Well, I guess I was right. Ståle Solbakken was still Wolves manager at Christmas. Away wins at Bristol City and Blackpool and a home derby victory against Birmingham City ensured a degree of respectability at Christmas. Well, at least we’d pulled away from the relegation zone and you could just sense the smallest hint of optimism for the second half of the season.
But then came the Scrooges of Peterborough and a 3-0 home defeat to a team in the relegation zone. Yet, this was by no means the worst Wolves have played under Solbakken – we actually showed some attacking intent in the second half, but alas, to no avail. And to compound the pressure on Solbakken, Saturday was the return of the Mick, as McCarthy’s Ipswich helped themselves to a 2-0 win against a hapless team. Two Christmas home games to teams in the bottom five of the division, and we have an aggregate 5-0 loss…
So, what does Ståle need to do to turn things around. Here are my suggestions…
1. Scrap the zonal marking and replace the defence
Despite having one of the worst defences in the country last season, we are still paying pretty much the same players in defensive positions as when we were relegated – Kevin Foley, Christophe Berra, Roger Johnson and Stephen Ward. While Johnson has improved immeasurably on last season’s rank disappointment, as a unit they are poor. At a recent fans’ forum, Solbakken claimed that new defenders were not needed as we were now defending differently, using a zonal system. Now, I’ve nothing against zonal marking at all, but at times you need to recognise the limitations of your defenders. Both Johnson and Berra are old fashioned British centre halves, at their happiest in a physical battle with a big striker. Perhaps marking zonally is a little advanced for these defenders…
2. Buy a bloody left back
I genuinely cannot remember the last time Wolves did not need a left back. George Elokobi is as rubbish as he is injured (and he’s very injured at the moment), leaving us just with Stephen Ward. Ward is an interesting one – signed as a striker on the cheap in McCarthy’s first season, he promptly won Championship Player of the Month on the basis of three goals in four games. It took him 3 years, 10 months and 9 days before he scored again. He played much of the following season as a left winger, before moving even further back to left back the season after as we won promotion, a position he’s stuck to ever since.
While he has battled admirably there, it’s clear he’s not a natural in this position and for us to not have a single player in competition for his place highlights our weakness in this position. Our lack of a left back has long been a standing joke amongst Wolves fans – as soon as anyone new joins the club, whether player or not, the first question anyone asks is ‘can he play left back?’ For once, it would be nice if the answer could be ‘yes’.
3. Give up on Kevin Doyle and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake
Sylvan Ebanks-Blake had won two Championship Golden Boots before Wolves’ promotion. We added Kevin Doyle to the strike force, in the hope that they would fire us to safety. As it happens, Ebanks-Blake never really took to the Premier League, while Doyle was superb in his first season before having his confidence eroded away from him. But the biggest problem was that at no point did they ever look like a partnership. I could probably count on one hand the number of games that they’ve played well together; hell, I could probably count on one hand the number of times they’ve passed to each other in their time at the club. They are both fine strikers in their own right, but should never be both on the pitch at the same time.
4. Push Tongo Doumbia further forward
Splitting Doyle and Ebanks-Blake would mean Solbakken moving away from his favoured 4-4-2 formation, and allow Tongo Doumbia to push further forward. There seems to be an assumption that any big African central midfielder is a defensive player, something Yaya Touré suffered from early in his time at Manchester City.
Tongo has the ability to frighten the life out of opposition defenders – when he puts his mind to it, he can glide past tackles and score goals. Yet, he’s pigeon holed as a defensive player when he doesn’t have a defensive bone in his body. Even though both him and Karl Henry play regularly, opposition attacking midfielders have all the time in the world to dictate play. Dropping one of the strikers, bringing in an extra midfielder and pushing Doumbia further forward would add stability to the team, and free up Bakary Sako and Björn Sigurðarson on the flanks from the defensive duties they ignore anyway.
5. Give the fans something, anything to hold on to
I take a look at the teams ‘struggling’ in the Premier League (three years out of the Football League has really destroyed my knowledge of it), and you see the odd reason for optimism. Liverpool have their philosophy (for philosophy, read ‘Lack of Plan B’), Aston Villa have a team full of promising youngsters. But at Wolves, there’s nothing.
The only youth team players involved are the 26 year old Carl Ikeme and David Davis who is failing to live up to their promise of last season. Sometimes you have teams with solid defences who struggle to score goals – we’ve conceded more than 11 other teams in the league. Conversely, sometimes teams score by the bucket load, but concede as well – only five Championship teams have scored fewer goals than Wolves.
The defence is poor, the strikers don’t score enough and the midfield doesn’t contribute enough to either. There are precisely two causes for any optimism – Carl Ikeme is now well established as goalkeeper and could well be in the running to become the third Wolves academy product to get in the Championship team of the year in the last four seasons we’ve been in the Football League (Matt ‘would be England’s Number One if not for horrific injuries’ Murray won in 2006/07 and his successor in goal, Wayne Hennessey also succeeded him as the Championship’s top goalkeeper the following season.)
The only outfield player to really have any credit in the bank at the moment is the new signing Bakary Sako – a £3 million signing from St. Etienne with 9 assists and 6 goals from his 22 matches this season, although even he hasn’t scored for eight games as he appears to dislike the English winter. At the moment, neither Ståle nor the team are giving the fans any reason for optimism – this needs to change.
Written by Tom Bason, We Are Going Up’s Wolverhampton Wanderers blogger
Tom tweets at @toomb306