There’s no such thing as a ‘must win’ game at this stage of the season, but this one came as close as it can. It was also very much a ‘should have won’ game.
In the first half Wolves played, on the whole, confidently and fluidly, were creating all the chances were only denied a bigger goal margin by a couple of good saves from the otherwise uncertain Robert Green in the Hammers goal.
In the second half we conceeded an early penalty (soft but fair; unnecessary from Foley) to give them the goal they needed, and then stood back like rabbits caught in the headlights as all the good work of the first half unravelled. It was only a debatable hand ball decision in the last minute that avoided the scoreline having a more familiar ’2-1; goal conceeded in final minute’ shape to it.
Mick McCarthy assessed the situation thusly:
I’m pleased with the response after [the penalty] because West Ham played well and took the game by the scruff of the neck and we had to show all the battling qualities that we hadn’t showed in the first half because we were all over them…And when you have a penalty given against you in that situation it’s always going to change things.
This worries me, because it misses the obvious point that this result is not just about West Ham, who looked very, very poor in the first half, suddenly finding their game. This result is very much in keeping with a larger pattern of Wolves second half capitulation. Look, I’ve drawn a graph of our goals for/against in each half this season to point out the obvious:
We’re playing rather well in the first half, and rather badly in the second half. This was obvious on the field yesterday.
In the first half we were passing the ball, closing the opposition down and always looking to attack. There were four or five Wolves players in the box several times on the attack.
In the second half we were timid, never moved to offer the player with the ball a decent pass, and there was rarely more than one player in the box when we looked to attack; more usually, there were none.
West Ham did raise their game (starting from a very low base point) and we were always likely to spend more time defending, but we had attacking chances and never looked like we really believed. Substituting Fletcher for Van Damme can only have contributed to this strangely negative reaction. Van Damme played fine, but the game was there for the taking, and surely Ebanks-Blake deserves more of a chance after a good start to the season – the five minutes he got was not enough to judge. Perhaps the fact that in the end we were lucky not to lose justifies the timidity of the substitution, but I’d be more inclined to say that the substitution was at least part of a wider mentality that led to us nearly losing.
Onto the individuals. Doyle was the standout player for me, if only because of the contrast to his usual excellence. We shouldn’t have to rely on him as we did last season to drag the general standard of the team up, and judging from this performance, we won’t be able to anyway. He looked fed up.
As a general rule, everyone played much worse in the second half than the first. Jarvis in particular was excellent in the first half, useless in the second. Berra deserves a good word and Mancienne was sound – he harried the opposition well in the midfield in the absence of Henry, kept up his level of performance in the second half, and is the only player I can remember trying to run forward with the ball (why, oh, why don’t we do this more often – we see enough of it against us every week). Ward continues to be good at the last ditch tackle and terrible at backing off until he has to put in a last ditch tackle to save the game. Edwards battled and ran, and on a poor day, was one of the better players on the pitch, and was certainly one of the more positive in the second half. I’d have been interested to see Milijas play though.
So we stay second from bottom with a bit of a difficult run of games coming up (I think that’s what you call Chelsea – Man U – Man City – Arsenal). Can we turn this around? Judging from the first half performance: Yes. Judging from the second half performance: Down by Christmas.
I’m worried if McCarthy doesn’t acknowledge that there was a problem with our team yesterday, and it’s not just that our opponents wake up in the second half. There was a clear lack of confidence to attack, even in the face of our evident superiority over the opposition in the first half. At this point, we can’t rely on a run of good results to get some confidence into the team, so the Manager needs to persuade them fast that they can win games like this, even when bad things like conceeding a penalty occur.