Wolverhampton Wanderers travel to a big North London club with European ambitions; are given a snowballs chance in Hell of taking anything from the game, defend resolutely and defy their long odds and escape back up the M6 with a precious point after a 1-1 draw. . . I can’t help feeling we’ve seen this all before.
Just as they did some three weeks ago at the Emirates Stadium against Arsenal, Mick McCarthy’s troopers have upset the balance again in the Barclays Premier League with another ‘backs to the wall’ showing to take an unlikely point from their visit to Tottenham and once again ruffled the feathers of the Premier League hierarchy. For a Wolves team who lost all of their games in London last season, they have now dealt out some capital punishment of their own in consecutive matches.
Essentially it’s what Wolves do. The ‘ultimate underdog’, ‘the pantomime villain’ – it’s what Wolves’ manager Mick McCarthy thrives on, he built an entire season on it last year. As much as it baffles and at times infuriates their supporters who are constantly faced with the conundrum of why their team are able to take points from the Arsenal’s and Tottenham’s of the world but continue to struggle against those of ‘lesser’ standing whom on paper at least they should be competing against. Wolves travelled to White Hart Lane on Saturday afternoon as a total write off. Having shown much more resilience in recent weeks taking admirable points on the road from Arsenal and Bolton whilst running Chelsea to the wire in their last league outing, albeit to finish heartbroken in the dying seconds thanks to a scorer who was extremely lucky to still be on the pitch – moreover if the brunt of refereeing decisions that Wolves themselves have been on the end of recently were equally consistent, they’d have avoided that previous defeat quite comfortably. Still searching for that elusive win, the recent improvement in defence sees the side encouragingly made of much sterner stuff and with a foundation on which to build. Still the Gold ‘n’ black army were afforded little chance of coming away with anything against this year’s talk of the town thus far, but they wouldn’t have it any other way. With all expectations pointing towards them being ‘footballed to death’ against the classy North London outfit, Wolves fans were quietly optimistic knowing that if they could somehow nick something worth defending, they would do just that.
So to the contrasting fortunes of the opposition. As the new ‘media darlings’ Tottenham Hotspur are trending worldwide. With their manager Harry Redknapp seen as a must for his country and a team playing a brand of football and more importantly getting the results to leave their audience salivating at the endless possibilities, Tottenham Hotspur have played their way elegantly into the recognition as genuine title contenders. The fact of the matter and the foundation for their recent exposure is that they are equal with Manchester United after 50% of the season and as we know any team that has achieved that feat in the best part of 20 years has been there or there about come the finale. We’ve all seen teams before outside of that agreed ‘ Big Four’ who have made little inroads; had an unbeaten start to the season or been top of the tree after 8 games and dreaming of breaking down those invisible yet substantial barriers. As is often the case these runs have been short lived and reality has reared its ugly head, but for Spurs to be right in the mixer at this stage of the season is sending real shockwaves through the usual suspects. After dismantling an Everton side who are notoriously difficult to beat with a stylish ease, Tottenham have been hot off the press in the week building up to the fixture with Wolves with anyone who’s anyone offering their opinion as the media cauldron descended on the Lane. So what were the chances of this additional pressure and collective expectation having an adverse effect on Harry and his Spurs? Where once they played with freedom and expression suddenly the shackles of the watching world were firmly in place. So would the pressure of adhering to their new found labels and the effects of their week in the stars possibly lead to a lowly Wolves side being overlooked? Surely not… right?
`Wolves reverted back to their ‘press and contain’ 4-5-1 system with Steven Fletcher carrying the fortunes of the entire city on his shoulders as the lone ranger up front. Michael Kightly returned on the right side of midfield after his loan spell at Watford with Matt Jarvis as his partner on the opposite flank. Although Nenad Milijas was eligible once more after that laughable three game suspension, McCarthy opted for a workmanlike yet essentially quality-free centre midfield trio of Karl Henry, David Edwards and Mr unpopular Arsenal loanee Emmanuel Frimpong. Kevin Foley made a welcome return to his natural full back position in place of Richard Stearman in an otherwise unchanged back four.
Tottenham set out their stall as expected with a roaming expansion of the 4-5-1 system with Adebayor leading the line and Luka Modric, Van Der Vaart and speedsters Bale and Lennon all given license to express in a versatile midfield. Their free forming shape and expressive intent was apparent right from the off. Intent on playing the game in the ‘right’ manner, Tottenham kept and manoeuvred the ball with the same elegance and finesse that we have come to expect. With so many outlets; the express pace of Bale and Lennon on the flanks supported by their equally rapid full backs Assou-Ekoto and Walker and the guile and trickery of Van Der Vaart and Modric through the middle it promised to be along afternoon for Wolves as they retreated further and further back in the opening twenty minutes struggling to keep up with their opposition.
After a taster of their well-documented brilliance and a few pot shots from distance from Van Der Vaart and Modric to keep Wayne Hennessey thinking, Wolves smashed … and then grabbed … and had their something to hold onto. During all the superlatives being banded about for Spurs offensively, the defence would have felt somewhat negated and for good reason. Wolves first attack of note in the game forced a left wing corner, Matt Jarvis delivered right footed and found the head of Captain Roger Johnson completely unmarked in the six yard box. Johnson’s header was palmed back out in desperation by Brad Friedel to the one man who was first to react – who else? But Steven Fletcher, who stabbed home the opener just as he did in this fixture last season to give the visitors an highly unlikely lead. With the huge media circus and building up of the home side for an entire week, Wolverhampton Wanderers would take the lead on their home patch, after all THAT is just typical of football these days!
In essence this didn’t change the complexion of the game a great deal. The onus, as it was from the off was very much still on the home side to quench the thirst of its adoring public and slay the hungry Wolves. Within ten minutes of the opener Rafael Van der Vaart, Modric and Bale had all tested the water from outside the area. Justifiably confident in their own ability, the plethora of superstars each missed the target from central positions of fully twenty yards or more. Adebayor, as nimble with the ball at his feet as he is dominant in the air towered in the area to flick on from a corner to the lively Dutchman in his free role who half volleyed against the Wolves defenders intent on blocking anything and everything.
Tottenham poured forwards in response to Wolves’ retreat. Even defenders Kaboul and Assou-Ekoto found themselves a part of regular attacks as proof of the home sides almost ‘gung ho’ mentality. The two combined down the left flank to get the better of Kevin Foley allowing the full back too much time to deliver a cross which forced a poor headed clearance from Stephen Ward on the far post and dropped almost too invitingly to Modric unmarked on the edge of the area who volleyed into the floor and comfortably into Hennessey’s arms.
On 36 minutes Wolves attacked again fully 15 minutes after their goal. Decent link up play from the Wolves left field involving Jarvis, Fletcher and Ward led to the one cap winger dragging the ball back from the by-line to an advancing David Edwards who failed to make the most of this rare opportunity as he miscued harmlessly wide from the edge of the area. Wolves fans sensed that if there was to be another chance to extend this innocuous lead, then that was surely it.
With the possession stats residing at 67-33 in favour of the home side, Wolves were to rely on the odd chance to counter. Emmanuel Frimpong made good ground through the centre on a break, he spread the ball out wide to Michael Kightly who determined to make the most of his new lease of first team life took on his full back before shifting infield onto his weaker left foot and curling over and wide. If nothing else it was positivity from Wolves, looking to shake the misconceptions that they were out to ‘steal’ a victory and determined to give more offensively than they were afforded against Arsenal some three weeks earlier.
An altercation on the sideline between the two managers just before half time was a marker for things to come and a sign that even the gentleman Harry Redknapp is prone to lose his cool in the pressure cooker at the summit of the Barclays Premier League.
In the closing stages of the first half with Tottenham still driving forward in numbers, they finally found a way under the bus that Wolves had parked in front of goal. Getting more joy from the left flank, Assou-Ekoto found himself the furthest forward once more. The Cameroonian cut a cross back into the area which Van der Vaart stabbed at directing it out of the reach of Wolves’ Welsh stopper, leaving Adebayor to smash the ball into an empty net… They joy however was short lived as Adebayor turned only to see that traditional killjoy the linesman’s flag raised for offside. Luckily for Wolves and frustratingly for Spurs, replays showed that the ball was heading into the corner of the net after Van der Vaart’s prod and Adebayor and Tottenham had fallen victim to the striker’s natural instinct.
There was still time before the break for the busy Dutchman to advance again, trying to create an opening for himself on the edge of the Wolves penalty area before a perfectly executed sliding challenge from Roger Johnson stopped the attack in a fitting end to what had been another resolute and encouraging display from the Wolves’ centre halves himself and Christophe Berra.
With Wolves preparing to do what they know best and batten down the hatches to preserve their slender lead in the second half, Spurs started as they meant to go on. Rapid wingers Lennon and Bale kept things fresh by swapping sides and found plenty of joy travelling (almost gliding) effortlessly with the ball at their feet. Some neat footwork from the world class Welshman calved out a chance for himself which he slashed horribly high and wide in the opening exchanges of round 2.
Wolves responded by using their most productive outlet Matt Jarvis. The away sides closest comparison to the Tottenham tricky wingers, Jarvis got the better of Kyle Walker, laid the ball back to Michael Kightly who’s hooked cross was headed straight to the feet of Frimpong. The ball sat up invitingly for the midfielder who connected sweetly on the half volley only to see the shot parried by the big American between the sticks for Spurs emphasising what a huge contribution he has made to the Tottenham cause this term.
Just as revenge is sweet and justice is cold, the Premier League is wholly unforgiving. Wolves were made to pay for missing their golden opportunity just a minute later as a patient Tottenham build up emanating from the left found Luka Modric who was ‘tenth time lucky’ as his low drive levelled the tie. A case can certainly be made against both the Wolves defence and goalkeeper in this instance. The fledgling attempts to close down the attacker were all too common again as Modric’s shot went through three sets of legs as Wolves defenders made timid attempts to block the shot which eventually dribbled harmlessly under the body of the diving Wayne Hennessey. It is safe to say that Hennessey may have been unsighted by the golden mass that converged in front of him but should have done much better than essentially diving over the top of the ball. These clockwork occurrences are once again proving to be the thorn in Wolves’ side as the management stubbornly appear to show no sign of addressing them.
With the home side now riding a wave of momentum and feeding off their reinvigorated crowd they pushed forwards to enforce their dominance. Gareth Bale’s cross from the left missed everyone in the area but was rescued by Aaron Lennon. Lennon laid in Modric who’s shot trickled back off of two Wolves defenders back to the feet of Lennon with an open goal at his mercy. A section of the crowd were already celebrating the inevitable when literally out of nowhere Wayne Hennessey slid onto the scene and smothered the ball on the line, somewhat atoning for his error minutes before.
As astute as Tottenham were in attack, Wolves were growing equally as effective at the back. Berra and Johnson blocked and headed anything that moved whilst Jarvis and Kightly provided good cover for their full backs against the might of the Tottenham wide attacks. Wolves finally attacked once more on 63 minutes. Karl Henry got himself into his own personal nosebleed territory dribbling up field before disguising a clever short pass into Steven Fletcher. Fletcher advanced into the area but was caught in two minds and ended up chipping wastefully into Friedel’s arms. Chances were inevitably few and far between for the away side as their fans sensed they may need to score at least once more to have a chance of getting even a draw from this game which was slowly turning on its head.
The following 15 minutes provided a much needed lull for the away fans who were growing more intense by the minute. Wolves introduced their resident nuisance Stephen Hunt to the play whilst Tottenham opted for Jermaine Defoe and not a moment too soon for the England striker who has haunted Wolves regularly in years gone by. The home faithful didn’t have to wait long either for his first involvement. Gareth Bale was allowed to cross field unchallenged with the ball before laying into the path of Defoe whose connection was crisp but saved well once more by Hennessey who used arguably his best attribute, his legs, to divert the ball wide.
It was becoming increasingly obvious that Wolves must use any time they were given with possession to the fullest extent, something not adhered to by Stephen Hunt who in the 81st minute was wasteful in a good area and blindly laid the ball off setting up a swift Tottenham counter from which they forced two consecutive corners. Pressure is a prerequisite in games like these and Wolves could ill afford to contribute to Spurs’ fortunes themselves.
As the minutes ebbed away in the closing stages Harry Redknapp cut a frustrated figure on the side lines. It was clear that Wolves had soaked up enough from their hosts to take a point which they would be heralded for whilst the much publicised Tottenham team spent an afternoon huffing and puffing, but incidentally never blowing the house down. There was still time for more bizarre and unfavourable refereeing from the supposed best officials we could produce. Wayne Hennessey collected a cross in his area and fell awkwardly on his own defender which lead to a few minutes of treatment for the keeper. Baring in mind there was no Tottenham player involved in the challenge, the referee unethically and inexplicably decided to set a precedent and that the result of the incident should be … a drop ball, from inside the Wolves penalty area! Wolves protests naturally fell on deaf ears and Tottenham were all too happy to oblige given the game had crossed into 5 questionable minutes of injury time. In a show of unity and a real ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ moment the Wolves players with no choice but to beat the system, linked shoulders and formed a 7 man barrier as the ball was dropped which eventually resulting in the getting a free kick of their own from the needless decision.
Perhaps more surprising was the attitude of Spurs manager Harry Redknapp who appeared to openly encourage his team to make the most of the decision creating an aura of unsportsmanlike conduct and how the pressure at the top can serve to change people as Wolverhampton Wanderers once again successfully endeavoured to upset the apple cart.
Whilst the result will bring lavish praise on McCarthy’s battlers and create new questions on Tottenham’s ability to go the full distance, the game itself paints a deeper picture. Tottenham were the picture of elegance on the field. The gulf in class was all too prominent as the Spurs players positioning, movement and crisp passing was first class.
Wolves as ever failed to read the script. More than happy to play the part of the incredulous ‘party pooper’ these are the games which suit Mick McCarthy’s system and mentality, but is that necessarily a good thing? The ‘backs to the wall’ mentality is effective in games like these and as Wolves have shown when little is expected sometimes they can deliver a lot. The worrying thing from a Wolves perspective is that this is often their only plan, which is all very well and good on trips to Tottenham and Arsenal in which the bonus points you pick up are of little use when you achieved the same result in home games against Norwich, Swansea, QPR, Newcastle and Stoke of which more was expected and required.
Essentially the message for Wolves fans is not to get carried away by these results. I serve only to be the sober one at the party whose pessimism at times like these seem unwarranted but is a collaboration and a lesson learned from previous experience. 8 of Wolves starting 11 yesterday came up with them from the Championship, whilst three others who appeared were purchased from clubs who had recently fallen in that direction… A team is a direct reflection of its manager. Wolves first 11 is chocked full of honest, battling, effort players who give their all for the cause but are lacking in fundamental areas, whilst the players with the genuine ability are overlooked. Those with that little something extra; the Milijas, Hammil’s, Guedioura’s of the world – all purchased by Mick McCarthy but seemingly have no place in his simplistic ‘blood and thunder’ system. Again this is all very well in games which require substance over style in which a team’s sole focus is stop the other from functioning, but in terms of moving forwards it is the reason why Wolves are and will always be that Championship club punching above its weight in the big league, whilst the Swansea’s, Norwich’s and Stoke’s of the world put their achievements to pale showing a progression and an understanding of adaptability that is needed to reach that promised land of ‘mid table mediocrity’ in arguably the best league in the world.