With a few desperate minutes left, three of the Premier League’s most talented players conspired over a free kick outside the Wolves box. As the tension simmered around the Lane, they after great deliberation hatched their devilish plan. The whistle blew and the execution was impeccable. Defoe to Modric, Modric to Huddlestone – except the ball was returned to precisely the same blade of grass to be gratefully smothered by a couple of eager onrushing defenders.
Our performance in a nutshell, a brainless and futile effort. To suggest that the rest is not worth discussing is tempting but unfair, because Wolves deserve credit for a fine defensive display. Admittedly their intentions were revealed after 30 seconds, when ten of their players clustered around their penalty area, and the early goal gave them the perfect incentive, but they stuck to McCarthy’s plan with great resilience.
There it is. I couldn’t resist. Second para and the ‘R word’ already, my word of the season. They had it, we didn’t. What’s worse, I thought we were learning it, but the evidence from successive weeks shows this was a false hope. Confronted with the requirement to be patient, considered and determined, our resolve crumbled in the second half, our superior skills and talent reduced to a series of long hopeful punts in the vague direction of Crouch’s spindly body.
A bad start set us back on our heels. We have been defending set pieces better of late and admittedly it looked a decent ball but surely we could have done something about their goal. Dawson played well again and if the rest of the team had possessed half his obvious urgency then we would not have lost, but he still let his man come in front of him to rise unchallenged.
Near the end the Wolves fans chanted about only ever being given s**t refs, but they have short memories. Being a mature, balanced individual, I reacted as any fan would to a defeat and deliberately didn’t watch MOTD. The theory is that if Hansen, Lawro and Shearer don’t make their pronouncements the game didn’t really exist. That and sticking my fingers in my ears and going ‘Lalalala’. So without the benefit of a replay I may be totally misguided in not seeing anything wrong with Hud’s challenge that was flagged a foul by an over-eager linesman anxious to make an impression.
Around me there was growing frustration but as the game went on I thought we were doing well enough. The well-organised defensive barrier was hard to break down but for the most part we kept possession and made space, especially towards the end of the half. Lennon had two men on him as soon as he touched the ball and defenders concentrated their efforts on the near post to block crosses. However, they can’t be everywhere and we consistently spread the ball wide and maintained a decent tempo. Huddlestone was excellent throughout the half, superb passing allied to an unusually high workrate. Kranjcar was also prominent and Assou Ekotto saw plenty of the ball, delivering some fine crosses.
This was always going to be a game of few chances. Although we lacked a cutting edge, those chances did arrive but were not taken. Keane should have done better with a header, and he, Lenny, JD and Niko all wanted that extra touch on the ball that was not there as Wolves began a game-long series of flying blocks and lunging tackles. You would think that the forwards’ confidence was high and that they could try an early or first-time shot, but curiously they collectively seemed unable to do so. Maybe their confidence is more fragile than might first appear.
Keane was especially poor. On several occasions he wasted hard-earned openings by taking the ball wide rather than striking for the heart of the defence. More space but less danger. He cut a forlorn figure when substituted. Something is not right in his mind. Wilson too is a shadow of his former self, wasting possession consistently. He needs a rest.
Meanwhile, behind me Dave the pie-man dozed contentedly, oblivious to all efforts to wake him. He had the right idea.
The series of excellent crosses from BAE in particular were largely wasted in the first half for want of a big centre forward to get on the end of them. So Crouch comes on and the stream of crosses totally dries up, replaced by endless balls delivered from wide and about 40 yards out. Even with this tactic, we were unable to get more than one player close to Crouch for any of his knock-downs. Poor though most of them were, the law of averages suggests that something will come of them if players can shift themselves. But apparently transfixed by the shiny bright sphere glistening in the floodlights, the players stood back and admired the ball’s graceful arc through the night sky.
This aspect of our play is utterly unfathomable and unacceptable. It’s not Crouch’s fault – I’ve said before that he likes the ball in front of him and would have lapped up the first half crossing, delivered from the byline or close to it, whipped in and around the 6 yard box. Under pressure (actually, not that much pressure), there is a collective mental disintegration. We could not build a move of four passes, or get the ball wide, or link the full back with the wide man. Last Sunday, the same mental attitude meant we conceded endless free kicks for no reason and could not keep possession, thereby throwing away a match we had sown up.
It’s not as if we can’t be creative or keep the ball, and that’s what makes it so disappointing. With such a lack of mental strength we will not get anywhere and are in danger of wasting the full talents of the best squad we have had at the Lane for years.
One slight plus was the reappearance of Modric, who pleasingly picked up the pace of the game straight away and his touch looks good, but of course he needs more time. Gio managed to hide for 15 minutes…
Work is the curse of blogging classes. Over the last week my writing has been confined to two reports for the trustees and the Department. 8000 words, set out, if I may say so, with clarity and balance to be read and enjoyed by three people then shredded unceremoniously.
In my last TOMM outing I called for a bit of perspective after Man U. Two games since then, evidence enough to draw some conclusions. And the unpalatable but unavoidable truth is that we remain fundamentally fragile deep down inside. We need to remain steady under pressure – keeping the ball sounds simple enough but is apparently beyond our collective consciousness. Also, both Villa and Wolves piled men into their box to defend slender leads to the last man. We on the other hand tiptoe around, presumably to help the groundsman by not churning up his six yard box. I can’t think of a better explanation, and we would do well to learn from those two, starting next week against City and at Blackburn.