The Tim Spiers debrief – Southampton 3 Wolves 1
Wolves followed up their Wembley nightmare with a poor 3-1 defeat at Southampton.
What went wrong at St Mary’s?
It’s too simplistic to blame this on a Wembley hangover.
To do so would ignore similar defeats against struggling sides fighting for their Premier League lives.
Indeed, you only have to look back as far as Wolves’ previous away game, at Burnley, to see many almost identical traits to this defeat.
The Clarets, like the Saints, were in 17th in the Premier League table and targeted Wolves at home as a good opportunity to take a big step in their survival battle and put breathing room between themselves and Cardiff.
Both sides were and are arguably in a false position – Burnley owing to their Europa League exertions and Southampton owing to, well, Mark Hughes.
Both approached the visit of Wolves in a highly-motivated manner at a crucial juncture of the season, with Wolves needing to match their intensity and application in order to get a foothold in the game and let their quality shine through.
Unfortunately for Wolves, both started like a house on fire and scored a goal inside 90 seconds.
At St Mary’s, as at Turf Moor, Wolves responded, grew into the game and enjoyed far more possession than their opponents (63 per cent at Burnley, 70 per cent here) but lacked a clinical edge, wasting their best opportunity in the second half (Cavaleiro at Burnley, Jimenez at St Mary’s) shortly before the hosts advanced forward and put the game to bed against the run of play.
In both games you couldn’t accuse Wolves of a lack of effort. But you could point to a lack of inspiration in the final third, added to by the hosts being able to sit on their lead, but specifically you could point to sloppy defensive errors, especially here where Wolves produced arguably their worst display at the back since Nuno took charge.
It must also be said that Southampton belied their league position with a vibrancy in attack, playing slick defence-splitting passes that were hard to negate. They fully deserved their victory.
To point to Wembley as the sole factor behind this poor display is a red herring.
Nuno and Conor Coady both disagreed with that notion in their post-match assessments and rightly so. It would be no excuse.
Yes, last Sunday was a crushing blow, the kind of one-off-game disappointment Wolves haven’t suffered in a good long while.
But these guys are professionals. They’re paid to win football matches.
Their pride will have been severely stung by blowing a two-goal lead to Watford, they will have wanted to blow away that Wembley hurt with a defiant and passionate performance.
And it’s not as if there’s nothing left to play for this season.
Wolves could qualify for European competition for the first time in 39 years. If that isn’t motivation enough, what would be?
The more pertinent issue here is their frequent struggles against sides at the lower end of the table.
New formula required?
That’s two wins in eight matches against the current bottom five – against Southampton and Cardiff at home.
Five defeats have come to Huddersfield (twice), Brighton (away), Cardiff (away) and now here, while they took at point at Fulham.
They have the quality in their ranks to break teams down but their game management in most of these games has been poor.
They’ve enjoyed plenty of possession but failed to exert their authority and look far more comfortable – and effective – soaking up pressure against better, more open sides and hitting them on the break.
Wolves have also failed to win on the road in the league since February 2, a sequence of results that includes impressive draws at Chelsea and Bournemouth but sub-par defeats to Huddersfield, Burnley and Southampton.
When faced with that fact on Saturday in his post-match press conference, an irked Nuno abruptly ended proceedings and walked away, angrily pointing to his team’s home form.
Whatever you make of that reaction it was an indication that this tough week has perhaps taken a toll on the head coach. He's been hurting too.
Perhaps a change in formation is required in games like Saturday. It’s something which needs looking at for next season, because teams see Wolves coming now.
Off to Marbs
A few days away at their second home of Marbella (weather forecast for today, 23C and non-stop sunshine) comes at an opportune moment, then.
With three visits there in 14 months it’s clear Nuno thinks the Vitamin D does his squad some good.
Upon their return Wolves have just five games to play and the results over the weekend mean it’s all to play for in their mini-league in the middle of the table.
Seventh is within their reach, there’s no doubt about that.
On Saturday they face a struggling Brighton team currently, yes, you guessed it, 17th in the table and in desperate need of points (here we go again), especially if they lose to Cardiff in a huge game in the relegation battle tomorrow evening.
The Seagulls were thumped 5-0 at home by Bournemouth at the weekend. A refreshed Wolves will aim for nothing less than three points.
After that they host Arsenal in their game in hand and we know how much they’ve enjoyed taking on the big six this season.
Then it’s off to Watford for a timely revenge mission on April 27, before relegated Fulham visit Molineux for Wolves’ last home game of the campaign.
Four winnable games. It would not be beyond Wolves’ capabilities to win all four – and that’s what they’ll be targeting. A trip to title-chasing Liverpool ends the season and if the Reds need three points to claim the title, Wolves, while of course fancying their chances of playing on any nerves and causing an upset on the big stage (not for the first time), will more than likely need seventh in the bag by the time they travel to Anfield.
All of which makes the next four games pretty important.
As well as trying to finish seventh and therefore possibly qualifying for Europe, if Manchester City can do them a favour in the FA Cup final, Nuno and his players will be keen to give this special season the conclusion it deserves and end on a high.
There’s a bit of doom and gloom around the club after successive defeats, but it was only a couple of weeks ago they were beating Manchester United with an inspiring and courageous comeback.
If you'd asked any supporter at the start of the season if they'd be happy with Wolves sat eighth in the table on April 15 having reached an FA Cup semi-final, they'd have gladly taken it.
Things can quickly turn positive again – and you’d back this Wolves team, as they have time and again, to do just that.
Star man: Rui Patricio
The boss: Frustrated
Fans: Hangover continued for them
Magic moment: Moutinho's set pieces were a delight, but that's about it
In a word: Disappointing