Analysis: Magnificent Wolves set down a marker at the Etihad
There have been many weeks to savour since Nuno Espirito Santo first walked through the doors of Molineux in June, 2017.
Yet it is difficult to recall a period which has transformed the mood quite so drastically as the past nine days.
Wolves entered it in an uncertain state, still winless in the Premier League and in increasingly urgent need of a boost. They left it with three victories, three clean sheets and having recorded arguably the best result of Nuno’s reign to date.
If the first win over Watford was welcome and the second in Besiktas famous, then yesterday’s triumph over Manchester City was something else altogether, an afternoon to treasure during which any of the doubts which had surfaced during an often tough opening two months of the season were immediately erased.
City simply do not lose on their own turf. Or, to be more precise, they do not lose on their own turf very often.
Not since Crystal Palace escaped with a 3-2 victory last December had Pep Guardiola’s team fallen to defeat at The Etihad. To find the last time they failed to score in front of their own fans you have to go back even further, to May 2018 and a meaningless 0-0 end of season draw with Huddersfield.
That statistic is the most pertinent because while Adama Traore might have grabbed the headlines thanks to his excellent performance and superbly taken goals, more than anything else this was a victory built on the sound defending which has been a bedrock of Wolves’s recent success.
City, remember, scored eight in their previous home league match against Watford. Yet they could find no way through Wolves and in truth never really looked like doing so, no matter how much the nerves might have fluttered among the 3,000 travelling supporters in the 14 minutes between Traore’s first and second goals.
Only twice during the 90 minutes was Rui Patricio forced into any serious exertion and though the home side dominated possession and territory, they were repelled at every turn.
It is barely three weeks since Wolves were beaten 5-2 at Molineux by Chelsea. Of course, on that afternoon, they did not have Willy Boly in the backline.
The 28-year-old followed up his match-winning performance in Turkey with an even better performance here. Conor Coady, who suffered so much in the Chelsea defeat, was similarly faultless, as was Ryan Bennett after he replaced the injured Romain Saiss just 13 minutes in. Traore and Ruben Vinagre, meanwhile, provided disciplined cover on the flanks.
The latter rebounded after a difficult last Premier League outing at Everton, while the former enjoyed perhaps a breakthrough afternoon on the big stage, delivering the kind of performance he has been threatening since the start of the campaign.
Traore, so often criticised for his end product, took both goals superbly as Wolves struck late. He had previously gone 45 games without finding the net.
Yes, City were sluggish and off-key and the struggles of Guardiola’s team will dominate the national headlines.
But make no mistake, Wolves were brilliant. There was nothing fortunate about this win. It was thoroughly deserved. The fact it came less than 72 hours after the win in Besiktas only served to make it just that bit more incredible.
If there were one criticism, it is that Nuno’s men could and probably should have won by more. City were quickly on the front foot during an opening half in which they would have more than 70 per cent possession.
But the best chances, by far, fell to Wolves. Nuno’s men could, quite easily, have been three goals to the good inside the first 22 minutes. Instead, all three golden chances they had to score went begging. The first – and the best – fell to Patrick Cutrone. Traore’s through ball from the right flank pierced the home defence and the Italy international found himself racing clear on goal. With just Ederson to beat, however, his finish flew horribly wide of the target.
It quickly transpired Wolves’ best tactic was to sit back and wait for City mistakes. Riyadh Mahrez promptly served up another big chance when his wayward pass set Raul Jimenez running at the defence. The Mexican turned inside Otamendi but saw his shot blocked by Fernandinho, the City man then doing the same to Cutrone’s follow-up.
Remarkably, Jimenez would get an even better chance three minutes later. This time it was Nicolas Otamendi who gave the ball away and the Wolves striker was able to outpace Fernandinho, only to lose his footing at the vital moment. At the other end, Raheem Sterling forced Rui Patricio into a flying save with a shot on the turn from 20 yards out. But otherwise, for all their possession, the hosts could find no way through a disciplined backline.
The Wolves goal was not seriously threatened until nearly midway through the second half when Neves brought down Aguero 20 yards out and David Silva curled the free-kick off the bar.
Wolves had another escape when Gabriel Jesus, City’s third and final substitute, found space and found Cancelo on the overlap. His pullback fell perfectly for Bernardo Silva but the shot hit Aguero three yards out. The visitors remained a threat on the break and with 10 minutes to go, they took the lead. Neves won the ball deep in City’s half and glided past Otamendi before squaring to Traore, who kept his cool to slide the finish under Ederson. City almost levelled immediately but Patricio displayed superb reflexes to claw Aguero’s header away.
The hosts could find no way through and with stoppage time almost up, Traore made the game safe, scampering on to another Jimenez pass before again slotting home.