Wolves 1 Sheffield United 1: Rosie Swarbrick analysis
They say a picture paints a thousand words and if anything sums up this Wolverhampton Wanderers team, then it is Matt Doherty kissing his black armband in tribute to the Afobe family.
Doherty’s clear heartbreak for best friend Benik Afobe amid the sudden loss of his two-year-old daughter Amora, seeped out in the celebrations for that goal.
The wing-back had nodded home Raul Jimenez’s cross at the back post and his immediate reaction when wheeling away was to pay tribute to the two-year-old.
It is testament to Doherty, and the Wolves pack that they honoured their old team-mate. And credit to Doherty that he did not let the impact of the loss dent his performance.
When Wolves needed him, he was there and his skipper Conor Coady heaped praise on him for his strength of character.
But it is not just Doherty who showed character and steel on an evidently hard day for all involved at Molineux.
This was Wolves’ eighth league draw of the season and the seventh time they have fought back from a goal down to secure a 1-1 draw. That statistic can be no coincidence, showing a grit and determination embodied by Doherty.
But what it also highlights is that Wolves need to stop giving themselves an uphill battle.
In recent weeks they had ended their first-half plight, but the Blades showed that it was just a plaster over a wound, rather than something that has healed.
Wilder’s men arrived at Molineux with a plan – determined to rock that boat.
Chris Wilder’s men have enjoyed a similar journey to Nuno’s now Europa League hot-shots. Nuno’s charges deployed their current custom 3-4-3, a formation, along with a 3-5-2 that has been utilised from their rise from the Championship. But they encountered a Sheffield United Wilder side that have been utilising a back three and 3-5-2 formation since their own rise from the depths of League One.
As they both met in the top flight, it was a tribute to stability and organisation, two sides who know their own systems inside and out. While Bournemouth wobbled when trying to match Wolves’ back three, this Wilder crop were always going to give Nuno’s men a taste of their own medicine.
And it certainly worked.
A simple shift to force Wolves to attack the South Bank first and the enforced change at the back saw Wolves make a slow start. Though no blame can be thrown in the direction of youngster Max Kilman, who could only watch on as his first Premier League start opened with a second-minute goal. With Romain Saiss serving a one-match ban for his fifth yellow card, the back three was shuffled again.
Kilman was elevated to take the vacant role on Coady’s left. But wily Wilder had a different plan, to target Wolves’ right, stop wing-wizards Doherty and Traore and set Lys Mousset on Leander Dendoncker.
The cracks began to show for the midfielder turned centre-half in Braga on Thursday night and he simply could not handle Mousset. The Blades forward was breathing down his neck from the off and when Dendoncker was dragged out of position to try and clear a throw-in from the left, Mousset was left free to fire home at the back stick.
Perhaps it was a game to far on a mental stance for Dendoncker, you cannot switch off at this level and Mousset showed why.
It set the stage for a shaky afternoon from the Belgian who just could not get to grips with Mousset, though credit must go to the Blades and the talented forward.
The sight of injured defender Willy Boly out of his protective boot and walking around Molineux was welcome after that Dendoncker showing.
But the slow starts have been a universal factor in the draws of this term.
It is clearly something Wolves still need to address.
The shackles placed on that right-wing were soon shaken off as Doherty and Traore managed to gain an offensive footing as the half progressed.
And though United dropped to five at the back, they still struggled to contain Wolves’ hitman Raul Jimenez.
The forward was determined to make his mark on the game and though he did not score, he was a constant thorn in the Blades’ side. Dean Henderson showed why he is in England contention with a fine one-handed stop to thwart Jimenez in that first half. Though he would not stop in his attempts to get Wolves back into the game in that first 45.
This time VAR ruled that Chris Basham’s body, not arm, had stopped the Mexican making it 16 for the season.
The system is still farcical and it was unclear exactly what was being decided as the 31,642 in the stadium sat waiting for a screen to flash up with an answer to the penalty appeal.
A second appeal in the second half was also laughable.
We had been told that the officials would wait to put a flag up as not to interrupt the natural passage of play if their decisions were wrong. The official had flagged for offside as Jota was sent clear by Jimenez, it was nearly deja-vu from Bournemouth but this time referee David Coote did not blow, he let play run on.
Jota would tumble with Henderson and the video officials came into play, no penalty again but surely that brazen flag interrupted the flow?
Though VAR was unclear again Coote & Co clearly left Molineux friendless.
The referee wimped out of showing George Baldock a second yellow when he sent Jota flying.
But in all, when Doherty had levelled in the 63rd minute from an Jimenez centre it was to be a fair result.
Sheffield United have taken a leaf out of Wolves’ formula for success, continuity in sticking with those who got them into the top flight.
They deserved a point and taught Nuno’s side a few much-needed lessons.