It’s the oldest cliché in the footballing book – it’s a game of two halves. Both literally and metaphorically it always will be. You would presume that by this point that knowledge would be a part of the very basic foundations of a Premier League footballer. Apparently not.
A scintillating first half from the boys in gold and black was not only a teaser but a set up for a giant fall as Wolves threw away the lead and served the initiative on a silver platter to their Staffordshire neighbours with another typical polarizing outing on Saturday afternoon. Stoke City was forced into alterations in the game but stuck to their task and principles and continued their run as the Denver Broncos of the EPL – going against the grain and the ethics of the game. By right it shouldn’t work. It aint pretty but damn is it effective.
After traversing the continent with only 15 players in midweek, Stoke came to Molineux with their full compliment and a full strength first 11 with ‘Delap-esque’ long throw specialist Ryan Shotton preferred over Jermaine Pennant on the right wing whilst Peter Crouch and Jon Walters returned to spearhead the robust Potters’ attack.
With David Edwards and Jamie O’Hara ineligible for various reasons, Mick McCarthy moved away from his recent square pegs in round holes theorem and adopted a standard 4-4-2 for the third week running with Stephen Hunt coming in at right midfield and Nenad Milijas getting a rare start slotted in alongside former Stoke City player Karl Henry in centre midfield.
Statistically, Stoke City have struggled in the Premier League matches that have superseded a Europa League outing, most notably that 5-0 mauling against lowly Bolton Wanderers at the Reebok in November. Perhaps more poignantly though was the fact that Tony Pulis’ men had three straight wins coming into this fixture and had finally addressed their Europa League hangovers with a win, a stout 1-0 victory against Everton after a previous midweek draw with Dynamo Kiev.
For the most part of the first half the hoodoo seemed to be setting in again. An unpleasant and fruitless midweek trip to Turkey provided some ambiguous questions as Wolves capitalised on a Stoke’s disjointed first 45 minutes. A couple of early stereotypical long throws into the penalty area were comfortably dealt with by Wolves as goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey claimed a comfortable catch from a Peter Crouch header for the games first attempt on target. Wolves entered the fray as Dr Jekyll to being with; pass and move was the order of the day to the delight and possibly bemusement of the home fans as Matt Jarvis and Stephen Ward linked up well numerous times down the left flank, Stephen Fletcher provided the link between attack and midfield and Nenad Milijas showed glimpses of his undoubted class with the ball at his feet with a few tidy touches and pinpoint passes to keep the Wolves attacks flowing. As the tempo of performance rose, the atmosphere followed suit with Wolves fans refreshingly right behind their teams improved efforts on the field. A knock on effect which the all too vocal manager should consider comes with the territory in this game – give the fans something to cheer and they will reciprocate.
As Wolves attempted to ‘football’ their way out of their Premier League predicament, Stoke City stuck to what they know best; a boisterous style with plenty of air balls to their big target men and a physical side to their game which proved to be their early downfall. The fleet footed Matt Jarvis whose welcome return to form last week had continued, was proving a tricky customer for the opposition as he was sent tumbling numerous times as his pace and trickery were taking him away from his marker. Former England centre back Jon Woodgate received the games inevitable yet overdue booking for a rash challenge on the one cap England wonder and Wolves set about to expose this crack in armoury and the evident weakness on display by the away side. Wolves were no fools to the situation and found Jarvis once more on the left side of midfield with only Woodgate between himself and the daylight ahead. Urged on by the Southbank to take advantage of Woodgate’s recent booking, Jarvis took him to town chinking left and right before advancing into the area forcing Woodgate to gamble. As Jarvis’ quick feet drew a foul from Woodgates 50-50 lunge in the penalty area and Wolves were given a penalty. No complaints from the defender who knew he had been outfoxed, more interestingly though was the fact that Woodgate turned tail and seemed as surprised as the majority of the 25,000 or so inside Molineux that he was not given a second booking for his penalty area foul as the last man between the winger and the goal. Stephen Hunt in perhaps his only telling contribution to the game despatched the penalty with his regular aplomb giving the hosts a deserved lead after 17 minutes.
The aftermath of the goal saw Stoke forced into an early substitution removing Woodgate who was walking skating on the thinnest of ice and bringing on Jermaine Pennant which resulted in something Wolves fans will be aggrievedly accustomed to – a three man reshuffle to accommodate one change. Shawcross moved from right to centre back, Ryan Shotton dropped from the wing to full back so as Pennant could assume his accustomed role as a right sided midfielder. This show of distress was recognised by the home fans who prayed that their team could capitalise on the visitors early frailties and obtain a further lead to justify their dominance. The well documented 12th man was obsolete as the Stoke fans remained nervously quiet for the most part of the first half as their team struggled to find any momentum. Christophe Berra stuck to his uphill task amicably as he quelled the aerial threat of Crouch whilst Ronald Zubar and Stephen Ward showed equally impressive touch and composure with the ball moving forward providing extra impetus to the Wolves wide attacks. Wolves wasted a succession of corners which were frustratingly taken short between Jarvis and Hunt, neither ever producing a decent ball into the box, Hunt in particular failing to beat the first man as he does all too often from decent wide areas. And so the second half petered out a little too comfortably for the home fans liking as Stoke began to settle into their altered approach with a wayward Stephen Hunt header the only real chance of note after the opening goal.
A pleasing first half on the whole for the Wanderers faithful did not come without the weekly dose of what has become affectionately known locally as ‘McCarthy madness’. Just as we thought the tide was changing inside the mind of the manager with his initial selection of players in their natural positions (raising the issue that he only does this when his hand is forced) he still managed to baffle fans, pundits and the media with an unjustifiable tactical decision. It was mentioned at the time by the live reporters and picked up on afterwards by the local radio stations and the fans that phoned in that midway through the first half Matt Jarvis switched wings from left to right. Now, Jarvis had for want of a better word terrorised the opposition from the left flank forcing a yellow card, a substitution, a penalty and a goal with his craft – what more could we possibly ask for? Shawcross and Woodgate were no match for his pace and trickery and he was at the epicentre of everything positive Wolves achieved up to this point which not only begs but screams the question why oh why did Mick feel the need to adjust? Once again answers on a postcard please!
As half time settled over Molineux the Wolves fans would be forgiven for their lack of optimism. After all reality takes its toll when you’ve seen it so many times before, and the teams failure to punish Stoke further and really solidify their dominance had all the makings of a second half comeback and another harsh reality check.
The warning signs began to flash as Stoke started much brighter in the second half. Both Wolves full backs were caught out of position early on whilst supporting the attack, as Stoke stretched the play with two natural wingers in Etherington and Pennant. Etherington found Jon Walters unmarked 6 yards out but the ball dribbled harmlessly wide off his thighs as the cross seemed to catch him unawares. Wolves had seemingly abandoned all of their first half principles and began to play into Stoke’s hands with long balls gratefully received by the mammoth Shawcross and Huth. An ominous sense of foreboding began to creep into the ever quietening terraces at Molineux.
The referee will no doubt face the brunt of the Wolves fans and managers wrath as a scapegoat for the loss and for the most part he was found wanting in a game which would test his resolve due to the derby style atmosphere, full blooded challenges from both sides and a home crowd that voiced their disapproval at every decision that went against them. In essence he had a bit of a stinker. His failure to dismiss Woodgate early on was never forgiven by the home crowd and his awarding of the free kick which lead to the equaliser will not sit too pretty with them either. A contentious free kick was awarded for a challenge which paled in comparison to some of the robust fouls which the Potters had committed and gotten away with throughout the game. Nevertheless, the set piece 30 yards out would not have set the alarm bells ringing. Robert Huth stood with the kicker rather than lend his height in the penalty area and we soon found out why. The dead ball was rolled to Huth who struck with venom from distance, his connection was sweet but the deflection which wrong footed Hennessey was sweeter still for the away fans. Finally a contribution to the scores sheet from Kevin Doyle … all be it at the wrong end.
The home crowd urged their team on following the cruel leveller but you sensed that from this point and the with the momentum shift that there would only be one winner in this game and they wore red and white stripes. Unlike Stoke who were resilient under increasing pressure in the first half, Wolves folded quite miserably. The chance to expose Stoke’s weakness against pace had been and gone as Wolves fans but not the manager had suggested that the introduction of Adam Hammill on the opposite flank to Jarvis could help them go for the jugular. Instead Stoke followed their equaliser with the eventual winner some twelve minutes later. Ronald Zubar was nowhere to be seen at right back, though in his defence he had just made a crowd pleasing lung busting run up field making three tackles and trying to retake the momentum for his side, a display of passion that was refreshing if not an all too rare occurance in the second 45 as Wolves donned their Mr Hyde costumes for a capitulation. In Zubar’s absence Karl Henry headed naively into a mass of four Stoke players who attacked down their left flank, Henry followed the ball carrier but strangely seemed to move away at the vital moment making no attempt to stop the cross which found Peter Crouch at the far post who scored with a header from only inches out. So the comeback was complete and the crowd became inevitably restless, frustrated with the incompetence and inconsistency of the official and concerned by how their teams second half showing could not hold a candle to their first.
Guedioura, Hammill and Ebanks Blake were introduced a little too late as the need for change came calling well before their eventual introductions. Kevin Doyle and Stephen Hunt were replaced for their ineffectiveness not for the first time recently which makes you wonder how long they can continue to start games as they are being replaced for the same reasons time and again i.e when Wolves need urgency they are surplus to requirement. Stoke defended stoutly for the remainder of the game but in truth Wolves provided little threat to their fortress as the Potters escaped with their fourth win in a row whilst Wolves have moved one step forwards and two back since the Sunderland win a few weeks ago.
I fear that dodgy refereeing will paper over the real cracks at Molineux and in Mick’s mind. In all fairness the home side were awarded their lion share of decisions too including a penalty which lead to their only goal. Whilst the fans and media deliberated on the baffling decision to move Matt Jarvis from an area which he caused endless problems, Mick McCarthy found ‘no qualms’ with his team’s performance even after their somewhat dismal second half showing.
A few players deserve a mention for their efforts even in the face of increasing adversity.
- As has been aforementioned Matt Jarvis for 45 minutes was back to his usual self, attacking and beating full backs with confidence and flair and providing Wolves with a reliable attacking outlet.
- Christophe Berra who has been the best of a bad bunch in an over exposed Wolves defence stuck to his task admirably and shackled Crouch whilst dealing with a constant aerial bombardment.
- Nenad Milijas showed touches of the class that we all know he possesses, even if now he himself is resigned to the fact that his long term future does not lie under the tutelage of McCarthy. His sweet left foot and willingness to take a pot shot from distance is often what is missing most in Wolves’ attacking play. The Serb is often one pass ahead of his team mates and when allowed to do what he does best, has the ability to dictate a game from the middle of the park. He stands out as a footballer in the Wolves side because unlike others he can make things happen with less effort whilst those around him have to give 110% every to produce a similar outcome. Unfortunately this is viewed negatively by his manager who’s ethics rely on total blood and thunder graft and commitment and will not acknowledge Milijas as the affordable luxury that Wolves could do with most. If awarded the persistence and patience that other less productive players have been given, he could have been a real fan favourite and impact player at Molineux, sadly his appearances are few and far between and will inevitably be the makeweight for O’Hara or Edwards as soon as possible.
- Ronald Zubar is a player driven by passion and works with 100% commitment and honesty, but has that extra bit of class about his play that his competition lacks. Found wanting for Stoke’s winner but for all the right reasons, his ability on the ball and willingness to get forward and provide a link between defence and attack rather than the lottery long ball game that is wearing thin is what makes him stand out but again the fact he gives Wolves something different to the template mundane ‘putting a shift in’ will be his downfall.
By right Wolves fans should have walked away from Molineux disappointed, feeling that they had been ‘robbed’ after a decent display and that Stoke were incredibly lucky victors. On the contrary there was a sense of glum resignation that comes with the fact that even after the positive first half, most of us saw it coming. The inexplicable Matt Jarvis decision in the first half was drawn upon but it is nothing new to the supporters who realise now that there is nothing they can do to prevent such occurrences. It’s this bleak acceptance that hangs like a dark cloud over the current regime who seem incapable of producing a comfortable victory and any smash and grab win that does come our way is followed by another multiple game losing streak.
Stoke were far from lucky as victors. They ran out winners after a somewhat poor performance because they have the ability to do just that which has taken them to the next level and a level which Wolves aspire to be. For the most part it is far from aesthetically pleasing. Wolves fans throughout the game voiced their frustrations chanting “boring” and asking the question “how do you watch this every week?” but I’m betting there isn’t a single Wolves fan who wouldn’t trade circumstances given the choice. 8th in the table alongside a successful Europa League campaign, their fans reciprocated their approval with a resounding chorus of “we are Stoke City, we’ll play how we want”. In essence this is a simplistic yet poignant take on what is unfolding in the Potteries right now. Essentially by the laws of footballing physics it just shouldn’t work – much like a certain team from Colorado who have changed the landscape of American football by basing an entire offense on running the ball… It’s ugly, but it’s working and until it stops working these bandwagons will continue to roll and roll. I’m afraid it is time to go make that trans-Atlantic parallel because folks right here and right now, for Stoke City . . . . It’s Tebow Time!