Given just how hideous the last two seasons have been, the past 12 months have gone just about as well as could be expected for Wolverhampton Wanderers. League One champions with two games to go; the best defensive record in the Football League (and best goals conceded per game ratio of the country’s top five league), plus a raft of club records smashed, including a run of nine consecutive league wins.
And who do we have to thank for this? Well, it’s in no small part due to the management of head coach Kenny Jackett, who has not only managed to halt a vicious downward spiral, but somehow reverse it and return the club from whence it came. So, just how well has Jackett done this season?
On the face of it, this has been Jackett’s strongest suit. Well, I say Jackett, but he has been working alongside ‘Head of Football Development and Recruitment’ Kevin Thelwell since last summer’s restructuring of the management team. Since Jackett took over, seven first team players have come into the first team, and only one of them so far could be categorised as anything other than a success; Leon Clarke’s one goal in 12 appearances so far belying the £750,000 spent on, at the time, League One’s leading goal scorer.
While 6 out of 7 signings is an unqualified success there are still those Wolves fans that have a few questions regarding scouting system. Of those seven signings, three of them have been among the best players in League One (the aforementioned Clarke in addition to Sheffield United’s Kevin McDonald and Wigan Athletic’s Nouha Dicko who had been on loan at Rotherham), while another two had worked with Jackett in the past; Sam Ricketts was an integral part of Kenny Jackett’s early Swansea sides, while James Henry spent four years under Jackett’s tutelage at Millwall. While Jackett should be applauded for the way he has integrated the players into the team, transfers next season will surely be harder to come by as Jackett’s little black book becomes smaller and we become a smaller fish in a bigger pond.
Sam Ricketts: adds experience and leadership to the backline, along with an unexpected attacking threat
Kevin McDonald: an absolute class act. Too good for League One, could probably play in the Premier League if he really wants it
Scott Golbourne: solved the long-standing left-back problem, a solid presence in defence
James Henry: added an attacking threat we were missing down the right hand side, and chipped in with some invaluable goals
Michael Jacobs: a revelation since being played behind the striker. Drifts past defenders with ease
Nouha Dicko: 12 goals in 15 starts since signing says it all
Leon Clarke: ironically not settled in yet. Doesn’t necessarily fit the system
Squad Management 10/10
The team that finished the League One season is completely different to the side that was relegated from the Championship twelve months ago. Jackett has overseen a complete overhaul of the squad; six of the seven signings have become first team regulars, while Jack Price come through the youth ranks to play an important role. Add to that Danny Batth finally being given a run in the first team and Richard Stearman re-integrated following last season’s loan spell at Ipswich Town and goalkeeper Carl Ikeme, winger Bakary Sako, and to a lesser extent Irish defender Matt Doherty and midfielder David Edwards, are the only regular starters this season who also played last year.
Jackett has also overseen an awful lot of talent leave the squad. Within days of his appointment, it was announced that the club were seeking buyers for Karl Henry (gone to QPR), Roger Johnson (on loan at West Ham), Stephen Ward (on loan at Brighton) and Jamie O’Hara (currently earning £30,000 a week for the odd under-21 appearance).
In addition, except Sako, all of Ståle Solbakken’s signings have left the club on loan, meaning potentially quite a headache this summer as they all reconvene on the club. Jackett also made the decision to let our four strikers leave in January, as Leigh Griffiths joined Celtic, and Kevin Doyle, Jake Cassidy and Bjōrn Sigurðarson joined QPR, Tranmere Rovers and Molde on loan respectively. With the likes of Kevin Foley, George Elokobi and O’Hara seemingly frozen out, defender Richard Stearman and David Edwards are the only players in contention who are left from our Premier League days.
Our season has almost been split into three different sections. We started it by winning games but not playing well, reliant on the likes of Doyle, Sako and Griffiths for individual moments to win games. Then, as Jackett’s team started to take shape, we went through a period over Christmas of playing well but not necessarily winning. And then, it was almost as if a switch was flicked, and things started to come together. It was of no coincidence that this came as Jackett settled on the 4-2-3-1 formation that so many clubs are using. Earlier in the season, we were using a more old-fashioned 4-4-2 formation, happy to concede possession in the middle in the knowledge that our forward players would be good enough to create chances.
Our best performances have come when Jack Price and Kevin McDonald have provided the solid base in midfield for Bakary Sako, James Henry and Michael Jacobs to create chances for a lone-forward. When one or more of these players hasn’t been available, a slight change to a 4-1-4-1 formation has been necessary, with two box-to-box midfielders in Welsh duo Lee Evans and Dave Edwards playing ahead of the immaculate McDonald.
There did appear to be a potential fly in the ointment as Leon Clarke was signed, playing his first match as a withdrawn forward, not unlike how Kevin Doyle was used at the start of the season. But, an injury to Clarke forced Jackett back to the 4-2-3-1 that had been so successful, although questions remain as to how both Clarke and Nouha Dicko will be utlised next season.
In-Game Management 5/10
This has arguably been Jackett’s biggest downside this season. I struggle to remember a match where he has made a significant change to turn a match in our favour (although this is arguably more difficult to achieve when your team is winning most games), but half-time substitutions in the home games against Leyton Orient and Rotherham made life a little bit harder than they might have needed to be.
Jackett doesn’t seem to be a fan of unnecessary substitutions, preferring to let those who start the game finish it. This was particularly frustrating during our March Madness, when earlier postponed fixtures resulted in a run of nine games in four weeks, yet even when games were won early there was a reluctance to change; during this period, six players started all nine matches, with five of them playing every minute. Indeed, since the start of 2014, Danny Batth has played every minute of every game, while Richard Stearman, Kevin McDonald, Sam Ricketts, Scott Golbourne and Michael Jacobs have missed just 456 minutes between them, being substituted off just four times in total.
There isn’t a football fan in the country who doesn’t want to see a squad full of players who the club has developed, and Wolves fans have probably seen more than most this season. On average this term, each match day squad has featured 8.45 players who have come through our youth and Under-21 teams (although this figure does include Lee Evans and Matt Doherty who were signed aged 18 from Bohemians and Newport County respectively. Without these two, the average falls to 7.12 – still a respectable number), something the club is rightly proud of; 21 Wolves-developed players have featured in match day squads this season.
But, the key phrase is ‘featured in match day squads’. Over half of the starts from Wolves-developed players this season have come from Danny Batth and goalkeeper Carl Ikeme. Young midfielder Jack Price is the other player to have started more than 20 games this season. In comparison, defender Ethan Ebanks-Landell has sat on the substitutes’ bench 22 times this season, striker Liam McAlinden has watched 18 games, and goalkeeper Aaron McCarey 31 (admittedly, it’s sometimes a necessary evil to have a young goalkeeper on the bench every game).
Whether these statistics say more about the lack of squad depth at the club rather than the quality of youth players is a question to be asked. But, they have pushed their way past a number of players with Premier League experience; the likes of George Elokobi and Kevin Foley are clearly now deemed surplus to requirements.
Club Fit 10/10
Last summer, Kenny Jackett walked into a broken club. Slowly but surely, he has rebuilt the club’s relationship with the fans, making appearances at fan events early on and making little changes, such as having the players applaud the supporters before every game. He has helped bring a respectability to the club’s management structure, especially after the previous failed appointments (Terry Connor, Ståle Solbakken and the disastrous Dean Saunders), while his working relationship with Kevin Thelwell has seen the focus move away from the 3Ms (Mick McCarthy, club owner Steve Morgan and CEO Jez Moxey) and focus on the 2Ks.
When it comes down to it, a manager is judged on results, and no-one can question these this season. The best defensive record in the country, the league wrapped up with two games to play and the 100-point barrier surely to be broken. While some may point to the wealth of riches available to Jackett (this was surely a joke piece?), this is never any guarantee of success – you only have to look at the way that QPR, a club in a very similar position, have fallen away in the Championship to see this. Maybe there have been some disappointing results in cup competitions (Notts County, Morecombe and Oldham knocking us out of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, League Cup and FA Cup respectively), promotion was always the aim. Now, the work begins to ensure as successful a season next time around.
Written by Tom Bason, We Are Going Up’s Wolverhampton Wanderers blogger
Tom tweets at @toomb306