High profile visitors come to Molineux
Our performances in 2017 have been generally of a fairly decent standard but they have only been seen by a minority of Wolves fans – this is only our second home game of the year after a run of six out of seven away games. We now embark on a series of five home fixtures in a row before we hit a further sequence of four out of five on the road. Odd scheduling for sure, let’s blame Brexit for it just to be safe. In the context of our good form, we are coming off the back of our most disappointing result of the calendar year in our defeat at Burton last week and as we now take on what is arguably the best squad in the division, there is much to ponder.
At Burton, we went with the team that so famously won at Anfield with the exception of the returning Carl Ikeme in place of Harry Burgoyne, but in vastly different circumstances it failed to work out for us. There is a definite question for us to answer in terms of how we set up against moderate opposition, be at home or away; we know that we can play on the break and do it to good effect, but that isn’t a strategy we can employ in every single match. However, given the strength of Saturday’s visitors, this may be an occasion where we can stick to our ‘Plan A’ even if it is a home match – we could possibly be looking at a similar outlook to last month’s game against Aston Villa where we posed the greater threat throughout and fully deserved our win, but didn’t really make much of a concerted attempt to keep possession at any stage and were happy to allow Villa to keep the ball in deep areas. It will be on Tuesday against Wigan where a different approach is going to be required.
Captain Danny Batth was left out last week, the first league match he has missed for reasons other than injury or suspension since May 2013. He has attracted regular criticism over the last year and more, with his natural limitations sadly regularly exposed and many fans feel it is time for him to be eased out of the team. Was last week’s selection the start of this process from Paul Lambert or simply a case of rotating centre halves as we enter a busy period of fixtures between now and the international break next month? Should it be the latter, it will be easier for Lambert to restore him to the team given that we lost when he missed out. Personally, I can see the argument to phase him out in the not too distant future but realistically, none of the other options currently available are that much better than him. Mike Williamson would represent a significant upgrade but he is once again expected to be missing and his chances of earning a new contract are receding more than Jude Law’s hairline.
There is a choice for Lambert to make at right back; we must assume for now that Ben Marshall has been signed to play there, as he did for much of his final 12 months at Blackburn Rovers including while Lambert himself was manager at Ewood Park. After what we can assume to be some intensive fitness work over the last 10 days or so – shorts wearing, orange faced evangelist Owen Coyle had, in his infinite wisdom, banned Marshall from training with the first team squad while transfer negotiations between the clubs rumbled on – does our new signing come in for Conor Coady who has done a reasonable enough job there over the last couple of months without ever suggesting that he’s a serious long term option? Given what Marshall should be able to offer in terms of an attacking option from that area, it is probably a change worth making.
We are likely to switch back to our regular 4-2-3-1 shape tomorrow with Dave Edwards pairing up with Jack Price in the deeper central midfield roles. George Saville and Lee Evans failed to make much of an impression at the Pirelli Stadium which is disappointing on their part; both are playing for a future here, opportunities may be limited and they need to step up when they are given a chance. Romain Saiss is back in contention after his exploits in the Africa Cup of Nations for Morocco (where he was deployed at centre half) and it would be good to see him given a run in the team at some stage. Playing as the sole defensive midfielder in Walter Zenga’s hotchpotch of a midfield did him few favours while he has many of the attributes required to play in the formation that we primarily use under Lambert and would also give us something we don’t currently have in terms of his range of passing. Lambert did praise him on occasion when he was in the team through his early weeks so one would hope that he will get his chance eventually, even if it isn’t this weekend.
It was odd that Connor Ronan was an unused substitute last week after he set up two goals at Barnsley and has impressed in all of his outings so far. It may be that Lambert is seeking to protect him at such a young age but given the scale of his talent, it would be preferable to see him play whenever possible. Further forward there is a familiar issue with Nouha Dicko and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson remaining on their respective goalless streaks; there isn’t much else to say there that hasn’t already been said. One or both of them simply must start scoring soon. Joe Mason is set to miss out with a recurrence of his hernia issue and Ivan Cavaleiro is unlikely to be available until late March at the earliest.
Ben Marshall – Danny Batth – Kortney Hause – Matt Doherty
Dave Edwards – Jack Price
Helder Costa – Connor Ronan – Andi Weimann
Jon Dadi Bodvarsson
Subs: Harry Burgoyne, Richard Stearman, Conor Coady, George Saville, Romain Saiss, Bright Enobakhare, Nouha Dicko.
To be relegated once with a flawed transfer policy, a seriously odd managerial appointment and a squad that should have had no business being in the bottom three could be considered unfortunate. To do it twice within a decade is worse than careless. This is Mike Ashley’s ownership of Newcastle United; he has control of a massive club who regularly attract crowds in excess of 50,000 and yet like his other businesses, everything is focused around extracting value and turning profit. It’s a model which just doesn’t work in top level football. Ashley is very much a man who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing; plastering the stadium with crass (fee free) advertising for his own company and failing to ensure that the club is adequately stocked with staff who understand the game means that he will never be held in anything other than contempt by the fans.
Last season’s crazy managerial appointment in Steve McClaren was retained for far too long and the eye-catching capture of Rafa Benitez was made too late – although it should be added that poor results at fellow relegated teams Norwich and Aston Villa came under the Spaniard’s watch. Clearly, the expectation was that Newcastle would make an immediate return to the Premier League, as they did under Chris Hughton in 2009/10. They currently sit in first place, so on the face of it, so far so good. However progress hasn’t necessarily been that straightforward. They have already lost seven league games having only lost on four occasions when they were last at this level. Off the field, while it is true that the club made a sizeable profit on transfers in the summer, most of that was thanks to the sale of Moussa Sissoko to Tottenham right at the end of the window and the lumbering Frenchman is a player most Toon fans would have happily waved off at any price. They have retained some extremely high earners while playing at the lower level – most notably loveable racist Jonjo Shelvey – and spent big on new arrivals. This is another mixed record as Dwight Gayle has been excellent and Matt Ritchie, Isaac Hayden and Ciaran Clark have impressed at times, the likes of Grant Hanley, Matz Sels, Mo Diame, Daryl Murphy, Achraf Lazaar, Christian Atsu and Jesus Gamez have done little to suggest they were worth the sums invested.
It seemed apparent that Benitez was expecting further funds in the January window – most notably to secure the return of Andros Townsend – but no arrivals were forthcoming and much tension was reported after the home draw against QPR at the end of the month. This seems to have been smoothed over temporarily but the current situation is that there is a manager in situ who is mildly underwhelming given the squad he has and his own profile (he was managing Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale less than 18 months ago, so taking charge of Grant Hanley and Sammi Ameobi day to day must thrill him intensely), and an owner who doesn’t seem to appreciate the concept of adding to a squad from a position of strength – another lesson not learned as when they finished 5th in the Premier League under Alan Pardew in 2011/12, they proceeded to add Vurnon Anita as their sole signing in the following summer. As promotion campaigns where the team is habitually in the top two go, it’s not altogether plain sailing. Maybe it never is at that club. We know the feeling all too well.
That all said, they remain an extremely strong team for this level and will be favourites heading into any match that they play. Benitez has generally favoured a 4-4-1-1 system this season with the resurgent Yoan Gouffran a mainstay on the left of midfield with Ritchie providing a consistent threat from the other side. Gayle has missed the last five games since limping off at Brentford in mid-January and may only be fit for a place on the bench tomorrow; Aleksandar Mitrovic would be likely to deputise if he is missing. Karl Darlow has done well since displacing Selz between the sticks but given our pace and counter-attacking ability, we will doubtless look at the ponderous Paul Dummett as an area of potential weakness that Helder Costa can exploit. A limp 3-0 defeat at Oxford in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup will have done the fringe players at Benitez’s disposal such as Ayoze Perez and Massadio Haidara no favours. As much of a questionable character that he is, much of Newcastle’s play goes through Shelvey who in reality is too good to be playing at this level and it is imperative that we don’t allow him to dictate the game.
Last lineup (vs Derby (H), 4.2.17, W 1-0): Darlow; Yedlin, Hanley, Clark, Dummett; Ritchie, Hayden, Shelvey, Gouffran; Diame; Mitrovic
Top scorers: Dwight Gayle (20), Matt Ritchie (8)
Top assists: Jonjo Shelvey (7), Matt Ritchie (6)
Saturday 17 September 2016: Newcastle 0-2 Wolves
Following on from a 0-4 capitulation at home to Barnsley just four days previously and with Newcastle on a five match winning run, it was fair to say that our hopes were not high going into this one. And yet we produced our most complete performance under Walter Zenga, a stunning victory which gave us all hope that we could still achieve plenty this season. A strong start could have seen us a couple of goals up before Chancel Mbemba headed Bodvarsson’s cross into his own net, and in a portent of what we would see at further length as the season progressed, Helder Costa scored his first league goal for Wolves with a fine effort from 25 yards. Anita was sent off late on for a challenge on Cavaleiro as frustration grew, Newcastle failing to test Carl Ikeme to any great extent; the aftermath of that red card would later become infamous for Shelvey deciding to aim a volley of racist abuse in Saiss’ direction. What a lovely chap.
I could have made this section about the League Cup meeting on the very next Tuesday, but no-one cares about the League Cup, so there.
Team: Ikeme; Doherty, Iorfa, Batth, Borthwick-Jackson; Saiss, Edwards, Oniangue; Costa (Mason 75), Bodvarsson (Coady 88), Teixeira (Cavaleiro 71). Unused subs: Lonergan, Hause, Saville, Gladon.
2016/17: W 2-0 (A), L 0-2 (A, LC)
2011/12: L 1-2 (H), D 2-2 (A)
2010/11: D 1-1 (H), L 1-4 (A)
2003/4: D 1-1 (H), D 1-1 (A)
2002/3: W 3-2 (H, FAC)
Wolves 1-1 Newcastle (Costa)
We’ve tended to turn up in the big games this season; this will be a huge test and a draw would represent a decent result against a team who for all their failings, should end up winning the league.