Wolves laboured against Burnley – but ultimately they continued their unbeaten start to the season.
It’s an easy accusation to level at Wolves and plenty will do just that – their Europa League exertions have made them tired and their Premier League form will suffer as a result.
But is that fair?
Well, in terms of running stats, possession, shots, etc, there was no issue against the Clarets.
Indeed, while they fell short of the remarkable tally of 30 shots they mustered against Burnley almost a year ago in one of the most one-sided top-flight performances witnessed at Molineux in recent decades, they still had more attempts than their opponents here, registering 17 to Burnley’s 12 while also enjoying 65 per cent possession.
Physical fatigue didn’t look to be the issue – if indeed you think there is an issue after an unbeaten start to the league campaign despite having to negotiate difficult fixtures.
The success of Nuno Espirito Santo’s tenure has been built on stringent preparation and regimental training.
What the Europa League has done – with cramming in six extra fixtures in a five-week period, plus a lengthy jaunt to Armenia and a trip to Italy, as well as an eight-day excursion to China just before the first Europa qualifer – is take away that preparation time.
Wolves will have prepared for Burnley as best they could, but returning from Turin at 3.30am on Friday morning is never going to be an ideal build-up for a game against a physical, organised and motivated opponent.
If we’re talking about the actual physical act of playing on Thursday having a direct impact on Sunday, that certainly doesn’t carry any weight in terms of the performances of Ryan Bennett, Ruben Neves, Morgan Gibbs-White and Matt Doherty, none of whom featured in Turin and all of whom were below par here.
It’s more the mental side, the travel, the relentless fixture list, the lack of sustained focus on your next opponent, which of course Burnley have had all week.
Another possible factor in this off-colour performance is the chopping and changing of the side.
Nuno had the luxury of barely altering his XI for the final months of 2018/19, when his team surged to seventh in the Premier League and of course reached an FA Cup semi-final.
It was, for the most part: Patricio; Bennett, Coady, Boly; Doherty, Dendoncker, Neves, Moutinho, Otto; Jimenez, Jota – week after week.
That luxury is now gone. Playing five games in 14 days on the back of the pre-season schedule they’ve had doesn’t allow for an unchanged side, which would surely be Nuno’s preference.
Changes in selection invite disruption. Not that you’ll hear Nuno moaning about the fixture list.
“We are very aware of the cycle that we have,” he said yesterday. “We started competing on the 25th of July. We have to embrace it and go again on Thursday.”
So what’s the solution? Well, in the short-term there probably isn’t one. Wolves want to be in Europe and this is a drawback of success – a much heavier workload.
Bigger clubs than Wolves have suffered with the Thursday/Sunday Europa demands, or the Wednesday/Saturday cycle of the Champions League.
A bigger squad would potentially help, but Nuno has made it crystal clear that’s not the route he wants to go down.
The Wolves boss hasn’t got much wrong in his near-perfect two years at Molineux, so his judgement must be respected on this one.
And, let’s be honest, Thursday night was one of the greatest results in Wolves’ recent history. Can it really be reasonable to expect them to be firing on all cylinders against Burnley a few days later?
But hang on, is this negativity justified? Wolves have played eight competitive matches already this season and are yet to lose, winning all five Europa League qualifiers and drawing their three league fixtures.
The Europa adventure has the potential to be one of the most exciting things to happen to this club in decades. If Wolves' league form suffers a bit in the process, that's acceptable, surely?
The only concern is that if this performance is repeated at regular intervals throughout the first half of the season (should Wolves make it past Torino on Thursday) then they may be languishing in the bottom half of the Premier League rather than repeating their seventh heaven feat of last year.
They've looked a bit 'un-Wolves-like' for two league matches in a row now, with that first-half display against Manchester United belonging in the ‘flat’ category and then this performance against Burnley a bit of a mishmash of effort and determination, yes, but also sloppy passing and a lack of creativity and cohesion.
For now, though, they remain in a strong position in that they’ve yet to taste defeat, both this season but also at home in their past 10 matches stretching back to last season.
Next Sunday’s trip to Goodison Park is an important one.
Lose and Wolves will have three points from their opening four games and could even be in the relegation zone in the early standings heading into the international break.
Win and they’ll have six points from four unbeaten matches and probably be in the top half of the table.
If they can manage that – and have progressed to the group stage of the Europa League – it will be been a very successful opening few weeks of the season.
The fans chanted for man of the moment Traore but Nuno didn’t relent until the 76th minute, by which time Burnley were digging in for a 1-0 and double, or even treble, marked the Spaniard while hacking him down at every opportunity.
It wasn’t sufficient time for Traore to make an impact and, with Doherty still playing catch-up after missing three weeks of pre-season with a knee injury, it may be best to stick with the in-form Traore at wing-back.
It’s hard to predict Nuno’s team for Thursday, given the changes he’s made recently. Joao Moutinho has started all eight games so far but can he really be rested for such an important game? Then again, when will he get a rest? And does Patrick Cutrone deserve a start after barely featuring in the Premier League so far? Decisions, decisions.