It was an extremely frustrating afternoon for Nuno’s men at Bramall Lane as a late header from John Egan saw Wolves fall to their second consecutive defeat, leaving their Champions League dream in tatters. Wolves looked to be labouring to a well-earned if not inspiring point which would leave qualification for the Europa League firmly in their hands, but a lapse in concentration in the final minute of stoppage time means Wolves must bounce back quickly if they are to even retain their place in the Europa League.
Sheffield United 1-0 Wolves Reaction
Sheffield United (3-5-2): Henderson, Basham, Egan, O’Connell, Baldock, Berge, Norwood, Osborn, Stevens, McBurnie, Sharp (Subs Used: Mousset, Zivkovic)
Wolves (3-4-3): Patricio, Boly, Coady, Saiss, Doherty, Neves, Moutinho, Jonny, Traore, Jimenez, Jota (Sub Used: Dendoncker)
Nuno reverted back to the 3-4-3 formation following the defeat at home to Arsenal on Saturday, with Diogo Jota replacing Leander Dendoncker who dropped to the bench. Opponents Sheffield United had defender Jack O’Connell back who went on to receive the man of the match award. The Blades’ usual style of play was evident throughout the afternoon, making maximum use of the overlapping centre backs where possible, making their runs forward difficult to track. It is clear that both Nuno and Chris Wilder have a vast amount of respect for each other, something both fanbases would echo themselves as two of England’s sleeping giants aim to break into the so-called ‘big six’.
There was a nervous moment in the first minute of the game for Wolves as Adama Traore went down holding his shoulder. Wolves had planned surgery for the 24-year-old this summer to put a permanent stop to this recurring injury, however that has been put on hold due to the Coronavirus Pandemic and the subsequent changes to the football calendar. Quite when Wolves will look to operate on Traore is yet to be seen, but it is clear that for both Adama himself and Wolves as a team, every effort must be made to ensure this does not keep recurring. Despite this, Traore played on and Wolves created two openings early on in the game but failed to create a clear-cut chance while Ruben Neves clipped the bar with a free-kick after good work from Diogo Jota.
After the break, the home side took the initiative and were much the better side while Wolves failed to fashion a single chance. Nuno’s side failed to gain control of the ball for any sustained period while Sheffield United pushed for a winner. Ruben Neves tried to increase the intensity of the play, but he could not get the wing backs into the game with his cross-field balls as they remained largely ineffective. This was partly a credit to Sheffield United with the returning O’Connell and Basham aided by Baldock and Stevens clearly set out to nullify the threat from out wide. George Baldock went close with a header with just ten minutes to go, beating Jonny Otto to the ball. It summed up a below-par performance for Wolves’ usually consistent left wing-back. Having given arguably his best performance in a Wolves shirt at Villa Park, Jonny has not lived up to such heights and has struggled in both defeats since. Willy Boly once again looked uneasy, usually, calmness personified in the defence, but far from that in the past two games.
After a poor outing against Arsenal, Joao Moutinho was missing for a large part of the game which contributed to the lack of intensity and Wolves inability to get the ball to the front three quickly. Nuno’s decision to replace Adama Traore with Leander Dendoncker with just 10 minutes to go was met with much confusion. However, it can be argued that this substitution should have happened much earlier if it was going to be made at all. Adama was understandably not at his best given his shoulder injury in the first minute of the game, meanwhile Sheffield United had exerted their control on the game right from the start of the second half. Making this substitution prior to the hour mark would have allowed for Wolves to gain a foothold in the game and therefore look to move the ball forwards with greater confidence. Daniel Podence will be extremely frustrated not to make an appearance and will feel he could have made a difference, particularly as it became clear the Wolves front line needed freshening up. Jota had done well going forward but began to look jaded after the hour mark and was largely insignificant in the second half.
Despite this, Raul Jimenez was, as ever, impressive. His defending from the front in the second half went some way to Wolves limiting Sheffield United to a minimal amount of clear-cut chances. His willingness to work hard tracking back to win the ball back to start an attack after Wolves had defended a wide free-kick midway through the second half epitomised what the Mexican forward is about. Ruben Neves tried the same but unfortunately, their teammates were not on the same page. As the game looked to be petering out into a bore draw, Wolves’ lapse in concentration allowing John Egan to head home from a corner to win the game for the home side.
Sheffield United 1-0 Wolves Key Moments
Neves Free Kick
After a dazzling run from Diogo Jota which drew a desperate foul from Jack O’Connell, Wolves had their first real opportunity with a free kick on the edge of the box, very much Ruben Neves territory. 25 yards out, Neves clipped the ball onto the top of the crossbar and over. It was an excellent free-kick which was inches away from giving Wolves a rare first-half lead. Had this have gone in, the chances of Wolves losing the game would have been extremely slim.
In the dying seconds of the game, Sheffield United won a corner after a brief scare in the Wolves box. Oliver Norwood’s dangerous corner was not dealt with by the Wolves defence as centre back John Egan lost Jonny Otto and rose above Wily Boly to head past Rui Patricio and give the Blades all three points. There will be big question marks over the Wolves defending, with the simplicity of defending a corner ultimately costing them a point at Bramall Lane.
Sheffield United 1-0 Wolves Man of the Match
As was the case in the defeat at home to Arsenal on Saturday, Wolves turned in many average and below-par performances. Once again, the one shining light was midfielder Ruben Neves, who was inches away from giving Wolves the lead which would have changed the entire complexion of the game. Neves asserted good control on the midfield, particularly considering Sheffield United had set up to have an extra man in order to nullify the control which Neves and Moutinho often bring. His ability to up the tempo was there for all to see, but many of the players around him just seemed to be lacking that extra 10% which Neves was trying to create. An extremely frustrating week for Neves who will be wondering when his teammates will be back to the levels he has managed to somewhat maintain.
Sheffield United 1-0 Wolves Things to Improve on
It is extremely hard to criticise Nuno when you look at what he has done for Wolves. However, last night in particular, could be viewed as a game that was poorly managed. With the chance of a top 5 finish very much still achievable prior to the match, Wolves fans were delighted to see Nuno revert to the 3-4-3 formation to show attacking intent to go out and win the game at Bramall Lane. However, after a now-familiar lacklustre first half, and a shaky start to the second, it became evident something needed to change. Having fought for special dispensation from the Premier League to clear Daniel Podence to make the matchday squad having travelled to Portugal last week for personal issues, his no show was both surprising and frustrating. Nuno made just the one change throughout the entire 90 minutes with Leander Dendoncker replacing Adama Traore. The ever-bright Ruben Vinagre also remained on the bench, despite Jonny turning in very poor performance. January signing Leonardo Campana is also yet to make his senior debut and remained on the bench. Quite why Nuno refused to change it up in the final 20 minutes or even earlier is a question that many fans would like an answer to, as watching on it seemed rather obvious.
The Final Third
A common theme of match reflections since the resumption of the Premier League, but Wolves quite simply have to improve in the final third and they have to do it soon if they are to be playing any form of European football next season. Wolves correspondent for The Athletic, Tim Spiers, highlighted after the game that Wolves had fielded almost the same XI barring the injured Willy Boly against Arsenal back in November where they registered 24 shots on goal, compare this to just 6 at Bramall Lane, with just one on target. Quite where Wolves attacking intent and fluidity has gone is another question that fans would like an answer to. Even in the three wins which Wolves re-started with, there was cause for concern in terms of chances that were being created. The truth of the matter is, in recent games whether playing 3-4-3 or 3-5-2, Wolves look completely devoid of ideas and creativity going forward, the introduction of Pedro Neto and Daniel Podence in the coming games is a possible solution and one that many fans would love to see.
Even the most optimistic Wolves fan would now concede it is going to be extremely difficult to qualify for the Champions League next season, particularly with Manchester United facing the easy task of a trip to Villa Park tonight. The defeat also means Wolves now face a battle for their Europa League place, which looks like it could go down to the wire. However, this is still in their hands, re-find their form they showed in the opening games of the re-start, and there will be plenty more European nights at Molineux in the next 12 months.
Ciaran Barker is part of the Talking Wolves editorial team – you can follow him on Twitter here.