Lambert faces up against former club in mid-table derby
First of all, welcome back to all my readers (all 17 of them) and I hope you had a pleasant Christmas and New Year. It’s been just over a month since I wrote a preview and since then we have morphed into a team that’s actually relatively interesting to watch. Wonders will never cease. Results have been up and down as you would expect from a squad which has serial fundamental barriers to competing at the top end of this league, but given that the season is pretty much going nowhere – you would hope that we have enough about us from here to stay clear of any serious relegation fears – providing some exciting football along the way is about the best that you can ask.
The Sky cameras are at Molineux tomorrow teatime – the first of three home games shown live in January and February, they do have an unerring knack of picking fixtures in clumps rather than staggering them across a season – to see Paul Lambert take on his former club in Aston Villa for the first time since leaving them in February 2015. It is perhaps fitting that the two clubs face each other in the same week that our mutual former manager Graham Taylor sadly passed away; although his spell in B6 was much more successful than his time at Wolves, there remains a great respect for the man himself at both clubs and indeed in the wider footballing world. You could question many aspects of his management, especially while in charge of England and Wolves, but you could never question his integrity and basic decency. He will be missed.
Our defence has come in for much criticism and rightly so; it’s been leakier than Donald Trump’s hotel room mattress. However, we’re coming off the back of a clean sheet at Sheffield Wednesday and followed up with another at Premier League Stoke. Both impressive feats given our travails over the course of the season, the complication being that there were three changes to the back four for the FA Cup tie last weekend, leaving Lambert with decisions to make. Instinct would have to be to retain those who played at the Bet365 Stadium; not only is a shut-out against a top flight club quite the coup for us in current circumstances, those players just seem to give us a better base at the back. There is surely no-one that would dispute that Dominic Iorfa, when playing anywhere near his capabilities, is a far superior option at right back than Conor Coady. We have been waiting over a year for Mike Williamson to make his comeback from injury and he didn’t disappoint in the Potteries. Not only is he our best out-and-out defender by quite some distance, what he brings in terms of organisation is off the scale compared to anything else we have and that is an aspect that has been critically lacking since well…he last played for us.
While dropping Coady and Richard Stearman from the last league line-up may seem a little harsh, we have to go with the team that’s going to best equip us to get a result in the upcoming game. Ruthlessness is part of management. Besides which, Coady isn’t really a right back and Stearman isn’t our player. Kortney Hause also had an excellent game at Stoke but it remains highly unlikely that barring a set of exceptional circumstances, Lambert will leave out our club captain in the middle of the season and so it is a racing certainty that it will be Danny Batth to partner Williamson in the heart of the defence. It might well be that he eventually decides that Danny isn’t the man to lead us in the medium term; that’s a call that’s going to be much easier to make once the campaign is over.
Further forward, Jack Price has firmly cemented himself as a Lambert favourite and he should resume his partnership with Dave Edwards. Again, this isn’t necessarily a combination which screams “promotion contenders” in the long term, but the form of both is decent and it would be fair to say that Edwards – for all his limitations and faults – is currently producing more consistently than he has at any stage of his Wolves career. Six goals since the end of October is a pretty impressive record for a midfielder by any standards. Long may it continue. Pleasingly, since the last preview we have finally reverted to playing 4-2-3-1; it long since being apparent that this is the shape most suitable to our current options. Connor Ronan excelled on his first start at Hillsborough but is likely to miss out here with a minor ankle injury. Nevertheless, it is very much to Lambert’s credit that he has offered opportunities to the likes of Ronan, Bright Enobakhare, Harry Burgoyne and Morgan Gibbs-White in his first couple of months at the club; many managers would shy away from this tack when coming in to a struggling team, but he has seen the potential in these youngsters and given them a go when merited. We have spent a lot of money on the Academy in the last decade and it is important that we can demonstrate that there is a genuine gateway to first team football here for those who have the quality and work ethic required.
The outstanding Helder Costa remains our predominant goal threat as we are still waiting – almost five months now – for one of our strikers to notch a goal. Joe Mason did his part in maintaining this streak by knocking the ball over the bar when presented with an open goal two yards out at Hillsborough. Good work Joe, worth £3,000,000 of anyone’s money. We look as threatening in that area as Elijah Wood did in Green Street. Eventually one of them has to score, surely, just by the law of averages. Jon Dadi Bodvarsson will probably get the nod this week and maybe the ball will hit him and go in or something.
Dominic Iorfa – Danny Batth – Mike Williamson – Matt Doherty
Dave Edwards – Jack Price
Helder Costa – Bright Enobakhare – Ivan Cavaleiro
Jon Dadi Bodvarsson
Subs: Harry Burgoyne, Kortney Hause, Richard Stearman, Lee Evans, Morgan Gibbs-White, Joe Mason, Nouha Dicko.
Having sanctioned almost £60m worth of spending during the summer, it is likely that Walter Mitty-esque prolific Tweeter Tony Xia was looking for something better than 12th place and seven points shy of the top six as we pass the midway point of the season. Roberto Di Matteo always seemed a curious appointment – there’s rarely been any sense at any of his clubs that he has any particular playing style or much to recommend him beyond a relatively high profile – and he was dispatched at the start of October having won just one of Villa’s opening eleven games, putting them in a position of already having to make up serious ground in a chase for immediate promotion back to the Premier League. Steve Bruce was persuaded to take time out from his quest to become the North East’s answer to Agatha Christie and has since done a decent job in terms of getting this squad performing somewhere near their level; his ratio of 1.79 PPG since his appointment would have them very much in playoff territory if extrapolated over the course of a full season.
While Bruce isn’t quite the unequivocal answer at Championship level that people will have you believe – the football is rarely enthralling, the quality of signings tends to be fairly mixed and at reasonably heavy expense, and you have to put up with listening to him complain about referees every week while prefacing it with “I don’t want to talk about referees” – the chances are that eventually he will succeed in the primary immediate aim of getting Villa back in the top flight. Whether that is this season, with the top six all looking well set and the likes of Derby, Norwich and Fulham also in with a shout, is another matter as Villa (much like ourselves) remain in possession of a squad that is overloaded in some areas while being seriously short of quality in others. No team that is fielding Alan Hutton on a regular basis can ever be said to be in a wholly healthy position.
The signings made in the summer have had a mixed impact; while James Chester, Albert Adomah and Jonathan Kodjia have impressed, Tommy Elphick, Pierluigi Gollini, Aaron Tshibola and Mile Jedinak have been largely disappointing and Bruce has thus far failed to find a role for headline signing Ross McCormack. Gollini has already been usurped by new loan signing Sam Johnstone and prospects for Tshibola in particular look poor as Villa remain in pursuit of Henri Lansbury. It will take time for Bruce to put his own stamp on the squad that he has inherited and in the short term they are significantly weakened by both Kodjia and Jordan Ayew being called up for the African Cup of Nations. This leaves them with McCormack, Libor Kozak and someone who looks a bit like a really old version of Gabby Agbonlahor but can’t possibly be the same person as their only forward options for the next month or so. At least Villa fans no longer have to tolerate Rudy Gestede controlling the ball straight out of play and flicking the ball on with the accuracy of a man with a sheriff’s badge for a head as he has mercifully been punted on to Middlesbrough, where Aitor Karanka bizarrely seems to think that he’ll end up being a more useful option than Jordan Rhodes. It’s a strange world that football managers inhabit sometimes.
Last line-up (vs Tottenham (A), 8.1.17, L 0-2): Johnstone; Hutton, Chester, Baker, Amavi; Adomah, Tshibola, Jedinak, Bacuna; Grealish; Agbonlahor
Top scorers: Jonathan Kodjia (9), Ross McCormack (3), Jack Grealish (3)
Top assists: Albert Adomah (5), Jordan Ayew (4), Mile Jedinak (2)
Saturday 15 October 2016: Aston Villa 1-1 Wolves
This happened to be Steve Bruce’s first game in charge of Villa and somehow he escaped with a point as we totally dominated them for the second half yet couldn’t force a winner. After a scrappy start, the home side were awarded a penalty when Jack Grealish went down under a challenge from Dominic Iorfa which Kodjia duly converted. Our equaliser followed ten minutes before half time as referee David Coote rightly penalised Aly Cissokho for handling a shot inside the area and Helder Costa tucked our own spot kick away. Unfortunately for us, it appears that Mr Coote works under the impression that referees are only allowed to give a maximum of two penalties per match which is the only explanation for him failing to award a foul when Micah Richards barrelled through the back of Bodvarsson in the second period. There was also a fortuitous clearance near the goal line from Hutton following a Cavaleiro shot and a couple of other close calls as it was one way traffic in our favour. The performance itself gave hope that all might not be lost under Walter Zenga; however little more than a week he was gone after anaemic, scoreless defeats to Brighton and Leeds. We just didn’t produce enough of this kind of football often enough.
Team: Ikeme; Iorfa, Batth, Hause, Doherty; Saiss, Coady, Edwards; Costa (Cavaleiro 72), Bodvarsson (Dicko 66), Oniangue (Mason 88). Unused subs: Lonergan, Stearman, Saville, Teixeira.
2016/17: D 1-1 (A)
2011/12: L 2-3 (H), D 0-0 (A)
2010/11: L 1-2 (H), W 1-0 (A)
2009/10: D 1-1 (H), D 2-2 (A)
2003/4: L 0-4 (H), L 2-3 (A)
1995/6: L 0-1 (A, LC)
Wolves 1-1 Aston Villa (Costa)
Both teams are a lot better off than they were earlier in the season but can’t put together consistent runs of results. It should be entertaining enough and a point wouldn’t represent a bad result all told.