Bruno Lage’s challenge now is to ensure Saturday becomes regarded as a landmark moment in his Molineux reign. Dean Smith, by contrast, must prevent it becoming an era-defining defeat.
Such scenarios looked unthinkable for most of an afternoon which appeared to be playing out the way many had predicted, before it suddenly didn’t.
Villa, ambitious and upwardly mobile, looked set to confirm their position as the region’s top dogs with a performance which, while some way from perfect, was still more than good enough to keep their lacklustre visitors at arm’s length.
Then came corners, chaos and deflected free-kicks. In 15 barmy and barely believable minutes Wolves plundered three goals, including two of the ugliest in recent memory, to snatch one of the most beautiful victories.
Players, supporters and coaching staff celebrated together. Villa’s sank to their haunches, struggling to take it in.
Smith and his squad spent yesterday at Bodymoor Heath reviewing the footage, trying to make sense of the nightmare.
For all the head coach’s substitutions and tactics might have been scrutinised in the aftermath, the plain fact is Villa’s downfall was due chiefly to a lack of mental fortitude when faced by a Wolves team who weren’t quite as dead as they thought they were.
Still, it was freakish. Wolves had scored only five times in their opening seven matches, while Villa had conceded only once on home turf prior to their implosion. They hadn’t conceded from a set piece all season. The fact Ruben Neves’ match-winning free-kick was heading several yards wide before hitting Matt Targett added to the sense this was one of those rare and random occasions which can make sport both joyous or maddening, depending on what side of the result you are on.
That aside, the never-say-die spirit shown by Wolves in the closing minutes was undoubtedly their biggest positive of an afternoon which, even allowing for the unforgettable climax, still showed Lage has plenty to work on.
Playing the way his team did for the opening 75 minutes is not a recipe for long-term success. Neither was this a day which altered the sense Wolves are a considerably reduced force when Raul Jimenez isn’t in the line-up.
The striker, who had either scored or created their goals in wins over Southampton and Newcastle, spent most of Saturday watching frustratedly from the sidelines. Lage’s caution in not starting the Mexican less than 48 hours after he returned to the UK following international duty was understandable but the reluctance to send him on when the match appeared to be disappearing from view more puzzling.
On the flip side, Lage could point to the positive impact made by Daniel Podence following his late introduction. But the general feeling was of the boss being bailed out by his players, while from Villa’s perspective the opposite was true.
For much of the afternoon Wolves’ strategy was puzzling. Leander Dendoncker spent a portion of the game as an auxiliary striker, while more often than not the plan appeared to centre on getting the ball to Adama Traore and hoping he created magic.
In the first half, the Spain international nearly did just that, powering his way past five opponents before eventually sending a shot too close to Villa goalkeeper Emi Martinez. Otherwise, the latter didn’t have to break sweat for the opening 80 minutes.
Jimenez will surely be back in the starting line-up at Leeds on Saturday and for all the lack of attacking fluency, it is always better to iron the creases out after a win. Wolves have recorded three of those on the spin.
Villa, now beaten in their last two and in four of their opening eight Premier League matches, have no such luxury and they will head to Arsenal on Friday night under pressure to deliver a response.
It is still a long way from the point where Smith’s position might come under any serious scrutiny. After all, only three matches ago he was celebrating one of the finest wins of his tenure at Manchester United.
Yet results like Saturday are the kind which can derail a season.
The manner of it had echoes of the 2-2 draw with Stoke in 2009, when the visitors scored twice in the final four minutes, along with the 3-2 defeat at Leicester in 2015.
Both of those collapses proved epochal to the reigns of Martin O’Neill and Tim Sherwood respectively.
The speed of Saturday’s capitulation arguably made it the worst at Villa Park in living memory and only when they are tested again will it become clear if there is any lasting damage. There is certainly no more alarming way to lose a game.
In truth, there would still have been plenty for Smith to ponder even had his team seen out the win in routine fashion. Villa might have been the better side for the first three-quarters of the match but there were elements to their own attacking play which prompted frustration. Though Danny Ings got on the scoresheet for the first time since his spectacular volley against Newcastle nearly two months ago, his partnership with Ollie Watkins is still yet to convince.
Smith’s decision to replace Kortney Hause with Axel Tuanzebe in defence was also questionable. Wolves’ only two real openings of the first-half came after poor passes from the Manchester United loanee, who also missed the chance to clear a moment before Coady bundled home the leveller.
Villa badly lacked composure in the closing minutes and their midfield, on top for the most part, looked considerably more fraught when Douglas Luiz and Emi Buendia had been removed from the action.
Buendia’s performance ranked as probably his best since joining Villa in the summer and was among the biggest positives for Smith. John McGinn, meanwhile, was the best player on the pitch for 75 minutes, setting up the opener for Ings with a pinpoint cross from his weaker right foot before blasting home the second, his shot taking a nick off Neves on its way in.
At that moment the Scot looked destined to grab the headlines but he was ultimately left shaking his head at the end of a derby which will live long in the memory.