By Oli Baker
At the time of writing, no side in Europe’s top five leagues has made as few tackles per game as Wolves (15.4) or as few interceptions (11.9).
For a team that gained a reputation as being tough and uncompromising last season, these are startling statistics.
Although Wolves do fare quite well in the possession stakes, averaging 50.8% (8th highest in the Premier League) the fact remains that while Wolves are quite successful at keeping the ball, especially for a struggling team, they are truly woeful at winning it back.
It is hard to believe that this passive defending is a deliberate tactic from Mick McCarthy. For a manager that takes immense pride in the work ethic of his teams – and a man who physically cheered a tackle by one of his players at Old Trafford last season – it is unlikely he would regularly send a team out to sit off the opposition. This lack of tackles and interceptions has inevitable consequences – only Bolton and Norwich have conceded more shots per game than Wolves in the Premier League.
It is very clear Wolves do not possess a plethora of tough tackling players. In the entire squad, only Karl Henry can be viewed as a traditional defensive midfielder, putting in tackles and breaking up play. Herein may lay Wolves’ main problem. The one player that carries much of the team’s tackling burden, doesn’t really tackle. Anyone who saw his treatment of Joey Barton last season will be surprised to learn that Karl Henry has averaged just 1.2 tackles per game this season.
This does not compare favourably with players who are supposed to be of a similar ilk. Youssouf Mulumbu (3.7), Mohamed Diame (4.0) and Lee Cattermole (4.0) all tackle significantly more than the Wolves man. Even more creative players such as Yohan Cabaye (4.3) and Alejandro Faurlin (4.5) put Henry to shame in this department.
These facts are very much at odds with the general perception of Henry as a player. The infamous MOTD montage of his tackles on Barton was followed very quickly by Bobby Zamora’s broken leg, albeit from a legitimate tackle, and an extremely rash assault on Jordi Gomez, resulting in a deserved red card. Henry was very quickly painted as a villain.
This public witch hunt does seem to have changed Henry as a player. In the immediate aftermath Henry was visibly pulling out of tackles, and while that isn’t the case now, he does seem to have lost some of his aggression – not that he was ever as aggressive as perceived, as the tally of two red cards in more than 200 appearances for Wolves would testify. Manchester United’s first two goals in their recent 4-1 victory over Wolves are perfect examples of Henry failing to make necessary tackles.
Of course, there is more to defensive midfield play than solely tackling. Closing down players and space are both vital and much harder to analyse and report. Perhaps it is for these reasons why Henry is seen as indispensable by McCarthy. Yet, if you were to look at Wolves’ recent record with and without Henry it suggests McCarthy’s faith is misplaced.
Since the summer of 2010
With Henry on the pitch (w-d-l) 11 9 25
Without Henry on the pitch (w-d-l) 8 1 6
In McCarthy’s defence, Wolves have been heavily linked with numerous midfielders in the past few weeks. However, the failure to provide competition for Henry – culminating in the bizarre claim that his team selection would be Karl “and 10 others” – has long been a puzzling aspect of McCarthy’s reign. Henry has certainly played his part in
Wolves’ recent success, and as a local lad who is clearly giving his all, he still has a lot of support amongst the Molineux faithful. But, the harsh reality is that Henry can no longer fulfil the role Wolves so desperately need.
*All stats are from WhoScored