Is the season over yet? Wolves will certainly be hoping it does not last much longer. Drifting dangerously downhill, the trap door to the Championship gapes a little wider each time points are lost/thrown away/passed up on.
This was supposed to be a revenge mission after an embarrassing first fixture. The 4-0 hammering from the Hammers a perceived aberration. Losing 7-2 on aggregate was not in the script.
Woeful first half for Wolves
It took Jesse Lingard a mere six minutes to dance, fleet-footed, through a fumbling Wolves defence unsure which attacking threat to shut down first.
Premier League football may have taken an extended break for the humdrum necessity of international duty, yet old frailties remain. As Wolves’ defensive structure gently melted away like an Easter egg on a radiator, the visitors took full advantage, punishing the uncertainty with a second goal on the 14-minute mark.
Both Wolves and West Ham suffered pre-match injuries
Wolves had already taken a pre-match three-punch combination as news seeped through that Jonny had re-injured his ACL, Moutinho was out with a groin strain and Willy Boly self-isolating following a positive Covid test.
Acting in apparent sympathy for their fallen comrade, Boly’s defensive colleagues introduced strict social distancing measures in the early going. Lingard, Michail Antonio and friends were offered plenty of room to operate.
Ironically, one of the league’s most notoriously rigid managers, David Moyes, has given Lingard the freedom to express himself. Both manager and England international have been figures of ridicule in recent years. On this evening, much like their first meeting at the London Stadium last September, Wolves played the comedy role.
“You come to Molineux and wonder whether it’s going to be a grind; whether Wolves are going to make it very difficult for you,” mused Sky co-commentator Alan Smith.
Not really, Alan. By the half-hour mark the most difficulty Wolves’ guests had endured was negotiating their way from team coach to dressing room.
West Ham did, however, offer the hosts a glimmer of hope when the sprightly Antonio was forced to withdraw. Not long after, Jarrod Bowen, Antonio’s replacement, helped maintain the status quo. 3-0. Nuno’s search for solutions increasing in urgency.
Wolves created plenty of goal-scoring opportunities
Wolves were not without moments of inspiration. Midfield magician Ruben Neves, so talented and tidy, tried to conjure up a killer pass. Adama huffed and puffed; later delivering an inspired assist. The diminutive Podence prodded a header against the bar before being hooked at half time.
Floating around the pitch like an empty crisp packet in the breeze, Fabio Silva may currently lack the physique required for a sustained assault on the Premier League’s finest defenders, but the Portuguese teenager provided a glimpse in to the future with his sublime second half finish.
In the early going, even leaden-footed forward Willian Jose offered hope. Twisting and turning swiftly before shanking an effort wide, it was the exception rather than the rule. Jose toiled, his hold up play was neat, but his younger counterpart stole the striking show.
Are Wolves sliding towards the relegation zone?
West Ham entered with a few injury headaches of their own. Most notably, Declan Rice was ruled out of action. For all their threat on the counter and incisiveness in front of goal the away side showed several moments of vulnerability.
Wolves crafted opportunities. The passing, at times, was crisp. But edging zonal duels or completing more diagonal balls is meaningless fodder for the statistical boffins.
As Brighton have proved for most of the season, winning xG battles does not win games. Putting the ball in the back of the net more times than your opponent might be out of fashion, but it works.
The home side gradually found more balance as the evening progressed. Time inevitably ran out and any wisps of promise evaporated into the night’s sky. On a chilly evening that occasionally displayed the good, regularly the bad and for long spells the downright ugly, one thing is sure: we are drifting.
As the snowball of decline gathers pace, Nuno and his squad need to roll up their sleeves and start digging out results, quickly.
Steve Wellings is part of the Talking Wolves editorial team