The term ‘luxury player’ is thrown about a lot these days. Can this type of role ever work at Wolves? Tom Tracey delves into recent times to see whether these characters have ever or could now work at Molineux.
Most football fans see a ‘luxury player’ as a negative thing. Don’t get me wrong, they are usually a player who perhaps has outstanding attacking ability or close ball control; that can create a moment of magic out of nothing; that can dazzle past opponents with ease. But crucially, they don’t track back and defend, they don’t put a shift in, when things don’t go their way they sulk and disappear.
Picture Adel Taarabt when he was in the form of his life at QPR in 2010/11 – his teammates were supposedly fined if they passed to him in their own half. But such was his attacking threat that it outweighed the extra work his teammates had to do as a result of effectively defending with ten men.
So where have these luxury players ever fit in at Wolves? Predominantly, they haven’t. In recent times, under the leadership of Mick McCarthy especially, hard work, graft and stamina have been key attributes looked for in players. Look at Dave Edwards, playing almost 200 games for the club he epitomises the absolute opposite of a luxury player. Kevin Doyle, who defends from the front and does all the hard work, has also made a fair number of appearances for the club. Even wingers, where perhaps the most creative ability and output is expected to come from, have been signed with this ethos in mind – look at Stephen Hunt.
What is noticeable is that these players who work hard also seem to have a noticeably professional, diligent attitude in comparison to your Dimitar Berbatov’s and your Hatem Ben Arfa’s. But is there a place for these players at Wolves?
I think there is. In recent years we have, as most clubs of our ability, played in a 4-4-2 formation. This formation does not lend itself to offering the opportunity to utilise a luxury player. Up front, maybe, but any option to use them in the midfield is nullified simply because of the risk that the opposition will bypass this player with ease and get straight through to the defence. Any central midfielder who does not do the defensive side of the game will leave a massive gap and any hard working pairing of the oppositions full-back and winger will no doubt end up two-on-one on the full-back if a lazy winger is used. The risk is high, as we can see by the lack of appearances Nenad Milijas made for the club. In over three years for the club, Nenad made well under a hundred appearances and scored few goals for Wolves in comparison to his other clubs, as many of these appearances were made as a substitute.
When the team was on poor form, fans often called for Milijas to be given the chance. But when these players are given the chance, especially in a 4-4-2, they often struggle to perform.
But the recent adaptation from 4-4-2 to the more modern 4-2-3-1 allows the luxury player to thrive. Within that more advanced midfield three, there is often room and less risk for this player. There are still the two deeper midfielders to mop up and protect the back four, there is less onus on the player to defend and their attacking ability can be utilised.
This is where Bakary Sako comes in. I am not saying that he does not defend all of the time as he certainly does sometimes strive to help out his full-back, but it is obvious to anyone who watches him that he rarely goes up to win headers, he does not track back all of the time when he loses the ball. But he crucially wins games. Recent statistics that came about regarding how many we win with him in the team compared to without prove this.
His goal record from the wing is very respectable, especially encompassing a relegation season, and it is no surprise to any Wolves fan that he is constantly linked with the Premier League. But this formation, in my opinion, is the most risk-free possible to utilise the luxury player. Do we have any other luxury players? Arguably Rajiv van la Parra could be classed as a luxury player, but certainly we still have the grafter in Dave Edwards playing regularly, as well as players like Lee Evans.
Historically, Wolves have not had a large number of luxury players and doubts remain as to whether Jackett will replace Sako with a like-for-like creative output when he eventually moves on or whether he will adapt the tactics. But for now, it is well worth enjoying what Sako has to offer as he certainly has the ability to dazzle and he is certainly the most exciting player to watch.