words: David Marples
Football is like this sometimes: we’d have all given up and devoted our bodies and souls to a life of gardening if football was devoutly predictable. Luckily for all of us, it’s not and a team leakier than an inn from a Harry Potter story can rock up to the league leaders and look largely untroubled while plundering a couple of goals.
Sometimes, the outcome of a game looks so nailed on before the referee’s elongated peeeeeeep that bizarrely, the direct opposite of the most obvious result is most likely simply because….football.
After that giddy Sunday night against Arsenal followed the mother of all hangovers where we spent the afternoon hugging the toilet, head dangling in there inspecting the contents of our stomach lining. Yet the performance against Wolves at Molineux suggested that we’d spent the week in-between drinking lots of water, getting some rest and generally gathering together our collective shit. While it wasn’t quite easy, it was a Black Country mile easier than we dared realistically expect.
It’s still very early days under the tenure of Aitor Karanka but some changes in style were clearly evident, the most obvious being a change in tempo. When this side goes forward, it does so with pace and in numbers. It might not yield many clear-cut chances yet but particularly, in the second half, when the ball found its way to the feet of Ben Brereton, at least two of his team mates quickly supported him at break neck speed – no longer was the lone man left to forage alone. In this respect, Matty Cash deserves a special mention for the manner in which he supported both Brereton going forward and Eric Lichaj behind him.
At times, there was cause for concern. When Danny Fox went hurtling into a challenge in a very Danny Fox way after six minutes and received his obligatory yellow card, one did wonder if this was to be another of ‘those’ days at Molineux. The home side garnered joy from getting the ball wide right to the feet of the tricksy Ivan Cavaleiro which sometimes left Lichaj one against one since Kieran Dowell – bless him – is not the quickest or most diligent in tracking back. Yet weirdly, the league leaders were unable to fashion any meaningful chances.
The discipline of the team was the main factor in this state of affairs. Joe Worrall and Michael Mancienne, freed up from having to be the fulcrum of building play, were able to get stuck into some good old fashioned defending while Liam Bridcutt and Andreas Bouchalakis seemed to be tasked with simply winning the ball and moving it to the feet of Brereton or out wide. With the pace of Cash, the know-how of Dowell and the movement of Ben Osborn, it seemed like there was a specific and effective game plan to not only defend but to get the ball up the pitch. It is this change in tempo when in possession that seems to be the most obvious evolution from the previous management era.
The forward line was once again alarmingly young yet this matters not a jot when Brereton is on his game. Just like when he pretty much single-handedly handed a World Cup winner’s retirement to him on a silver platter a few weeks ago, he was at it again with his movement into the channels, hold-up play and direct running which was a right old pain in the arse of the Wolves’ posterior all afternoon. It was a disciplined display from one so green and it should also be noted that Worrall too turned in an equally mature performance, especially given the early booking he picked up and consequent pantomime jeers he received from the sell out home crowd who felt a yellow card was too lenient. At twenty years old, I might well have bawled my eyes out and laid down on the floor for a while were I to receive such close and critical scrutiny of my every move yet it is testament to our Joe that the home crowd soon got pretty bored of this and realised that he wasn’t actually going to lose his head and do something silly. They soon gave up.
The confidence and audacity of these young Turks is something to behold. When Dowell and Osborn took time to have a chat while stood suspiciously close over a free kick, most in the Forest end knew what was coming. As predicted, Dowell flicked the ball for Osborn to very nearly repeat his Bristol City free kick treat. The shot was deflected just wide.
It mattered not as a deflected shot from Dowell rumbled into the net, followed by a very calmly taken goal from Osborn just before half-time. While the two goal lead might not have reflected possession statistics, it did accurately reflect the quality of chances created and assuredness of the away team’s performance up to that point, which was - in all honesty - a little bit surreal. Even if the second half went south, this was worth it all regardless just to enjoy that half time smiley feeling.
As for the league leaders, we’ve all been there. You know the feeling: you’re riding high at the top of the league, you’ve got a sell out crowd expecting a stroll to victory and those pesky kids go and spoil it all. No doubt Wolves will regain their composure and stroll to the title – they have far too much quality in their ranks not to – but this was a reminder that football doesn’t always do what you want and expect it to.
To borrow the words of an 80s goddam long-haired rocker, where do we go from here? Well, let’s just enjoy it for a while – no optimistic talk of gatecrashing or making a late surge to the play-offs: just wallow in the satisfying yelp of the bloodied-nose wolf that gingerly limps away back to its den and lick its wounds.
Who knew that organisation could be this sexy?
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