Bleaker than a Ken Loach film
On the face of it, if a week ago you’d offered me two clean sheets and four points from our next two games, I’d have snapped your hand off. Points are everything in our current position and it was vital that we picked up results in two of our (theoretically) less challenging remaining games. However, what can’t be ignored is how overbearingly grim yesterday’s performance was. We were up against the worst team to play at this level for a good 15 years. They have picked up one point away from home all season. They’ve been effectively down since about November. And they should have won. Two weak one-on-one attempts (credit to Carl Ikeme for saving them, though the ball hit him as much as anything) which came from our own slackness in possession and a gilt-edged chance popped over the bar from four yards out right at the death should all have been converted and they should have been returning to South Yorkshire with a full haul of the points. We really couldn’t have complained if they had.
Sometimes, players let a manager down. They don’t put the effort in, or they make inexplicable individual errors, or they don’t follow instructions properly. Yesterday was all on the manager. There are three key areas where Paul Lambert let himself (and us) down:
The line-up came through at 2pm and it all seemed fairly straightforward; we’d be going with our familiar 4-2-3-1 shape with Romain Saiss and Jack Price holding in front of the back four. Not so. Within about five minutes of kick off it was evident that Saiss was playing incredibly deep…so deep that when in possession, we were operating with a back three. Sometimes Saiss would then shift himself 10 yards further forward into midfield, then he’d be playing as the deepest player, right in front of Ikeme. It was a formation change which made little sense and we didn’t seem to have done much preparatory work in getting it to function; the first half in particular devolved into Mark McGhee era-style possession where we knocked square balls right across our back five without advancing a yard, and the two first half chances that Rotherham had came from us losing the ball with a poor pass and there being a yawning 40 yard gap between Mike Williamson and Kortney Hause to allow a free run on goal right down the middle of the pitch. It’s hard to fathom exactly why we switched to this system – three at the back systems are all well and good if you have the players to do it. We don’t. And if you don’t, they invariably look an unholy mess.
If you are going to play a variant of three at the back, your wingbacks become absolutely crucial to your attacking play. When McGhee played the system at Wolves, we had a stellar away record thanks to the pace on the break of Steve Froggatt and Jamie Smith. Chelsea on a permanent basis and increasingly regularly Tottenham also currently use three centre halves; Marcos Alonso, Victor Moses, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker all offer relentless energy up and down the flanks with a consistent attacking threat. Yesterday we used George Saville and Conor Coady. Yep, two nondescript central midfielders with the pace of an Austin Allegro. They barely crossed the halfway line and played more or less as orthodox full backs, leaving us with a flat back five and a defensive midfielder in Price parked ahead of them. At home to Rotherham. Saville was actually one of our better performers on the day (not a high bar, it has to be said) and it was nice to see a left back who is naturally left footed and at least understands the basics of defensive positioning, but in that role it is difficult to see what Lambert was actually expecting of him. You might have gathered by now that I don’t like Matt Doherty one bit but if there was ever a game for him to play, if there were ever a formation switch that might have been designed specifically to benefit him, this would have been it. It’s also odd that Dominic Iorfa was brought back in from the cold for the Reading game, by all accounts did fairly well and has since disappeared from view with us going back to Doherty (rarely played at right back at all in the last 18 months, and is somehow actually even worse there than he is at left back) and Coady (not a right back and cannot cross for the life of him). It’s bad enough to switch to a system which doesn’t suit us and has the potential to fall apart like a bad meringue. To do that and then pick pretty much the least suitable players to fit, it just compounds the issue.
Lack of attacking threat
The almost total absence of goals from our strikers has been a constant throughout the season. One justification you could make to switching to a back three is that it allows you the opportunity to get two strikers on the pitch without sacrificing numbers in midfield. We didn’t do this and ended up (as best as you could work out from the chaos that was unfolding) most closely resembling Tottenham’s 3-4-2-1 shape:
Williamson – Saiss – Hause
Coady – Edwards – Price – Saville
Costa – Marshall
Ben Marshall had a decent first half whereas Helder Costa looked lost in this new shape, his weak penalty summing up his day. We failed to provide Andi Weimann with much by way of service, his goal coming about largely through his determination more than anything else. Price did his usual job of sitting right in front of the defenders and contributing little in the opposition’s half while Dave Edwards continued his 2017 form of offering practically nothing. The excellent Whoscored site reliably informs me that he attempted 22 passes in the entire 90 minutes plus injury time. As a central midfielder, in a game where we dominated the ball (to little effect, it has to be said), that is incredibly low. It really is a strange situation; in Lambert’s early weeks, he employed Edwards as one of the deeper midfielders in the 4-2-3-1 formation and he responded with the best prolonged form of his entire Wolves career. The player was even on record as saying that the deeper role aided his goal threat as he was able to make runs from a position where he was less likely to get picked up. Yet since the Burton game last month which kicked off our losing streak, we’ve changed his role and he’s reverted to contributing nothing, and still gets a guaranteed shirt. I would never question his attitude, character or personality and when he’s performing at his absolute maximum he has a role of sorts to play…but he isn’t doing that at the moment. It’s a familiar blindspot for Wolves managers. When Morgan Gibbs-White and Ivan Cavaleiro came on, we looked more threatening (not by a huge amount, but by enough) with the former’s calmness in possession and the latter’s unpredictable running with the ball asking different questions. Both should be playing a more prominent role, fitness permitting.
It’s difficult to know where we go from here. No-one of any repute is going to step in and take this job with 11 games to go and with us perched so perilously above the relegation zone. Talk of Gary Rowett coming in now is completely fanciful, I want Mauricio Pochettino to take over but it isn’t going to happen. The kind of managers who would take the job on, you wouldn’t want here. You can’t keep sacking managers after a handful of months. There are the games available where we can target wins which should see us avoid the drop. But if we set up like that again, the likelihood is that we’ll get beaten most weeks, it was poor on so many levels and it’s all on the manager. If Lambert wants a long-term future at Molineux, dramatic improvement is required, and fast.