The Tim Spiers debrief – Leicester 0 Wolves 0
This wasn’t the first VAR controversy of the season and it certainly won’t be the last.
Wolves felt they’d been done a disservice at the King Power Stadium – for the second season running.
But, when all’s said and done, this was a welcome and hard-earned point, surely one Wolves would have taken beforehand.
Unfortunately there’s no other place to start other than the game’s pivotal moment.
After Leander Dendoncker had crashed his shot past Kasper Schmeichel to give Wolves the lead shortly after half-time, little or no thought was given by any of the 32,050 in attendance that the strike was a legitimate one.
Then the message popped up on our screens – a VAR check was ongoing (as is now mandatory for all goals scored).
Several angles were replayed time and again as the officials checked if the ball had struck Willy Boly on the arm, which of course it had. No goal. Cue stunned silence from the away end, rambunctious celebrations from the home supporters, confusion among the players and fury on the Wolves bench.
It clearly had an impact on Wolves. They had started the second half in rampant mood but the incident quelled their momentum – if they hadn't a chance to speak to the referee individually, they wouldn't have a clue why the goal had been chalked off.
That confusion continued at full-time when the players surrounded referee Andre Marriner to find out what the heck had actually happened.
The situation was only slightly clearer in the press box, where a law change, specifically ‘handball – law 12’ was shared among slightly-bemused journalists. And there it was in black and white.
“The following ‘handball’ situations, even if accidental, will be a free-kick. 1) The ball goes into the goal after touching an attacking player’s hand/arm.
“2) A player gains control/possession of the ball after it touches their hand/arm and then scores, or creates a goalscoring opportunity.”
Case closed, right? Well, not quite.
When talking about penalty decisions – which yes, is different in this case – Premier League guidelines state that ‘players will be allowed extra leeway’ when it comes to ricocheted handballs.
“It is often impossible to avoid contact with the ball if it has deflected off the body of an opponent, team mate or even another part of the own player,” the guidelines read.
“So a handball will not be awarded if the ball touches a player’s hand/arm directly from their own head/body/foot or the head/body/foot of another player who is close/nearby.”
One rule for a penalty and another for a goal? It makes little sense and,as Conor Coady, in a rare burst of unfiltered anger from a player who keeps his views on message, said a lack of common sense – which referees had told him would be used in situations such as this – was what angered him and his team-mates.
What with Nuno Espirito Santo talking about the spirit of the game being threatened by VAR, it wasn’t a happy Wolves camp, despite them earning a decent point against an exciting Leicester team who will have ambitions of breaking into the top six this season.
The change in the handball law is the fundamental problem in this case, but VAR is such an emotive subject because it will fundamentally change the game we all love.
For what it's worth, this correspondent believes incidents such as yesterday's, or the Raheeem Sterling offside on Saturday, aren't what the technology should be used for.
Clear and obvious errors are what need to be erased, otherwise dozens of goals will be chalked off – meaning wild, raucous, uninhibited celebrations like we saw in the away end and on the pitch yesterday will become a thing of the past as immediate thoughts after a goal will be for VAR. And isn't that joy and undiluted passion what the game is all about?
In yesterday's game it also led to a crucial momentum shift. Wolves came out for the second half with renewed purpose and intent, ramping up the tempo in a spell of pressure which yielded a goal. That momentum swung the other way when the goal was chalked off, after the players' release and exaltation of taking the lead had turned to despair and bemusement.
The essence of why we love the game could be lost.
VAR aside, Wolves were good value for the draw and on another day could have taken all three points had the front two of Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota had their shooting boots on.
Wolves defended expertly with organisation and sound judgement, stopping the Foxes from mustering a single shot on target until a long-range effort from Harvey Barnes late on.
Indeed, in the two pre-season, three Europa League and one Premier League games they've played in recent weeks, they've conceded only one goal (and that was scored by one of their own players in Ryan Bennett).
Nuno’s team weren’t at their fluent best (you could argue they played better at the King Power Stadium last season and lost) but given their midweek travails, travelling 6,000 miles to and from Armenia, they could be pleased with their afternoon’s work.
Most of their chances were created via an inspired Jota, who single-handedly took the Foxes defence on at times.
This was reminiscent of his sparkling form at the end of last season and continues the promise he’s shown during pre-season and Wolves’ Europa League qualifiers.
Jota had the Leicester defenders running scared – his close control and direct approach was a thorn in Leicester’s side – but he lacked support around him and also faltered at the last, especially when falling over when in on goal.
Jimenez, so potent when scoring four goals in two games against Crusaders and Pyunik, was slightly off colour (he needed to take his big chance quickly on his left foot instead of cutting back on to his right) and indeed it was a surprise to see Jota withdrawn and not Jimenez on the 75-minute mark, perhaps a sign of fatigue.
Jota’s replacement Patrick Cutrone was, in a word, bullish in his approach.
The Italian was full of running in defence and attack and looked to link with Jimenez on the break, albeit, as on Thursday, Cutrone entered the fray when Wolves weren’t on the front foot.
We’ve barely seen the £20million man in the opposition box yet, which judging on compilations of his AC Milan goals is where he really comes alive. A tantalising prospect for the weeks ahead and, crucially, he will ease the goalscoring burden on Jota and Jimenez.
There were no particularly weak performances in the Wolves side – everyone played their part in a solid display.
But, as well as Jota, a special mention must go to the brick wall who was Willy Boly.
Eight clearances, three tackles and all of his aerial duels (four) won tells the statistical story, but Boly’s positioning and nous was evident throughout as he completely nullified the threat of Leicester’s £30m man Ayoze Perez and made a couple of vital interventions when Leicester finished the game strongly and pinged the ball into the six-yard box.
While some supporters were keen for Wolves to bring in more new faces during the transfer window, it shouldn’t be overlooked that Nuno has a group of improving players at his disposal, including Boly.
The likes of Ruben Neves, Ruben Vinagre, Morgan Gibbs-White and Jota can all improve on their 2018/19 levels, certainly in terms of consistency.
Dendoncker and Adama Traore should benefit from a full pre-season under Nuno’s guidance and Rui Patricio will be better off for his first season in English football.
Boly perhaps didn’t get the credit he deserved for an impressive campaign last year, but you get the impression he’s about to mature into a truly top-class centre-half.
He certainly possesses all the attributes to do so.
Pyunik visit Molineux on Thursday in what surely represents an ideal opportunity to rotate the squad.
After that, Wolves face Manchester United (h), almost certainly Torino (a), Burnley (h), then surely Torino (h) and finally Everton (a) – five big games in the space of just 14 days.
Thursday's match is perhaps the only chance Nuno will get to rest some of his first XI.
Cutrone, Gibbs-White, Vinagre, Romain Saiss, Pedro Neto, Bruno Jordao and Jesus Vallejo are all decent bets to start and, if they do, will try and stake a claim for the hectic period ahead.