It’s been a long season (exceptionally so with the COVID-19 enforced break), and it’s certainly been a testing one for Villa throughout. With games quickly running out and just one point separating four teams in the relegation battle, it’s more important than ever for Villa to get back to winning ways.
We’re entering a hugely difficult period of playing 3 of the top 6 sides in quick succession and given our poor record against the top 6 sides this season it’s a worry. We knew it would be a tough season when we were promoted though and either way, now would be the ideal time to rectify that record, starting with the local derby against Wolves.
Ahead of the huge local clash that holds significance at both ends of the table, we asked David from @WWFCFancast to give us the low-down from the Gold and Black perspective.
Wolves’ season has gone from strength to strength so far, with the team picking up where they left off pre-lockdown in their first two games back. With a relatively small squad, it’s been an impressive achievement. What do you think is the main reason for this consistency and do you think they can keep the form going and break into the Champions League places?
Perhaps the main reason for the consistency is simply down to picking nearly the same XI for every game. The summer transfer window brought in hardly any new players to refresh the side and most of these signings have since left the club (Patrick Cutrone and Jesús Vallejo). However, this provided the opportunity for Nuno to do what he does best, coach. Wolves have had the benefit of the same core side for the last two years and because they’re all mostly of a young age, Nuno has been able to improve on their performances year on year.
It is astonishing to think that the usual starting XI, bar summer signing Pedro Neto, is no different to last season. This consistency of team selection, plus a rigorous recovery plan for players post game, has led to Wolves being in the position they are in. Can they push for a Champions League spot? It’s a ridiculous statement in the first place, but if Wolves continue their fine form, there is no reason why they can’t. Although they may have to rely on Leicester’s form to continue to dwindle, then Chelsea or Manchester United’s.
Obviously a lot has been written about Adama Traoré and Raúl Jiménez this season and the goalscoring partnership they’ve formed, but with a consistency in selection and clean sheets being kept with greater frequency since the return of Willy Boly, is the strength more as a unit then the headline grabbing individual performances?
The headlines will go to ‘Sonic the Hedgehog FC’, Adama Traoré and the Mexican sensation Raúl Jiménez, but there are more notable appearances that aren’t grabbing the headlines. As noted, Willy Boly has been a brick wall in defence. Wolves have hardly dropped points since he returned to the side from injury in February and you start to think where Wolves might have been if he wasn’t injured during the season. He is surprisingly never mentioned in the press as a candidate for other sides and to be honest, long may that continue.
There is also Romain Saïss, the utility man who has gone from strength to strength since joining Wolves 3 years ago and loves a booking too, plus João Moutinho – probably the best Premier League bargain – who makes being an elite footballer look as easy as buttering a piece of toast. They say Steve Bull is the GOAT at Molineux, João Moutinho might have something to say about that.
With the success of the team, there comes inevitable transfer speculation, with some big name clubs allegedly registering interest in key players like Jiménez and Traoré. Are you confident that you can keep hold of them and if not how hard do you think they’ll be to replace?
This could be a very interesting summer for Wolves. Despite fan frustration at the likes of Jiménez and Traoré being linked elsewhere, it is flattering to see that Wolves have developed such players which are being quoted not only for hefty price tags, but are supposedly adored by other teams. Wolves’ summer will be defined by a few factors. Firstly, Champions League football. If Wolves do achieve the feat, there would be less of a reason why the likes of Raúl and Adama would leave, especially to uproot themselves from a side and a community they seem to be settled in. Secondly, Fosun (owners of Wolves) do not need to sell. Wolves have just as much, if not more, wealth as some of Europe’s elite. They want to build a side that sits at that table. It would be counter-productive to this plan to sell their best players.
However, Fosun is an investment company, so if Wolves can double or triple their money for what they bought the likes of Jiménez (£35m) and Traoré (£18m) for – especially Raúl, who is probably reaching his peak at 29 years old – they may seek that opportunity. We also cannot forget the Mendes wheel. As much as Wolves have benefited from it so far, history dictates that Mendes likes to cycle his players around particular clubs. Wolves have not experienced this yet, and there is no reason why they might not start to experience the negative side of Mr Mendes.
Your recent record against us is good and obviously the odds are in your favour ahead of this match up too; how do you see Wolves setting up and do you think Nuno will make any changes?
Wolves like to mix it up between 3-5-2 and 4-3-3 depending on the side they’re playing. To be honest it could be a toss of a coin to which one he will choose on Saturday. Either expect Dendoncker to be added to the midfield alongside Neves and Moutinho in a 3-5-2, or, the talented youngster Pedro Neto starting up top with Jiménez and Traoré in an attacking 4-3-3.
Are there areas of Villa’s team that cause you any concerns or any areas that you may have to specifically guard against?
The returning John McGinn will be a concern, and alongside Jack Grealish, Wolves may decide to opt for the 3-5-2 to pack in the midfield to counter their abilities. There is also the wild card of Kortney Hause to consider. The former Wolves defender was liked by fans but just found himself down the pecking order at Molineux. Hause might have something to prove come Saturday.
How do you predict the game will pan out?
Despite how the Merseyside derby panned out, I still expect this to be a feisty affair, even without a crowd. Both teams have something to fight for and given Villa’s predicament, you may have to bring the game to Wolves, which will fall into our hands. This will be a back and forth tie, which will be close, but I expect Wolves to come out on top with a 2-1 win.
Whereas Wolves have largely picked up where they left off pre-lockdown, Villa have come back looking somewhat improved. Villa certainly look a more solid outfit than before the extended break and that’s definitely a pleasing thing to see, but we’ll need a complete team performance to come together if we are to get the points against Wolves or indeed Manchester United or Liverpool following this game.
We’re still seeing silly errors creeping in though, and that remains a concern, Nyland’s escape against Sheffield United was followed by some costly lack of concentration against both Chelsea and Newcastle that led to us conceding softly once again. Concentration is going to be absolutely key if we’re to ever get away from the soft goals we’ve conceded too often this season.
We’ll also need some big performances from key players; obviously Jack Grealish but also John McGinn (who’s slowly getting up to pace following his long injury layoff) and the newly resurgent holding midfield presence of Douglas Luiz. As mentioned in the Q&A above, finding a way to quieten the pairing of Jiménez and Traoré is also going to be important, although how to stop them, in particular Traoré, has been a question few teams have been able to answer this season bar fouling the latter.
Wolves’ ultimate strength (regardless of Adama’s physique) is in their team unity and self belief, however. Nuno Espírito Santo has established a never give up attitude in his team that is equally as important to their continued improvement and success as their admirable gameplay. We can’t counter the former unless we can shut down the latter and that will be a huge test for Villa.
We’re past the point of feeling sorry for ourselves now; there’s 7 games left and with our relegation rivals dropping points, we have to find a way to capitalise eventually. Hopefully a local derby (albeit sadly behind closed doors) can be a catalyst to a raised level of performance and a much needed result.
As for a prediction, well, given how Wolves have performed domestically and in Europe this season, I’d be happy with a point, but with it being so tightly congested at the bottom, a win would be huge both for confidence and league position. It’ll take a huge effort, but that’s what our situation requires, here’s hoping the players can rise to that challenge on Saturday and the remainder of the season.
by Jamie Yapp