By Rory Morrow – Deputy & Sports Editor
Four games in, only we may be but a Wolves’ pack; although generally in strong muster, are lacking a key component: goals! Three narrow, consecutive 1-0 defeats emphasised this truism; a weakness that unfairly saw them breathing the same dangerously contagious relegation zone smog as Norwich and Arsenal. But for anybody glossing over scores, making judgements as rapidly as a mischievous puppy escaping its lead, this is as inaccurate as the shoddy shooting that left them languishing there. That they are no more is attributable to a fully merited win at Watford, the encouragement of excellent performances now backed up by the sturdy additions of goals and points.
Progressing from the scintillatingly successful Nuno era would always require time. That precious, undervalued commodity rarely afforded to stragglers. Least of all in England’s relentlessly unceasing, owner-tarnished but tremendously fun Premier League. Amidst all this, Nuno represented a familiar reassurance, like childhood Santa Claus (and with an equally outstanding beard) since reviving the Midlands club from Championship hostages to an established top-flight side. He nurtured the rise of Ruben Neves, a midfielder whose penance for scorching long-rangers often overshadow his overall well-rounded game. After promotion, more highs followed in a wonderful year-long Europa League quarter-finals adventure and heartbreakingly dramatic 3-2 FA Cup semi-final loss to Watford. Neves’s scorcher against Derby County, Conor Coady elatedly piggybacking Adama Traore in Etihad celebrations, Doherty’s decade, Romain Saiss’ understated utility success, top-flight derby success over Aston Villa, a euphoric European 4-0 thrashing of Espanyol. All milestones in the Nuno scrapbook. So, begs the question, after four seasons, how to continue development?
Wolves have opened playing three of last season’s top seven teams. All games which they could, perhaps should, have won. Tottenham, refuelled opponents under Nuno himself, won via a penalty. Most recently, against Manchester United, they tore their visitors open so frequently one could only conclude this was not a huff-puff attack but a repeated barrage of calculated, counter-attacking panache, only requiring a final pivotal prod here or firmer thrust of the foot there. Traore, a player moulded so un-Spanishly, intercepted a loose pass and bustled off from his own penalty area. For mere mortals, Paul Pogba, and Fred are a muscly duo yet Traore blisteringly burst between their statuesque manner like a human cannonball obliterating enemy territory. Up field, he slipped in Raul Jimenez who shot meekly. From United’s corner, they were dissected again, this time Neves inserting the probe. Fred miscued his attempted intercept (although at least here he was correctly positioned to miscue) and Francisco Trincao had the ball drizzling goalward. Until Superman Aaron Wan-Bissaka mesmerically surged back, hacking off the line so heroically you half expected to him to be flying, Superman-pose, first outstretched nobly saving the day. It’s okay Cristiano. You can peek through your fingers now. Joao Moutinho lacked composure, skying high after Jadon Sancho showcased his absence of defensive nous, playing his team into trouble with a brainless header pounced on by Jimenez.
United sharpened their attacking knives to finally threaten. Yet were again shredded by smart play from Jimenez, a pinpoint cross from Traore and rather reprieved by Trincao’s bobbling scuff wide. Traore vs Fred round two originated from a long punt. Luke Shaw manfully tackled with Fred awkwardly lingering reminiscent of an inferior waiting for permission to tackle. Traore somehow wriggled free and from the corner, Saiss was denied twice in quick succession by a David de Gea keen to show his predicted usurping by Dean Henderson is not a formality. And that was that. Mason Greenwood’s ruthlessness the difference for a streetwise United team undoubtedly reassured by Raphael Varane.
Wolves though shouldn’t fret. Both Jimenez and Traore are in the top five league players for shots taken this season. Sooner or later, they will go in. It is remarkably uplifting to watch Jimenez play again after the distressing manner of his head injury at Arsenal last November. Their forwards look sharp and have so far been denied by panicky decision, rotten luck and resolute, in Man United’s case £182M, defences. Lage’s side are enjoyable to watch. Fans clearly appreciate and applaud the club overhaul. After losing Matt Doherty, Diogo Jota and Jimenez for last season, a stutter was natural. It reflects the club’s resilient manner that a difficult year was one comfortably clear of relegation. Over-reliance on Jimenez remains a concern, highlighted by last season’s main conundrum, scoring. A higgledy-piggledy defence too, epitomised by the rare substitution of Conor Coady during ignominious defeat by West Brom, Nuno deferring from his back three to unsuccessfully flirt with different systems. It was with the coherent, electrically efficient and fear-provoking 3-4-3/3-5-2 Wolves enjoyed most success whilst alternating between two forwards both kept opponents guessing and defensive solidity intact. Lage has thus deployed that system with successful performances but before Watford, fruitless results. Especially captain Coady appears revived and Nelson Semedo demonstrating early marked improvement from last season’s clumsiness.
Once Traore rediscovers wolf-like cunning alongside his enthusiastic Donkey-like shooting, Wolves can again disrupt the hierarchy. Unruly loveable rogues who have surfed alongside the establishment’s elite. Last season was a decline but not the dismally disappointing drop-off-a-cliff of Sheffield United nor anything as precarious as relegation. Reinforced by dim crowd-less atmospheres, it was merely boring in comparison to the highs of successive seventh placed finishes and Cup escapades. Unlike Tottenham without Harry Kane, Wolves do not have a superstar Son Heung-min ready-made replacement for striker talisman Jimenez. Traore’s development and Jimenez’s return are recent appeasing reasons for why Wolves are admired. It is, like fans returning and the crunch of shoe on Autumn leaf, familiarly reassuring to see Traore, this season, battling ferociously, easily scarpering beyond burly bouncers as though they were bowling pins. Whilst his finishing is flawed, at least this season, he is getting into finishing positions regularly. He certainly provides entertainment, enough to endear him to most despite lamentable end product.
The Carabao Cup four-goal thumping of Nottingham Forest proves that under Lage, there is a path to somewhere, slowly being carved out. Contributions from a daintily scintillating Trincao, livewire Daniel Podence and youthfully exuberant Fabio Silva all maintain positive vibes. Even in edited highlights, an abundance of chances still went begging at the City Ground. Pedro Neto’s penetration will help and Hee Chan Hwang’s debut scoring arrival bolsters the attacking firepower. Over time, Lage’s playing philosophy will be embedded but short-term, an opportunity has opened to achieve the most critical aim. Win. Watford have already been dispatched, ironically Wolves’ wait to score was ended by an own goal but merited from their persistent pressure, Neves oozing quality and Semedo making an unsuccessful conversion to striker. As they ended their goal drought, Watford appear wearily trapped in their own, goalless since an opening day blitz against Villa. Brentford, Southampton and Newcastle all represent further winnable opportunities. With a long-overdue league net bulge finally enjoyed, Molinuex’s new Portuguese will hope he has lift-off. Should clinical finishing continue alongside cohesively authoritative defending. Wolves’ hunt of all those above has commenced. Teeth bared, paws pounding, shooting sights realigned. Enjoy the chase.