Image: Twitter – @Wolves
And in the time it takes you to delete a tweet from nearly a decade ago, football is back. It’s a new season and all of the ills and lingering doubts of last season have dissipated as every fan in the country regenerates the optimism that only a new campaign can bring. Yes? No? To be honest I can still picture John Egan towering above our defence to score a last minute winner as we make our way to Bramall Lane later today.
Everything around the game continues to feel like some kind of alternate reality. Games may as well played on a different planet as far as us fans are concerned for now but football ploughs on, pretty much insulated from the effects of the outside world. Even us down at the bottom end of the pyramid, will be kicking off our seasons this weekend amid a number of local lockdowns. The show must go on. Nothing to see here. Like brushing a cluster of black widow spiders underneath the living room rug, just expecting them not to pop up and cause some kind of harm at some point.
And in that context we must ponder what lies ahead for us at Wolves. We all know how things were concluded last year and what has become apparent is that finishing 6th looks like a poisoned chalice based on Spurs’ congested schedule. That of course means we have a ‘clear’ run at the Premier League, pending how we prioritise the two domestic cup competitions.
With Nuno signed up, a strengthening of squad depth at the very least and Nuno intimating that more need to come in, despite this shortened close season, we seem to have played it pretty well so far. Of all the things we need to add the squad though, I don’t necessarily believe it’s a new player. It’s bottle.
A brief run-down of the real high-pressure games that we’ve had under Nuno tell some of the story. Even going as far back as the infamous game against Cardiff at the business end of the Championship season, the reality of that performance is that it wasn’t great and we gifted them two opportunities to salvage something against us. Our general excellence across the entire season meant we were never truly in danger of being caught, but the pressure of that fixture wasn’t handled as comfortably as it could have been.
Across the first Premier League season, you can’t necessarily describe the league games as high pressure, due to the lower expectations we were subjected to, but having gone 2-0 up in an FA Cup Semi-Final, you expect to be booking a second trip to Wembley.
Expectations grew last season but for the vast majority of any league season, it is just about point accumulation. Beating Man City twice is an incredible feat, but the onus is never on us to win that game. We were much better against the lesser sides, which was a good sign of progress. But when you think about the situation we were in post-lockdown and how we finished the season, we allowed the pressure of achievement to get to us. The performance against Arsenal. The last minute defeat to Sheffield United. Losing a lead to Burnley. Even the final-day capitulation to Chelsea when we needed a win to keep our European place. It all points toward an inability to handle pressure.
I do believe a lot of it is to do with the fact we play on fine margins. We cede possession and while we continue to play that way we are in a position to succumb to the whims of a football match, to bad refereeing decisions (Burnley and Chelsea), to set pieces (Sheffield United), to individual mistakes (Watford and Sheffield United) and to individual moments of brilliance (Watford). Nuno has spoken about the team becoming more proactive and having more of the ball which is the only way for us to break into the elite. It remains to be seen whether the players we’ve brought in so far are the answer to those questions, but the signs are promising, especially with regard to Marcal and his Champions League experience.
More business is expected, but one thing we will miss is Matt Doherty’s positive interventions. Often times he was the man who break the deadlock for us in a sticky situation and his incisions into the penalty area were a unique and often priceless tactic for us. Perhaps he didn’t feature highly in Nuno’s more proactive methods and someone who is more adept in keeping possession is on the wanted list, but we can be proud of Doc’s contributions to the Wolves renaissance and proud that a team has come in for one of our players from higher up the ladder. It doesn’t happen very often.
A new season always feels good and although the hollow feeling of not being able to watch the games will continue to linger, the upward trajectory of Wolves under Nuno softens the blow. The next chapter starts tonight.