Wolves 2-3 West Brom: Can Nuno Espirito Santo get his team back to winning ways?
For the final 20 minutes of his side’s 3-2 home defeat by local rivals West Brom, the television cameras kept returning to Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo.
His position never seemed to change. Sat in his dugout, legs crossed, elbow on his knee, finger to his mouth. A study of concentration.
Nuno doesn’t tend to give much away, especially to the media, so no-one can be absolutely certain what he was thinking. But it’s fair to assume it might have centred around a Mexican centre-forward who watched the game from a corporate box.
No matter what additional factors are involved in the situation Wolves find themselves in just now, it will keep coming back to Raul Jimenez – and the horrific injury he suffered at Arsenal on 29 November.
Wolves’ win that night took them sixth, four points off the top of the Premier League.
Now they are in freefall. They have won once in nine Premier League games, have not kept a clean sheet in the competition since October and face non-league Chorley in the FA Cup on Friday knowing humiliation awaits if they cannot impose their superiority at Victory Park.
“It is football,” said Nuno after defeat in the Black Country derby. “Bad mistakes and decisions require better solutions. That is what we are working on.
“I know these are tough moments for us but my confidence in these players will not go away.”
While there is no sign the club’s Chinese owners are about to panic, there has been mounting concern among supporters who believe Nuno has failed to find answers to a number of questions.
Problems in attack…
Some Wolves fans have little sympathy for Nuno over Jimenez’s absence.
The lack of cover for the striker has existed for two and a half years, they argue – but it has never been exposed because Jimenez always stayed fit.
It is not just the fact Jimenez had scored roughly a third of his side’s Premier League goals in that time. The Mexican also carried the forward threat. His physical presence created space and opportunity for team-mates.
His absence wasn’t envisaged when Nuno sanctioned Diogo Jota’s move to Liverpool but that deal – which made way for 18-year-old Fabio Silva to arrive from Portugal – means Wolves have lacked experience over the past six weeks as Pedro Neto, who has impressed at times in an advanced role, is only 20.
Against West Brom, Silva did score his first Wolves goal from open play, but when Neto delivered the kind of near-post cross Jimenez thrives on, the Portugal youth international was half a stride too late in making his run and lacked the physical presence to compete for the header.
Nuno has also brought £16m forward Patrick Cutrone back from his loan spell at Fiorentina, but presented with an excellent chance to equalise deep into the second half, the Italian failed to make a decent connection with his volley, which bounced into the ground and over the bar.
…and in defence
As he basked in his side’s victory, manager Sam Allardyce explained the thinking behind West Brom’s second goal.
It was pretty basic. A long throw to the near post, Kyle Bartley flicking on and Semi Ajayi getting in a second header which looped over Rui Patricio and into the net.
“They have conceded a huge amount of goals off set-plays, which is why we did what we did,” said Allardyce.
Allardyce is too experienced to miss such an obvious weakness – Wolves have conceded nine times from set-pieces this season, the second-highest in the Premier League behind Leeds – and it highlights a flaw in Wolves’ defence, which has been so solid since their promotion.
This season, Wolves have tried to evolve from their trusted five-man defence to playing four at the back, so they have more strength going forward.
But Nuno cannot seem to make the pieces fit. Against West Brom he started with Romain Saiss at full-back, then moved the Moroccan inside when, for the first time, he substituted Conor Coady.
The loss of both wing-backs – Matt Doherty was sold to Tottenham and Jonny is still to recover after rupturing his cruciate ligament in the Europa League tie with Olympiakos in August – means the balance and energy Wolves used to have is missing.
Nelson Semedo arrived in Wolverhampton with a huge pedigree from his time at Barcelona and Benfica. However, so far, the Portuguese is yet to show he can be durable defensively or a threat going forward.
Trying to find solutions
“We don’t look at the table,” said Nuno afterwards. The Wolves fans do though.
Their team may have little recent history of Premier League longevity but successive seventh-placed finishes have created an expectation and as the worrying prospect of a possible relegation battle gets too close for comfort, some are wondering whether Nuno has taken the club as far as he can.
Given the entire set-up has been built to his specifications, that view would seem to be extreme and potentially catastrophic, especially in mid-season, and there is no evidence the club’s Chinese owners think that way.
But as he sat pondering in his dugout, there are certainly questions for Nuno to answer – specifically around the recruitment of another forward, something he appeared to rule out on Friday.