the back end of last season, magnified due to the fallibilities of the team elsewhere and by comparison to his previous dismal displays, do not make him a Championship left back. At the other end of the pitch, with Jon Dadi Bodvarsson now through three months without a goal, the time has come for Nouha Dicko to be granted a start and to see if he can offer us more of a cutting edge.
The final decision will be whether to restore Dave Edwards to the starting line up after completing his own one game suspension. Even as one of his biggest detractors, I will concede that he was performing reasonably before his ban, showing at least a willingness to fight when we inevitably fell behind in games and being on one of his very rare scoring mini-streaks. However – as one of the deep midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 he is unlikely to offer us what we require in that position, and as a number 10 he simply doesn’t offer anything by way of creativity or enough in terms of support to the front man (he’s frequently a good 30 yards away from whoever the striker is as he tries to hold the ball up). Also, it would be very tough on Bright Enobakhare to be thrown in for one game where we set up very defensively and then to pull him straight back out of the team. I fully expect Edwards to be given the nod, but I would stick with the youngster who in the long term surely has more to offer. In a similar vein, Christian Herc’s excellent form for the U23s this season should be rewarded with a place on the bench in preference to more experienced options who are unlikely to change the game as substitute, while we must conclude that Lee Evans, Joe Mason and Prince Oniangue remain unavailable in the absence of any actual injury updates from the club.
Dominic Iorfa – Richard Stearman – Kortney Hause – Cameron Borthwick-Jackson
Jack Price – Romain Saiss
Helder Costa – Bright Enobakhare – Ivan Cavaleiro
Subs: Andy Lonergan, Matt Doherty, Conor Coady, Dave Edwards, Christian Herc, Joao Teixeira, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson.
Were it not for a last gasp equaliser last week at Craven Cottage from former Wolves man Scott Malone, Wednesday would currently be sat level on points with 6th placed Norwich and feeling confident of their prospects of emulating last season’s playoff finish. As it is, they find themselves on a run of one win in five games and in the clutch of clubs caught betwixt looking up at the top six and looking down at the reaches of lower mid-table anonymity. Such are the margins in the Championship. The Owls’ form has been patchy all season, with a five points from five games start boosted by a run of five wins from the next seven games, before hitting the current disappointing sequence.
Moderately disappointing opening third to the season aside, this is without doubt the best overall position Wednesday have found themselves in since their relegation from the Premier League in 2000 – indeed, last season was the first time they had managed to make the playoffs in the second tier (or even seriously challenge for them) since they dropped out of the top flight. In terms of size they are at least as big, arguably bigger than Wolves, yet have been even more starved of success this century. However, these are new and exciting times for the club as owner Dejphon Chansiri has invested well in the squad and made a shrewd managerial appointment in Carlos Carvalhal. There are lessons for Fosun to be learned from Chansiri who appears to have got the balance right in terms of on field strategy, though his thinking on ticket pricing leaves a lot to be desired.
With Gary Hooper absent due to a hamstring injury picked up at Fulham, Saturday is likely to see the return to Molineux of Steven Fletcher, just over four years since he departed for Sunderland. While the eventual end of his time here was messy – you do wonder why it seemed to take three months or more for him to realise that we’d been relegated – it was always an inevitability that he would leave Wolves once we lost our Premier League status; teams in the lower half of the top flight were never likely to pass up the opportunity of signing a striker with a proven record of scoring goals in poor teams. He will inevitably receive some form of barracking from the home crowd though I would prefer to remember his superlative heading ability (the best we’ve had in that regard since Andy Gray, I’m reliably informed by those of that vintage) and genuine class against the best teams in the country. Injuries limited his subsequent output at Sunderland while whispers about his attitude grew in his time in the North East, but he remains a formidable opponent and we must take care to limit his supply from out wide. He will be partnered by Fernando Forestieri, another undoubtedly quality performer at this level but one most remembered at Molineux for a shameful piece of gamesmanship to get Bakary Sako sent off in Watford’s 2-2 draw here in March 2015. His fellow ex-Hornet Almen Abdi has struggled to make much impact since his summer move to Hillsborough but retains the class to hurt teams from midfield, while Barry Bannan and Kieran Lee provide further impressive options in the centre of the park. Another ex-Wolf in David Jones is likely to start on the bench.
Last line-up (vs Fulham (A), 19.11.16, D 1-1): Westwood; Hunt, Loovens, Lees, Reach; Wallace, Lee, Hutchinson, Bannan; Hooper, Forestieri.
Top scorers: Gary Hooper (5), Fernando Forestieri (4), Kieran Lee, Steven Fletcher (3)
Top assists: Barry Bannan (3), four players on 2
Saturday 7 May 2016: Wolves 2-1 Sheffield Wednesday
In what proved to be Kenny Jackett’s final competitive game in charge of Wolves, we rounded off a horrendous home campaign with our first home win and goals in two months against what was very much a second string visiting team, with their playoff place having already been secured. An early disallowed Joe Mason goal was swiftly followed by Michael Turner putting through his own net, before George Saville tucked home smartly from just inside the area. The first half was characterised by strong performances from Saville and Jed Wallace in particular; promise that has sadly failed to translate into much this season. The visitors had more of the play in the second half and pulled a late goal back through a Lewis McGugan penalty, though the abiding memory is of one of the strangest substitutions made in an overall puzzling season from the manager; Adam Le Fondre had long seemed unlikely to be earning a permanent deal here but was sent on for the final 45 minutes in place of the ill Wallace, despite the presence on the bench of Bright Enobakhare and Connor Hunte. Sure enough, we announced that Le Fondre would not be retained a whole 48 hours later. Perhaps a fitting epitaph for the sorry spectacle that was 2015/16.
Team: Ikeme; Iorfa, Batth, Hause, Doherty; Coady, Price, Saville; Wallace (Le Fondre HT), Mason (Edwards 76), Henry. Unused subs: Martinez, Deslandes, Byrne, Hunte, Enobakhare.
2015/16: W 2-1 (H), L 1-4 (A)
2014/15: W 3-0 (H), W 1-0 (A)
2012/13: W 1-0 (H), D 0-0 (A)
2008/9: W 4-1 (H), W 1-0 (A)
2007/8: W 2-1 (H), W 3-1 (A)
2006/7: D 2-2 (H), D 2-2 (A)
2005/6: L 1-3 (H), W 2-0 (A)
2002/3: D 2-2 (H), W 4-0 (A)
2001/2: D 0-0 (H), D 2-2 (A)
2000/1: D 1-1 (H), W 1-0 (A)
1999/0: D 1-1 (A, FAC), D 0-0 (H, FAC, lost on pens)
1994/5: D 0-0 (A, FAC), D 1-1 (H, FAC, won on pens)
Wolves 2-1 Sheff Wed (Dicko, Cavaleiro)
Time to end this poor run in front of a bumper gate. Play from the front foot as Lambert has promised and we are capable of taking all three points here.