Much like the education centres around the country, Wolverhampton Wanderers broke up for their Christmas break on Tuesday with much to ponder over the festive period as they reflect on what they have taken in this season of giving and in Mick McCarthy’s case how good will may not be extended to ALL men…
Two teams with contrasting styles, ideology and fortunes came head to head at Molineux as Wolves hosted their second home game in three days against Norwich City. The visitors still very much ‘living the dream’ buoyant from two consecutive promotion campaigns and exceeding all expectations in their return to the English top flight whilst the home team were punching well below their weight, teetering once again ominously above the dreaded relegation zone and showing little of the progress that once assumes comes naturally as the seasons go by in the Premier League.
In wake of their latest home disaster against Stoke City, Mick McCarthy was heralded for making a long overdue change to the starting line up as Sylvan Ebanks-Blake returned to the starting line up to replace the not only goal but shot-shy Kevin Doyle. The spirit was good natured before kick off as the Molineux crowd’s winter blues were lifted by the return of their favourite number 9 who’s plethora of goals propelled them out of the Championship and into the promised land. Paul Lambert stuck by the principles that have bought him so much success so far this season by sticking with a standard 4-4-2 formation with the attack spearheaded by Welsh international Steve Morison and this seasons unlikely hotshot Grant Holt.
With all the circumstance and consumerism that comes with the Christmas period we often forget the very religious standing that underlines the whole occasion. Mick McCarthy got a message of biblical proportions after just 12 minutes of the contest in the form of a ‘Surman’ on the mount. Andrew Surman a talented midfielder who suffered an unpleasant season in the Premier League under McCarthy as I’m sure others can relate to – finding it hard for his face to fit, playing second fiddle to arguably less talented players in the same position returned as if it was written in the scriptures to haunt his old boss whilst proving that he does indeed belong at this level. The comedy of errors had rolled over from Saturday as blown coverage down Wolves’ right flank and non-existent marking in the area allowed Surman, not famed for his headers, an easy nod from close range.
As an air of resignation and resentment clashed with an eerie sense of déjà vu in Wolverhampton the two teams had showed their hand early. Norwich were intent on sticking to their beliefs and footballing ideology. Champions League winning manager Paul Lambert has built a team famed for attacking, passing football and a mentality that no matter what happens at the wrong end of the field they can outscore their opponents at the other. As the Canaries kept the ball well and passed Wolves to bits in the early exchanges, Wolves were intent on playing their trump cards in the forms of wing outlet Matt Jarvis and getting joy from the aerial prowess of Steven Fletcher. In a frustrating opening 20 minutes or so Wolves executed plan A with little joy, but seemed vacant of any other ideas. Matt Jarvis found sparce joy against young prospect Kyle Naughton at right back but his delivery was as inconsistent as his seasonal form whilst his wing partner Stephen Hunt drifted inside vacating his position all too often, exposing Wolves on the right side. His crossing was woeful at best once more and his only telling contribution to the game came as he looped the ball over the bar from 6 yards out with the empty goal at his mercy. Up top Fletcher was busy, coming short to link play between striker and midfielder and winning countless flick ons in the air with the intended target Ebanks-Blake unable to complete the pre-planned method.
The recently restored Wolves number 9 played with sense of someone who had a point to prove, but with the burden of knowing he had to do it quickly. The emission of Kevin Doyle will have been a difficult decision for the manager even or sadly especially as the fans believed it was a long time coming. Blake showed flashes of his goal instinct turning instinctively to fire just over from inside the penalty area at 1-0 whilst his will to make an impact got the better of him on occasion as his first touch got away from him or he slipped over thinking of his next move before he’d executed his initial one.
It was however, the striker who had previously been a spectator who levelled the contest. Inevitably the Wolves supply came from their right side and Jarvis who’s low misplaced cross hit both Stephen Hunt and a Norwich defender before Blake swung a left boot caught a lucky ricochet from another defender in green and watched his shot trickle slowly past a wrong footed Ruddy into the net.
The muted celebrations from the home crowd were partly through a relief that expected much more and more over due to the obvious injustice that their side could have easily been three goals down before their lucky break. The Wolves back four looked as disjointed as ever as a patient short passing build up saw Grant Holt halted in a last gasp effort by Christophe Berra and Steve Morison got the better of Johnson with ease in the air but headed directly into Hennessey’s grasp from only 6 yards out.
Wolves fans and players who have certainly had just cause to bemoan their luck since August this year were now riding it and the goal saw a resurgence of both player and spectator. The onus was on the home team to grasp the momentum and over awe the league’s new boys in unfamiliar territory. Wolves attacked with more impetus but in very much the same vein as the previous half an hour and Norwich had since deciphered this by doubling up on Matt Jarvis and covering the second ball well after the inevitable Fletcher flick on. The unwillingness to try anything different had started to frustrate the home crowd, as they vented their spleens towards Stephen Hunt whose poor delivery and ill-disciplined positional play were the only constants of his performance. No disrespect to the away side who have surprised more than a few this season, but it was clear that against a ‘better’ side with more potency this game could and would have been far out of Wolves reaches by now.
In a segment I can only fittingly describe as ‘Henry Watch’ I am delighted to go against the grain and pick up on the positives of the ever present golden boy of the Wolverhampton Wanderers team. Tuesday night saw the Wolves number 8 showcase what he can do well. Ironically these are none of the things that would feature in his advertising space. Although his tackling and marking attributes are still waning, he was much better using the ball, his distribution inventive whilst making intuitive runs to open up the Norwich defence and add to Wolves attacking flow. He was aided by Nenad Milijas whose crisp insightful passing was on show once again as he spread the play from side to side and whose vision is second to none in the line up at this present time. Henry’s best bet is to drift from this misguided stereotype that he can ‘boss’ the midfield because he has neither the stature nor the ability to do so, if he continues to showcase such an impressive passing range and make intuitive decoy runs to allow Wolves to better their attacks with the ball then he will soon be winning over many more of his justified doubters.
So you’re level at half time having clawed back a disadvantage at home, against a team of 11 who give or take the odd one or two are fairly new to this level and standard of football. The levels of expectation circulating around the stands inadvertently, yet inevitably increases the level of pressure on the host to grab the proverbial bull by the horns. Both managers were relatively pleased with what they had witnessed so far and neither was tempted into a change at half time to shake things up.
For 25 minutes the game simmered without ever threatening to boil over. Endeavour and honesty was present in abundance, but a distinct lack of cutting edge was all too evident. Wolves continued in much the same vein as they had in act one; working the channels but lacking that incisive delivery and attempting to connect the dots with balls into Blake’s feet and onto Fletcher’s head. Stephen Hunt picked up where he left off with a very poor second half outing leaving the majority of Wolves fans in the same predicament as they have found themselves an hour into most home games this season i.e waiting for the emergence of Adam Hammill to kick start a fledgling game with his trickery and pace which after almost 12 months is still so painstakingly under-appreciated by his manager.
Midway through the second half Wolves finally got things moving. Steven Fletcher took a ball out of the air with great composure, span on his marker and whistled a left footed pearly literally centimetres over the bar which was made to look all the more impressive by goalkeeper Ruddy’s despairing dive. A Stephen Ward centre with much more characteristic accuracy picked out Ebanks-Blake who had lost his marker but once again fell to the mercy of his ring rust and he connected tamely with the free header leaving the Wolves fans with the ominous feeling that ‘that was the chance’.
So it was that Karma reared its devious head once more on the Wolverhampton Wanderers course as just moments after Blake’s guilt edged chance, Norwich City regained the lead. Wolves were caught short on the right side again after an attack involving attacking full back Zubar had broken down. Steve Morison left Roger Johnson helplessly flapping which will not do his current reputation much good and the Welshman slid the ball across goal for Simeon Jackson who had only been on the pitch a matter of seconds, to tap home his first ever Premier League goal and one of the easiest of his career as he drifted between two potential markers.
If the performance up to this point had been borderline acceptable, at 2-1 down after 75 minutes it was suddenly far from it. For the home crowd who had resisted the urge to knock their team whilst they were level, it was now open season. Every misplaced pass and naive positional play was greeted with disapproval and venom from the stands. Cue the long overdue activity from the bench. McCarthy threw Adam Hammill to the lions once more in a losing situation, whilst Kevin Doyle entered the fray replacing the Ebanks Blake to the dismay of some sections of the paying public.
Just as a blue moon was rising, Haley’s Comet soared overhead and rocking horse provided manure – Wolves scored direct from a corner. Too often this season they have wasted set piece situations; taking them short, requiring two players to execute a dead ball delivery or just exasperatingly failing to beat the first defender. Instead Matt Jarvis stepped up from the left, delivered with his right straight onto the head of passionate defender Ronald Zubar whose bullet header levelled the contest once more. With the best part of 10 minutes to go including injury time, Wolves eventually began to press for the points. A couple of routine blocks from speculative shots were followed by the moment of sheer ecstasy. Wolves broke with a timely ball out of the backfield sent Matt Jarvis tearing down the right who delivered a peach of a ball with superb precision as Steven Fletcher advanced into the area and side footed past the keeper sending Molineux into raptures… A joy that lasted little over five seconds as the linesman’s flag arose and the last throw of the dice was chalked off for offside.
A harsh ending to a topsy-turvy game in which Norwich would have justifiably felt aggrieved if they hadn’t taken at least a point from. 31 total shots on goal between the two teams tells the story. End to end, speculative, but lacking in any real cutting edge as a good proportion of those shots were way off target.
To come from behind twice in one game speaks volumes of Wolves resilience, yet you fear that they must conjure much more if they are to avoid relegation this year. Norwich City have picked up points at Liverpool, played immensely at Old Trafford and recently drew with Everton, ironically three places from which Wolves went home with nothing. Therefore you would presume that a home draw was not such a terrible result. Considering the Bolton Wanderers victory and the recent upturn in fortune for Wigan Athletic it was another missed opportunity for Mick McCarthy’s men. That is now all three promoted sides that have come to Molineux and left with at least a point, something that by now after two and a half years of supposed progression in the top flight Wolves fans would expect to be a routine victory. Of course there are two sides to every story and two teams on the pitch one of which the away side, played admirably as they have done all season so far. On the other hand it has to be considered whether Wolves could reciprocate and show enough character to go away from home to all three of the aforementioned teams and get a result, which at the moment seems unthinkable given losing streak on the road which stretches back to August.
Two massive home games in three days have produced just one solitary point for Wolves, in contrast to this you cannot help but the comparison with teams in the mixer such as Wigan who picked up double that amount against Chelsea and Liverpool whilst bitter rivals West Bromwich Albion got the maximum from two tricky away trips to Blackburn and Newcastle. All of which collates as one pounding headache for the Wolves boss who’s time at the club hinges on this second half of the season.
Before the turn of the year Wolves travel to Bolton in the annual ‘battle of the Wanderers’ in yet another pivotal game for the club. Bolton will no doubt be buoyant from their recent victory over local and relegation rivals Blackburn Rovers and be looking to build on that slither of momentum to propel themselves away from the drop zone at the expense of Wolverhampton. The question is do Wolves have the strength in character and the resilience to stop a rot of their own and bring something other than muddy boots back home from the Reebok, on this evidence… I wouldn’t be so sure.