One did not have to be one of those medieval soothsayer types, who apparently were pretty sharp in matters of spotting what was about to happen, to feel a bit of the old dread creeping up when Big Ange gruffled the news that both of Messrs Porro and Udogie would spend their Saturday afternoon being patched up in some infirmary tent rather than fighting the good fight on-pitch.
No huge surprises in the identity of their replacements, Emerson on one side and Ben Davies t’other, and while their earnestness was never going to be in doubt, that wasn’t really ever going to be the point, what?
There was a general lack of the sharpened tooth about our play from starter’s gun to finish line yesterday, incidences of rapier-like passing that cut to ribbons the opposition being so few that one could count them on the fingers of one hand. Now of course it would be a bit much to lay all the blame for this at the doors of Emerson and Davies, and our endeavours might well have been similarly fruitless with Porro and Udogie at the roaming-full-back wheel, not least because the second half was pretty much a non-stop session of trying to pick a way through a back-ten in and around their own area.
But nevertheless. Particularly in the first half, when the game was a tad more open but our passing from deep-to-advanced was pretty uninspired, I did stare off into the distance and do a spot of yearning.
Emerson, being the sort of egg so curious that he merits his own unique category of one, could conceivably have offered a bit of attacking spark, if all his lights were on. While he is probably not one for a 40-yard Porro-esque pass onto a sixpence, I had hoped we might see him carry the ball forward and infield, and give the Wolves lot something about which to confer.
Unfortunately, with Emerson one has to take the bonkers with the smooth, and he gave a few early indications that this was to be one of his more exasperating innings. For a start there were a few horribly misplace passes, which I suppose can happen to anyone, but when emanating from the size nines of Emerson do tend to suggest that he is off on another planet. Confidence – or rather lack thereof – never having been an issue with this mad young bean, rather than rein it in a bit he simply carried on trying no-look passes and whatnot.
However, the moment that really made me tut and stew was when, having been lazily caught in possession and deposited upon his derriere, rather than bounce straight back up, hellbent on correcting his error, he remained in his seat and took to waving his arms for an imaginary foul. Wolves, meanwhile, simply got on with it, shoved their way into our area and almost scored, dash it.
Obviously I use the pen-wielder’s licence to colour the lad’s entire performance as unequivocally disastrous, when the truth is probably that he made plenty of quiet, positive contributions, but in the first half in particular too many of his inputs led to a skyward fling of the AANP hands, and a muttered imprecation as its soundtrack. In a first half badly lacking cohesion and threat, Emerson made a handy poster-boy for our troubles.
2. Ben Davies
Ben Davies, to give credit where due, was actually pretty solid defensively and expansive offensively. If there is a criticism of him – apart from the wild misdirection of that late header, which ought to have CPR-d the result – it is that he is not Destiny Udogie, which seems a rather cruel sort of mud to sling at a fellow. I mean, not much that one can do about being born as one person and not as another, what?
As mentioned, he did things well enough. The sort of willing chappie destined always to be in the ‘Supporting Cast’ category, he won a few early defensive arguments against his opposing winger, and also made regular visits to the Wolves final third. Truth be told, he was as effective an attacking spoke as anyone else, and if I could have toddled around the changing-room post-match and canvassed a few opinions, I suspect that Sonny, Maddison and Richarlison would have spoken kindly enough of his contributions.
But in a game in which we sorely lacked a bit of the old thrust, I did note that the most incisive first half passes into the final third came from Messrs VDV on the left and Romero on the right. A spot of Udogie from deep would have gone down well.
The half-time mood was pretty dark at AANP Towers. There was no shortage of subjects of ire, and not really enough time to have the deep and meaningful rant that each of them deserved, but one point on which I (and a chum or two) were pretty clear was that the current iteration of Kulusevski was pretty seriously undercooked.
Naturally he then took 46 seconds to ram my words down my throat with a bit of meaning, dancing around defenders in that curious way of his that seems to defy physics (my eyes probably deceived, but I’m pretty convinced that at one point he ran literally through a Wolves defender – which I accept contradicts much of what we know of modern science, but there we go).
So bucketfuls of credit where due, it was a fabulously executed goal. However, I maintain that it was also quite the anomaly. Kulusevski’s outputs in general this season seem to have been pretty muted. Of the unstoppable buccaneer of Spring 2022 there is little sign these days. In his defence, none of the fifteen outfield players used yesterday had much attacking success, so I’m happy to slather some context about the place, but with Kulusevski these diminished returns have been evident for some time.
This business of constantly cutting back onto his left foot strikes me as constituting a hefty chunk of the problem. Funnily enough it does still catch the occasional opponent by surprise, but this isn’t much good given that it also tends to suck a decent gulp of momentum from the attacking move. Defenders who might a smidgeon earlier have been out of position and rushing back to their posts, with sirens for both panic and confusion sounding in their ears, are granted time to pack out the place and steady their feet. The diem passes frustratingly un-carpe’d.
Moreover, having completed the whole business of cutting back onto his left, Kulusevski very rarely then makes good on his pledge and does anything meaningful with the ball thereafter. When he first joined, a couple of years back, one lost count of the number of times he cut back and curled the ball either into the far corner or into the path of an onrushing forward sort. Whereas these days he just bunts the thing into the first opposing body and it bounces away, or else loops a shot high and wide.
Much of Kulusevski’s value has traditionally derived from his deceptive burst of pace carrying the ball from halfway onwards, which is fair enough, and a trait still occasionally in evidence against more adventurous teams playing higher up the pitch; but on the whole, and certainly on occasions like yesterday, when up against a deep-lying defence, there’s not much scope for such frivolity.
Towards the end of yesterday’s proceedings, when Our Glorious Leader adopted the Football Manager approach of shoving as many attackers onto the pitch as the rules allowed, we were treated to a brief glimpse of Kulusevski in a more central role, which, from my armchair, seems to suit him a little better. Again, however, there protrudes a spanner in the works, as with Maddison back one would not expect to see too much of Kulusevski at number 10.
As with Emerson, one could hardly lump all our woes into one neat pile at the door of Kulusevski and wait for him to solve everything, but it’s another of those charming little knots that Postcoglou et al will need to unravel.
4. Van de Ven and Vicario
On a positive note, both Van de Ven and Vicario were in pretty spiffing form yesterday, so that was a little treat for the gathered masses.
Rather a shame that it was all to no avail, but VDV’s recovery pace continues to make the eyes pop from the head, and will presumably receive greater acclaim on future dates, when deployed in a winning cause. It was not so evident in the second half, when the pattern of things shifted considerably, but in the first half every time Wolves got behind our high-line – the difficulty of which was right up there alongside taking sweets from babies – one could breathe easily in the knowledge that a locomotive in human form would pretty swiftly be arriving from across the pitch to hoover up the mess.
Vicario, similarly, took the opportunity to showcase his most eye-catching stuff. Point-blank save in each half were worth goals, and I have a feeling he had another chalked off by an offside flag, but it was enough to communicate the gist: here was a man in rare old form.
Moreover, given that so much hot air is now expelled on the topic of what goalkeepers do with their feet, there was a charmingly old-fashioned thrill in seeing our man stick out a reflexive paw a couple of time to execute some point-blank saves.
That said, both goals conceded were pretty maddening. The first in particular prompted a rather weary groan, an unmarked header from a corner of all things being the sort of offence that ought to have the lot of them docked a month’s wages and locked in dank cells. As for the second, it was pretty clearly scripted stuff by our opponents, which in turn reflects poorly on our Brains Trust. Much to ponder in the next couple of weeks.