HOW WE GOT HERE
Say what you will about Mick McCarthy as a football manager, but there are two things that cannot be said against the man; Firstly, that his players always play for him, they always ‘put a shift in’. And secondly, that he is capable of making distinctly average players perform to the very best of their potential. Lamentable and naive as his tactics may appear – 4-4-2, direct, high-tempo – McCarthy has long been able to take players of apparent average ability, put them in a team format make them look better than they are. That the likes of David Edwards, Kevin Foley, Stephen Ward, Richard Stearman and Christophe Berra were able to spend two full seasons enjoying a semi-comfortable existence in the Premier League before being found out was testament to the manager who led them. But alas, as always seemingly happens with McCarthy at Premier League level, his tactical and transfer market skills – or lack thereof at that level – were once more found to be wanting.
In the end, Wolves and McCarthy needed to separate. He did a job that was nothing short of miraculous, such was the state of the club he inherited in 2006. But in the final months of his reign, the supporters vitriol threatened to sour his legacy. That he was sacked when he was, means he is still warmly regarded, for the large part, around Molineux.
The Terry Connor experiment came next, and shouldn’t be dwelt upon. He inherited a side low on confidence, bottom of the table, one which was down and all but out. He couldn’t stop the slide, nor did supporters expect him too. They could see, despite declarations to the contrary from the man himself, that he wasn’t up to it. Despite his proclamations that he was his own man, he proved to be a poor man’s McCarthy. Nothing changed really.The sacking of the former Ireland boss and the promotion of Connor was the management equivalent of losing 20 pence but finding a penny.
Then came the summer and the hiring of Stale Solbakken, hugely successful in Denmark with Copenhagen, not so much with FC Koln in Germany. Fans rejoiced, whether they knew who he was or not. Someone new, someone not tainted by last seasons failure. With him would come fresh ideas, a fresh style. New tactics in a new division. He’d need time to acclimatise, to remove the deadwood who had overperformed under McCarthy for so long, and to put his stamp on the team, but once he had…Rejuvenated, Wolves would rise. Surely. Maybe. Perhaps. Hopefully.
SOLBAKKEN SO FAR
Solbakken’s ideas and tactical intricacies have over the course of the season become easily identifiable. Playing to a clear plan, it’s noticable how control of the football has become the order of the day. Centre-backs trying to work the ball out of defence wherever possible rather than looking to simply clear their lines. Full-backs pushed wider looking to act as outlets, stretching play in the initial phase. Whereas last season’s wide-men, messrs Kightly and Jarvis were orthodox wingers who got the proverbial chalk on their boots, this season’s incarnations have been more inverted wide midfielders, looking to not only stretch opposing defences and offer width in the final third, but also trying to find space between the lines in central areas through the middle of the pitch. Central midfielders look to hold position – rather than chasing relentlessly all over the park – both guarding against counter-attacks from the opposition and attempting to dictate the tempo when in possession. One striker looks to drop off his partner, looking both to help out in midfield, but also to act as an available option as soon as possession is regained – a number 10 if you will, despite Wolves not having a recognisable number 10 on the books.
A clear philosophy it is. A philosophy that the players laud publicly and say they are enjoying working towards. A philosophy which the manager says the players enjoy. But a philosophy which most certainly isn’t working.
The latest loss, 1-0 to high-flying Millwall on Tuesday night, has depressingly encapsulated Wolves season in microcosm.
For the opening 45 minutes, Solbakken’s Wolves controlled the game. They played with composure, patience and controlled proceedings. However, come half-time, there was absolutely nothing to show for it. Not because of a lack of effort, as the yells of some supporters on the terraces would have you believe, for the effort had been there in abundance throughout the half. But instead, because the players on the field, had once again simply not proven good enough to execute the philosophy of its manager.
Try as they might, the Wolves XI couldn’t make even the slightest dent in a Millwall defence which appeared there for the taking from the first minute when Kevin Doyle slipped by Danny Shittu in the left-hand channel. Wanderers dominated possession, which suggests that the flaw isn’t with the philosophy of the manager, but rather with the players trying to implement it.
The strikers worked tirelessly, but weren’t strong/quick enough to force opportunities themselves, nor clever enough to drop into holes and pull defenders out of position, thus creating space for others. Whisper it quietly, but what Wolves fans wouldn’t give for another Henri Camara, someone who could both drop in the hole and beat a man to open things up, or who could stretch opposing defences with blistering pace. (Bloodyhell, what some wouldn’t give for another Chris Iwelumo, someone to be in the middle looking to get on the end of crosses.)
The wide midfielders made decent moves down their respective flanks, but were unable to choose the correct moments to drift in-field to receive passes between the lines, thus opening up overlaps for the full-back and creating 2v1’s in central areas. The individualist Sako attempted to create something out of nothing on a couple of occasions, but his inability to use his right foot was soon worked out by the opposing full-back Adam Smith – on-loan at Millwall from Spurs – negating his strength. He ended up running down cul-de-sac’s more often than not. Jermaine Pennant, once a jet-heeled winger who played in a Champions League final and caused Gianluca Zambrotta, then one of Europe’s finest full-backs, problems with his speed and trickery, is now a shadow of his former self, apparently incapable of troubling his full-back whether going in-field or on the outside.
The two holders, David Davis and Dave Edwards, whilst capable of passing the ball between themselves and back to defenders, were incapable of finding an incisive pass. Not that there weren’t opportunities, but simply because they either: a) lacked the self-confidence to try it, or b) simply lack the vision/technical skill. Not once in an entire 45 minutes did they split the Millwall midfield with a vertical pass – be it over five yards or twenty – into a strikers feet, chest or playing them through on goal. Nor, and unusually for Edwards, did they back up play or get into advanced positions particularly effectively either.
Full-backs made good initial moves, but too often either played the safe ball backwards, or aimlessly tossed the ball into the penalty area. Stearman looked every inch a centre-half playing out wide.
In the second half came what Solbakken has since described as the worst 45 minutes since his arrival:
“The second half was probably the worst we have done this season, we were nervous and it was very untidy and very poor.
“We couldn’t get hold of the ball, we kicked it when we should have kept it and we kept it when we should have kicked it.
“We looked nervous, we looked disorganised and not like a football team and we have to be honest about that.”
It simply is not hard to disagree. Confidence seemed to drain from the players with every passing minute and a fear seemed to strike the side; the fear of making a mistake. And as any footballer or professional athlete will tell you, when such a fear takes hold, the game is up. You simply can’t win if you are only thinking about failure. And whilst no-one was hiding, no-one exactly rolled their sleeves up and demanded more. On-field leadership, perhaps Johnson apart, was lacking.
Passes went astray with increasing regularity, poor decisions were made, especially in defence; Berra and Johnson as individuals are both solid defenders who would be assets to any team in the Championship, whilst Johnson is by some distance Wolves most vocal player. But as a partnership, and in conjunction with Ward and Stearman, the Wolves defence is simply mistake-ridden, and increasingly look as though they don’t enjoy playing together – they are four individuals rather than one unit. As a whole the side lost its foothold in the game and allowed their visitors to see more of the ball, gradually in more dangerous areas. The crowd only served to transmit more misdirection, their displeasure at the sides inability to create opportunities lending itself to “Get it forward” calls, rather against the philosophy the manager is trying to instill.
As such, it was no surprise when Millwall took the lead – the Wolves defence at sixes and sevens from a routine long ball – nor when they comfortably saw the game out with it still in tact, the goalkeeper David Forde having not been called upon to make a save worthy of the name.
Boos rung around the ground at the final whistle and the first real showings against the manager, with shouts of “Solbakken go home” and “P*** off Stale” heard.
But is the way forward via the sacking of another manager? For as I mentioned earlier, the philosophy that he is trying to lay down appears to be a solid one, and it certainly looked as though with more cutting edge and creativity, it would have done for Millwall, the divisions form side, within 45 minutes.
Unfortunately, whilst the philosophy is there, the players simply aren’t of the required quality to put his instructions into action.
Passing out of defence is all well and good if it’s Pique and Puyol. But whilst Johnson has a bit of composure about him, Berra’s passing is erratic at best and seemingly always kills the sides momentum whenever he receives possession. Edwards and Davis in central midfield take too long to make decisions, get caught in possession and, as previously mentioned, cannot make an incisive vertical pass – The return of Tongo Doumbia, who cleverly dictates play from his anchor role, will help in this regard. Pennant lacks the non-stop vertical running ability of Peszko, who although not the greatest technical footballer, makes clever movements and is a nuisance to defenders. The strikers, though hard-working, simply don’t look like scoring goals, given both their inability to impose themselves on opposing defences – due largely to a lack of physical presence – and a lack of quality service. Burnley’s Charlie Austin has 21 goals (all comps) already this season. Wolves as a team have scored just 24.
When all is said and done, Wolves are a broken team. Still suffering from a hangover to last season, when losing became a habit, a number of players aren’t playing anywhere near their potential, the side currently aren’t scoring goals or creating chances – a major concern, but considering the clubs three most potent attacking players were sold for almost £28m in the summer, it is almost understandable – and are allowing sides to score without doing anything particularly special to do so (Guedioura apart). Throw in that fans appear more disillusioned with the club than ever before – except perhaps during the reign of the Bhatti’s in the 80s, but then disillusionment for that era would certainly be the wrong adjective – and the manager, trying to implement his own ideas that aren’t already ingrained in the psyche of the players/fans is almost certainly on a hiding to nothing. Even moreso with results having gone the way they have in previous weeks.
WHERE TO NOW
Well quite simply, it’s one of two ways.
Stick with Solbakken, his mantra of patience, possession and control and see if he can turn things around. The club have shown their willingness to back him in the transfer market by laying out £3m to make Tongo Doumbia’s loan-deal permanent in recent weeks, and hopefully will do so once more in January, bringing in players who can do what he wants them to do, thus making the side more potent.
Or sack the manager and start a new, with no guarantee that the new mans ideas will be taken on board any quicker than the current incumbent. Additionally, throw in that after this trip into relative obscurity, it would most likely be a ‘safe’ appointment of someone who is always touted for jobs whenever they become available, like Curbishley, Ince or even McLeish.
Everyone will have their opinion, one way or the other. For what it’s worth, mine is to give the new man time. He appears intelligent and from his words, seems to know why things are the way they are, and looks to be in it for the long haul. Thus far he has seemingly made his decisions with the long-term in mind, rather than just short-term fixes. He has had six months to take in all the information at the club and to assess the playing staff from top to bottom. The next six months will be where he makes changes and when we can see where the club is truly heading.
The club is in transition following the mistakes of the hierarchy last season, and fresh ideas take time to bear fruit. Although the side are struggling and I, like a number of likeminded supporters, don’t believe results nor performances have been good enough, I do feel that by utilising resources, and allowing the manager to have the finances he deems necessary, the club can come out of this dark period stronger than when we went into it. It won’t happen overnight. But it will happen
Out of Darkness, Cometh Light.