If ever there was a performance to reinforce exactly why Wolves fans should not have got carried away by the masquerade victory against Wigan Athletic two weeks ago, it came at Goodison Park on Saturday.
Over the years, Everton was always a notorious place to visit. Lead by a top manager whose team plays a variation of the 4-5-1 which makes them difficult to penetrate. Plus aided by the right blend of guts and ability to succeed and of course driven by the passion of the Evertonian paying public. Return to the present and times they are a’ changing on Merseyside. Lavish expenditure in the past has brought financial woe to the club; transfer fees received for their top players are already accounted for, they cannot support a manager who must have the patience of a saint after all he has done for the club. Protests are the order of the day and to top it off they were in no form at all, losing 5 of their last 6 league and cup games and without a home victory in the Premier League for over 2 months. Throw into the mixer that Wolves have taken a point on each of their last two visits and the visitors now had every reason to be feeling a little more optimistic.
Such is life though as a Wanderer. Ninety percent of the time when a team is stuck in a rut, you can rely on it coming to an abrupt halt when they play the Wolves.
So it was on this wintery Saturday afternoon Mick McCarthy took his team north and set up in the same 4-5-1 formation that brought success against Wigan, with Kevin Doyle once again the lone ranger up front and the only change from the previous game being Nenad Milijas replacing Adlene Guedioura in the centre of midfield.
I hasten to say, if I was just to describe the match action from here on in, I would struggle to complete the paragraph!
There is a term in the English language ‘Pathetic Fallacy’ – the personification of weather, basically where the weather is likened to or used to set the mood or atmosphere of a scenario or setting. Never was it more appropriate than Saturday afternoon. Dull, dreary, miserable, uninspiring – you get the drift. As the lesser of two evils, by and large Everton were much the better of the two sides, finding joy literally time and time again on their left and from the Wolves right. Take a look at the matchup though and draw your own conclusions because once again the mismatch seemed blatantly obvious to everyone apart from the one man with the responsibility to make the decisions.
On the Wolves right side, you had Richard Stearman at full back who aside from the opening two games has had a poor season – often found wanting in this unnatural position and typically having to track back and catch the person who has beaten him with ease. Granted at the moment with injuries to Kevin Foley and Ronald Zubar there is very little other option. However, a real favourite of the McCarthy era is the emphasis on the wingers being able to ‘track back’ and protect their full backs (the question has arisen many a time that this would not be necessary if the defenders were good enough in the first place, though I digress). Stearman’s security blanket and partner on the right flank was David Edwards, whom for all his honesty and battling qualities is still not a right winger and does not possess the required ability to play that role. Square pegs in round holes, and a foreboding sense of déjà vu. So essentially the entire right side of the Wolves setup is two players out of position.
The most puzzling part of this selection was the common knowledge and the eventual fact they would be matching up against Royston Drenthe and Leighton Baines. Baines being an astute Premier League left back for many years, performing at a high standard and second only to Cashley Cole for the position at international level, and Drenthe who has been the highlight of Everton’s season thus far, with pace to burn and a trick of two up his sleeve from his days with Bayern Munich and Real Madrid to complete the total mismatch for the afternoon. They must have thought Christmas had come early as neither man will have an easier afternoon as they did Saturday. I must add that this is not just a ‘Mick bashing’ because it looked out of place on paper. It was the most evident and obvious problem throughout the game and was still left unaddressed.
For all their good work down the left, and a plethora of crosses of real quality into the Wolves penalty area, Everton were found wanting as much as Wolves were living dangerously with only one man up front Wolves fans could empathise with their failure to get on the end of a decent ball into the box. Still in a first half where neither team failed to make a real impact, the warning signs were there. The dangerous crosses flashing across the box and the fact that Hennessey was much the busier of the two keepers suggested that the onus was on the home side to break the stalemate. Out of the blue, I mean literally from nowhere – Wolves had a penalty. Thirty seven minutes into the game, David Edwards who had drifted infield more towards the left flank, pounced on a loose ball on the edge of the area and went over under challenge from Marouane Fellaini. On closer inspection even though Edwards was first to the ball, he had left his leg in the challenge and ultimately conned the referee into his first of two questionable penalty decisions on the day. Still, if anything, this shows that we are learning how to manipulate the Premier League. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! Tim Howard obviously mesmerised by the fact that the ball was coming towards him for the first time in the game flopped to his left as Stephen Hunt smashed the spot kick emphatically straight down the centre for a surprising and largely underserved Wolves lead.
As expected, the home side upped the tempo and began to press forward motivated by the fact that were astonishingly behind to a team that hadn’t yet had a shot on goal. Every Wolves fan would have been playing the old prophecy over in their heads “if we can just get to half time.” Inevitably, as the defence looked more and more susceptible under the increasing pressure, it wasn’t to be. A free kick half the distance to the goal from the left hand side was whipped invitingly by Baines and Phil Jagielka rose highest to nod the equaliser into Hennessey’s top right hand corner. Quite poignantly, as I write this I’ve just seen the goal replayed on the television on Sky Sports. Before the free kick is taken, Wolves had seven players inside the area, Everton had just three. Jagielka, the fourth and final member to advance upon the taking of the kick was literally surrounded by four gold shirts and he scored. So the inquest must begin.
With Wolves fearing the worst, and with the home side riding the momentum of the equaliser before the break, the second half began.
Now I know it’s all very negative and believe me I really would like to have something good to say, but unlike the local papers I can and will only tell it exactly like it is rather than scraping the barrel to look for the needle in the haystack and something good to say about an inept and ingenuity free performance. Wolves began and continued into the second half much like they had in the first. Based solely on the way they played and the lack of production from 11 men, you have to wonder what exactly has been said and how much planning has been done in the two weeks preparation time since the last game.
Based on this performance, and many before it I imagine that a McCarthy and Connor training session in preparation for the match must go a little like this –
“Now lads, firstly I want you to put creativity and positivity to the backs of your mind. Keep possession as best you can but don’t you dare try to do anything with it, penetration of the opposition is not what I’m looking for. I’ve got a master plan in how to break them down. Pass it around midfield but gradually get further and further backwards until somebody gives it to Wayne. Wayne will then proceed to hoof it up the field where our smallest players Doyle, Hunt and O’Hara can challenge for it in the air against the likes of Distin and Jagielka. Sorted”
Ok so it’s a little tongue in cheek, but that is the only evidence that a Wolves fan has from what they saw yesterday and have been seeing for some time. The sequence described above is literally all we are doing, and if that is the result of almost two weeks worth of plotting then the alarm bells should be ringing. You often hear fans or pundits exaggerate by saying ‘they haven’t had a shot all game’. For Wolves fans that becomes the literal. Not until the Stephen Fletcher drove wide from the edge of the area in the 88th minute did Wolves muster a palpable attempt on goal.
Although Everton were hardly carving Wolves to pieces, the pressure was mounting. By 75 minutes Wolves were living dangerously, caught napping at the back on more than one occasion resulting in last gasp blocks and tackles whilst Hennessey was the saviour again on more than one occasion. After around 30 minutes of this, McCarthy remained unmoved. You didn’t need a crystal ball to see that ‘it’ was coming and Wolves were crying out for a change. The makeshift right back Stearman had been forced out of the game with what was later found to be a broken arm, leaving Wolves even lighter in that area. And Stephen Ward, to add another notch his Wolves positional bedpost, was moved to right back for the rest of the game. The Wolves fans in the ground were crying out for something to be done to avoid the inevitable. I cannot put into context how frustrating it is to watch your team constantly on the back foot creating literally nothing whilst your most creative players and best goal scoring option are forced to watch from the bench. Adam Hammill is the best winger at the club in terms of his creativity and accuracy on delivery. Stephen Fletcher, if nothing else, is usually good for a goal. A comment of real relevance went up from a supporter in the away end. He said “He (McCarthy) won’t change anything until he’s forced to. His hindsight is none existent. You watch he won’t make a change until Everton have scored.” This sadly has become the norm for us.
A change did come in the 79th minute. Matt Jarvis replaced Nenad Milijas, which forced a reshuffle in midfield to go with the one that was forced upon Wolves at the back. Three minutes later and our fears were realised. Everton were given a penalty. It appeared to go against Stephen Ward for the slightest of pushes on Saha – soft, yes but I suppose it was only a leveller from the earlier decision and little more than Everton deserved. It was dispatched with ease by Leighton Baines and that was all she wrote.
The long awaited appearance of Stephen Fletcher was, at best, 30 minutes too late and that’s being generous on Kevin Doyle who was once again rarely in the box even as the loan striker, another issue which surely needs looking into as his minimal goal return can no longer be compensated by the endeavour and effort outside of the box when Wolves are in this predicament.
There’s plenty to be worried about. Not only by the immediate problems that we no longer have a recognised fit right back in the squad, which will bring even more upheaval upon a defence that looks defunct of all confidence and arguably ability, but by the fact that Wolves are not showing anything for us to latch onto in terms of moving forwards. The performances are one dimensional, lacking in idea and any form of creativity. It remains obvious that personality and honesty are still higher in the selection priority than actual ability and talent. The 4-5-1 which has been our lifeline for the past two seasons after the 4-4-2 adventure proved a little too ambitious for a low end Premier League side will not be effective unless that ‘1’ can bring us a goal or two on a regular basis.
Most frustratingly is the comparison you can make with other teams. It’s almost sickening to watch Norwich, Swansea and QPR giving it a real go and getting reward for it. Whereas in yesteryear it has been the demise of teams like Blackpool and Burnley, this season’s new boys come without fear and with a refreshing self belief and with almost half the season past they all sit above Wolves in the table. It’s hard not to think ‘if they can do it why can’t we?’ We are not the naïve new boys anymore. This is our third season in the division and you would think along the way we would have learned from mistakes and forged new ideas from our experiences to progress as a team and as a club. Instead we find ourselves in similar positions, making schoolboy errors on and off the field whilst sticking to the same stubborn principles in selection and mentality that have seen us scrape survival in the past two seasons and it shows no sign of stopping.
Ultimately, the performance in the Everton game and for many that have come before this season shows a lack of ingenuity and reinforces the idea that the management are stuck in their ways and unwilling to alter their style in order to progress. You cannot and we will not get away with turning out like that in the Premier League, no matter who the opposition is. This is the best league in the world and it warrants so much more than what McCarthy is prepared to offer at the moment. And that’s not an opinion, it’s a cold harsh fact.