This is a chronological look at Wolves’ season, exploring the tactical issues and themes that came up along the way:
Mick McCarthy’s summer spending appeared to be designed to re-establish a 4-4-2 formation. The decision to spend £7m on Steven Fletcher would not have been made if he was intended to be Kevin Doyle’s deputy – this was a clear statement that a return to two up front was planned.
McCarthy also signed Stephen Hunt, a player he had long admired having named him as one of the best players in the Championship back in 2008-09. Given that Wolves had used Kevin Foley, Adlene Guedioura and David Edwards all out of position on the wing during their first season in the Premier League this could also be regarded as a positive step.
Curiously, Wolves’ defence had been regarded by the national media as a strength in 2009-10, with many citing a lack of ability to score goals as the club’s chief concern. This overlooked the fact that McCarthy had regularly used a 4-5-1 with Karl Henry, Michael Mancienne and Foley in midfield. Put bluntly, Wolves were often attacking with just Doyle and Matt Jarvis and the defensive solidity was due to the protection afforded the back-line rather than the ability of it.
As such, the signings of Steven Mouyokolo and Jelle Van Damme – even without the benefit of hindsight – felt a slightly half-hearted attempt to address the club’s defensive weaknesses.
Ambitions Scaled Back
A positive start against Stoke City at home seemed to vindicate McCarthy’s decision to revert back to 4-4-2. But the fragility of this more expansive approach was soon exposed. Wolves scored in the first eight games of the season – but conceded in all of them. By the middle of October, the Stoke win remained a one-off and failure to beat West Ham at Molineux left Wolves in 19th place and in need of a change of approach.
The result was a switch to 4-5-1 as McCarthy identified the need to keep the ball. It saw the return of Nenad Milijas to the midfield and the Serbian achieved the desired effect as Wolves outpassed Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Incredibly, there followed a run of games in which McCarthy’s men outpassed a number of the biggest clubs in the country. McCarthy is perceived to be a coach who favours a direct approach and so this increased emphasis on short passing appeared to be something of an epiphany for the manager. It didn’t last. The results were not really improving and late goals were starting to undermine Wolves’ season.
By this point, late goals were becoming a theme of the season – and not in a good way. Fulham, Spurs, Villa and Man Utd (twice) had grabbed late winners against Wolves and it was happening too often to be a coincidence. At the end of the season, Wolves finished 11th in the half-time league table – six places above where they ended up after 90 minutes.
There are various reasons for this. The players themselves have admitted they have struggled to keep up the intense play of the first half. Karl Henry said: “We usually run so hard in the first half that you can’t do that for 90 minutes, especially against the top-quality sides. Sometimes you might be drawing 1-1 away from home and you say, ‘OK we’re not getting as close to them anymore, we’ve run out of steam, let’s sit back and soak it up a bit and approach it in a different way.”
McCarthy himself has also contributed with negative substitutions at key points. For example, against Newcastle at Molineux, he elected to withdraw Van Damme from the right-wing and bring on Ronald Zubar, pushing Foley forward into midfield. Zubar promptly conceded the free-kick from which Andy Carroll equalised. Against Fulham at the opposite end of the season, McCarthy removed Milijas and brought on Mancienne to shore things up – instead he barely got a kick and the visitors soon got a deserved equaliser. They are minor examples but indicative of a negative approach and a desire to merely ‘hang on’ to a lead.
Return to 4-4-2
As the poor results continued, it was Sylvan Ebanks-Blake’s dramatic late winner off the bench against Sunderland in late November that seemed to once again convince McCarthy that 4-4-2 was the way to go.
Gone were the ambitions to outpass sides and it instead became a typical Mick McCarthy approach. The plan was to win the ball high up the pitch and play from there. With Doyle and now Stephen Ward as attacking options, they certainly had the players willing to battle for the ball and run after lost causes down in the channels.
There were 1-0 wins against Birmingham and Liverpool with Ward and Ebanks-Blake up front and in January this became three 1-0 wins from five games when champions Chelsea were beaten at Molineux. This time it was Fletcher and Doyle as the front two and McCarthy was now revelling in 4-4-2 a la Mike Bassett. Such was his commitment to the system he even asked Milijas to play up front for the last seven minutes against Chelsea when fellow substitute Ebanks-Blake was injured. As McCarthy said: “To go 4-4-2 I asked a lot of the players because it was against the favoured 4-3-3 everybody plays, but they just bought into it.”
Indicative of defensive weakness
The statistics above probably give a good indication of how weak Wolves were defensively this season. They were high on the passing table and had the ball in the opposition half more than every team other than Everton. They also had overall possession stats of 50% – placing them 10th in the table. And yet, they still conceded more than every team except West Brom, Blackpool and West Ham. This is surely a damning indictment of the side’s defensive capabilities. In truth, one only has to look back at the plethora of howlers that marred the season – Zubar at Bolton; Mancienne at Birmingham; Richard Stearman and Ward at Tottenham; Berra at Wigan; Foley against West Ham; Elokobi versus Everton. The list is long and less than distinguished and none of the defenders are exempt from criticism.
Back to 4-5-1
Despite some successes, a 3-0 home defeat to Liverpool proved the final straw for McCarthy. He’d taken enough blows and decided it was time to ‘cover up’ and switch to the 4-5-1 with Doyle ploughing a lone furrow up top once again. This was the tactic that served him so well the previous season. It encouraged Jarvis to get up in support of Doyle as Wolves relied on their width to get behind the opposition – usually utilising the left-flank for their attacks. The return to this tactic brought victory over Manchester United and earned Jarvis his England debut.
Fletcher and Ebanks-Blake
Of course, this 4-5-1 meant that both Fletcher and Ebanks-Blake could not be accommodated in the side. Fletcher’s late run of goals meant that he finished the season with 10 Premier League goals and just 15 starts. Ebanks-Blake’s record was nearly as good with 7 goals and 11 starts. It says much for the imbalance in the squad that these two strikers could finish the season with such impressive goal returns and still remain out the side – while some of the defenders could retain their place despite numerous errors.
Over-reliant on Doyle & Jarvis
Meanwhile, the problem with Wolves’ 4-5-1 was perhaps that they became something of a one-trick pony. After his England debut, teams identified Jarvis as the key threat and he struggled to deal with the increased attention. You could almost sense the mantra of opposition coaches – stop Jarvis and you stop Wolves. When this was coupled with the loss of Doyle, the two most important cogs in the 4-5-1 were loose and McCarthy lost faith in the system – abandoning it when 1-0 down at St James Park just 30 minutes into the game. He perhaps felt pressured by the fact that Fletcher and Ebanks-Blake had both been scoring goals but not getting a chance and eventually felt compelled to play them both. A disastrous run of results followed as Wolves picked up just two points from five winnable games.
Last throw of the dice – Hunt and Fletcher
It was ironic that after chopping and changing his line-up and formation so many times in the campaign, McCarthy eventually found salvation in turning to the two men he had identified to improve his side the previous summer. In an incredibly gutsy move, the manager bit the bullet against West Bromwich Albion and dropped Jarvis for Hunt. In recalling the shaggy haired winger, McCarthy was pairing him and Fletcher in the starting XI for only the fourth time all season. They were both pivotal at the death – producing goals and assists galore in the final three matches to see Wolves over the line. It was vindication of sorts for the club’s summer transfer policy.
This was a season in which Wolves never really settled upon a favoured system and were constantly fighting to cope with the defensive problems that were not addressed in the summer. Many of the statistics suggest that Wolves’ playing style befits that of a midtable side and McCarthy will feel he has the attacking threats at the club to achieve this goal. Ultimately, it was these attacking strengths that proved to be just about enough for survival.