Wolverhampton Wanderers (1), Aston Villa (1) – A missed opportunity?  Yes, but an important point as well

Sunday, October 8, 14:00 p.m., Molyneux Stadium

It is not often that the two combatants in a Premier League game both prioritize not losing over winning.  On Sunday at Molyneux, that was exactly what happened. 

That it was a local derby would usually incline both teams to play for the win.  That is foremost because the “home advantage” that fan-support provides is mitigated by the number of “away fans” able to get to the game – and wanting to!

Usually the underdog, then, sees it as an opportunity to get three points from their fancied rival because they remember previous encounters where they did prevail, and they give it their all.  Alternatively, it is a chance for superior teams to withstand the huffing and puffing from their inferior neighbors before bringing on fresh high caliber legs in the second half that snuff-out the threat and lets them coast into the finish-line without worries.

Our Villans could have played their role – they certainly have the superior squad – but there were complicating factors.  There were the frustrating injuries to Ramsey and Moreno, the limited rest after a demanding Europa tussle that went into injury time on Thursday, and the uncertainty of the availability of Diaby and Kamara until late fitness tests.  All combined to make it difficult for Emery to name an aggressive and confident line-up that could seize control over the game from the kickoff as they had done against Brighton.

Wolves, meanwhile, were still riding the high of beating Manchester City, their first lost points after winning their first six Premier League games of the season. That made our Villans appear as a tasty dessert to their exuberant fans.

In fact, Emery tipped his hand when he named a backline of four (Konsa, Carlos, Torres, and Digne) plus two (Cash and McGinn).  His priority was ensuring that Neto did not get one-on-one on either wing, conjuring up a first half lead that Wolves could sit on, counterattacking thereafter.  It had worked against Man City. 

In playing to that threat, Emery was hoping that we could find the magic bullet, like Watkins did against Chelsea and, if not, at least avoid a loss going into the international break.

Wolves defense, meanwhile, had a similar strategy.  They determined to not let Villa play through them with their crisp passing.  They did this by chasing hard and, if necessary, fouling (19 in total). 

Both teams achieved their objectives.  Emi Martinez did not have a single save to make in the first half, while José Sá kept the ball out of his net from the one dangerous shot. 

The second half saw Villa move the ball up field faster and they almost scored soon after the break when Ollie Watkins deflected a brilliant McGinn cross on-target only for Sá to react as effectively.  Villa’s tiny expansiveness came at a price when Luiz’s failed attempt to dribble saw Wolves get control in their half, switch the ball out to Neto at the halfway line with Digne and McGinn unprepared.

The rest is history, as they say, with our Villans behind after 53 minutes.  What is remarkable was that within two minutes we had tied the game, and impressively so.  After that, Emery followed the anticipated script by bringing in fresh legs, but the changes showed his limited options.

He brought on the exciting Zaniolo, but for Diaby, our quickest and most elusive forward, presumably because of the knock the Frenchman received in the Brighton game.  Moussa’s performance had been, for him, uncharacteristically lackluster.  Then, when Emery brought on Bailey, it was for Cash, our wide threat, and not for Carlos or Torres, and not until 20 minutes after the first substitution.  Similarly, with his simultaneous replacement of Kamara (looking tired) by Tielemans who plays as if he does not want to get himself too sweaty. 

Thanks in large part to Watkins playing in his normal intensive way, Villa gained the upper hand.  Ollie had hustled and bustled from the kickoff and his markers looked ragged while Ollie bounced up after every tackle, energized.

Watkins late-game contributions should have resulted in the game-decider.  In injury-time, he broke through the Wolves defense and the outpaced Doherty could only push him from behind while shooting.  It was a clear penalty that the on-field referee and VAR referee ignored.  Then, at the death, it was Ollie who contorted his body to drive a bullet header that ricocheted back off the post.

Still, the result probably satisfied both teams.  Our Villans know they should have won and did enough to, but you do not always get the calls.  They can take heart going forward that, after eight games (five on the road), they are 5th in the Premier League, and they deserve to be.  From there, they are poised to break into the top-four with Spurs’ history of flakiness, and Manchester City in danger of an identity crisis, not being used to having to grind-out wins.

Wolves, meanwhile, are destined to remain competitive but do not have the resources to reach the next level.

So exactly what happened in the game?  Our Villans started brightlywith Luiz zipping a ball for Digne to run onto, but it was too heavy.  Then, with Villa keeping the ball in the Wolves end, Carlos repeated the effort, only this time Digne was able to latch onto a sloppy defensive clearance and force Aït-Nouri to concede a corner on the right.

Digne took a short corner to Diaby who whipped a left-footed curler that was perfectly directed at Pau Torres only for the former star of Villa Real to misjudge the flight and let it skim off his head.  He was just outside the 6-yard box and open.  A couple of minutes later, a pass into Villa’s box was intercepted and, in short order, fed to McGinn who carried towards the left edge of Wolves penalty area.  In case John had not noted, Matty Cash raised his arm as he steamed in, from the right, uncovered.

Our Scottish wizard’s cross landed at the feet of our Polish international and Matty struck the ball on the half volley.  The shot was bound for the back of the net, only for Sá to get a strong left-hand to it just inside the post. It was the first shot by either team.  That was in the 7th minute.  From the corner, the ball cleared but only as far as McGinn who was fully 35 yards out.  That did not deter John who walloped a strike that veered only slightly wide of the right post, denying our captain a chance for the goal of the season award nomination!

Finally, Wolves found their way into the game and Aït-Nouri fed Cunha open down the left-wing, skipping passed Konsa, but Carlos slid over to concede a corner.  In true derby fashion the game got a little tetchy with Dawson and McGinn tussling ahead of the kick and both sets of supporters egging them on.

For the balance of the half both teams canceled each other out with the only bona fide Wolves opportunity being created by Hwang who, from the left, found Aït-Nouri at the near post.  The Algerian’s redirection went just wide of the far post in the 34th minute.

The opening of the second half featured the very best of the current version of our Villans.  Initially, Luiz probed down the right-hand side without finding an opening and then Konsa swung the ball back across to Torres on the left.  The Spaniard, always very confident in possession, carried from his own half for 40 to 50 yards towards the Wolves penalty area while being watched but not challenged by Gomes.

This allowed McGinn to wait, like a coiled-spring, outside and ahead of Torres, for the lay-off.  When it came, it was perfectly weighted, and John pushed it forward so he could wrap his left foot around it.  Simultaneously, Watkins headed into the penalty area, with Dawson a step behind, towards where he anticipated the ball would cross.  Such is the understanding and training that Ollie was able to slide and perfectly deflect the ball towards the roof of the Wolves net at the near post.

Portuguese goalie, Sá, anticipated, moved to his right, elevated and was able to get his fingertips to push the shot from going just under the crossbar to just over.  Brilliant soccer by McGinn, Watkins, and Sá.

The corner was cleared but Luiz and Hwang clashed in recovering.  Luiz won the ball and the clash (Hwang got a bloody nose) and, after a delay, Luiz centered.  Matty Cash was all over a poor clearance and hit a bouncing shot on-target, that Dawson was able to head clear.

From another training ground routine, Luiz was able to attack the corner unmarked as he arrived late, but his header was too high and cleared the bar.

Wolves, next, attempted to penetrate Villa’s backline down their left-wing only for Konsa to anticipate, block the pass, and retain possession.  After a one-two with Luiz, Konsa broke through the congestion and found McGinn open in the middle of the field.  Our Scotsman immediately zipped a pass out to Digne who had found space to the left of the penalty area. 

Lucas immediately, and optimistically, zipped a cross over for the heavily marked Watkins, but overcooked his effort allowing Doherty to receive wide of the goal.  The Irishman (who had come on for Aït-Nouri at the break) undercooked his pass out to Hwang and Cash got a toe on it.

In a pivotal moment, four sloppy plays came to result in a goal.  Hwang followed Digne’s and Doherty’s poor passes by a failed attempt to shield the ball going out of play from Cash’s deflection.  The always energetic Cash confounded the striker by getting around the shield and feeding Luiz.  Our Brazilian standout, for once failed to deliver.  He dithered on the ball and Hwang stole it from him. 

The errors stopped at this point.  Hwang fed Cunha who, in turn, swung a pass out to Neto speeding into an open right-wing.  Our Villans, at this point, had six players in their own half and Wolves only four, but our shape was all wrong.  We had Torres one-on-one with Neto on the wing and Digne in Torres’s shadowing position.

Inevitably, Neto was able, with a beautiful step-over, move around Torres on the outside and get to the goal-line with time to look-up.  He saw that he only had Hwang as a target, and he slid a perfect lateral towards the 6-yard box.

Luck, the other confounding factor, came into play.  Digne slid to block the pass but only managed to deflect it towards Hwang.  The deflection may have also affected Martinez who was leaning towards where he anticipated Hwang would receive the pass only for the striker get a slower cross that he could direct into the space that Emi had just vacated.  A goalie’s nightmare and our Villans were down.  Wolves 1, Aston Villa 0 in the 53rd minute.  Wolves’ first shot on-goal, in fact.

Immediately after the kick-off, Gomes tripped Kamara just inside Wolves’ half on the right.  Luiz took the freekick and aimed for Watkins at the near right corner of the penalty area.  One of Ollie’s outstanding skills is to be able to rise for passes and, thanks to great hangtime, cushion headers to the feet of available teammates facing the opponent’s goal.  This time the recipient was Cash who immediately recognised that, with three yellow shirts in the way, there would be no path to clear shoot at the Wolves’ goal.  Cash, instead, returned the favor to Watkins who, though well-marked, saw that Torres was available at the end of Wolves defensive line’s last man, Semedo.

We often forget that Watkins was a winger for a long time before he was a striker.  The left-footed pass was perfect, clearing Dawson and Kilman and descending to where our Spaniard was heading.  Semedo responded but he was a step behind, and Torres did an admirable job of sliding into the cross to redirect the ball into the corner of the net that Sá had come from.  The goalie had no chance.  Our Villans had tied the game right after Wolves had taken the lead.  Wolves 1, Aston Villa 1 in the 55th minute. 

Torres was naturally ecstatic, having scored his first goal for Villa and immediately after he had been burned by Neto for the Wolves goal.  Villa fans were also overjoyed that their team had responded so quickly and effectively and avoided the stress of an elongated siege with the constant threat of counterattack.

Of note was that Watkins had received exactly two passes in the Wolves penalty area to this point and he had turned the first into a shot on goal that necessitated a brilliant save by Sá and, the second into an assist for Villa’s goal, his fourth assist of the season to go with his seven goals in all competitions.

After the brief flurry of offense, the game settled back into a holding patter with both teams playing conservatively.  Still, Villa were luck to avoid going down again in the 78th minute.  Shortly after Wolves brought on Kalajdzic for Cunha in the 76th minute, our Villans were attempting to break through on the right.  Konsa joined Cash and Zaniolo, but Wolves held firm.

That left us exposed as Hwang found the fresh and speedy Austrian racing free behind Konsa.  Kalajdzic immediately relayed a pass that curved beyond Carlos and Torres, but perfect for Neto who, again, had a step on our Spanish center-back.  As the ball met his foot close to the penalty spot, all he needed to do was lift it over a sprawling Martinez who had raced off his line.

The combination of it being Neto’s weaker right foot and the imposing frame of Villa’s goalie meant the Portuguese international overhit his shot and the ball went well over the crossbar.  Villa were close to repeating the error that Man City had made of losing focus and, thankfully, survived.

Not surprisingly, our Villans made sure not to get caught again something that got easier as their opponents had been stretched in defending against an organized and talented Villa.  In fact, during the latter stages of the game Wolves picked up three yellow cards that resulted in Lemina being given a red card and leaving them a man short.

That meant our Villans had the opportunity to create four golden opportunities to seal a win in injury time.  First, McGinn teed up Luiz to shoot on target only for a brave defender to block the shot, then Zaniolo brought down a headed flick-on from a corner and hooked a shot just wide of the post.  Next, a patiently constructed passing sequence found Konsa in the middle of the goal area where he got good leather on the shot only to see Sá get his body behind it.  Finally, an excellent cross from Digne that Watkins headed down but onto the foot of the post with Sá rooted to the spot.

Of course, these were all bonus elements.  The excitement should have ended when Doherty extended his arm to push Watkins while in the process of shooting at 90+2’.  The penalty would have been deposited by Luiz in the corner that Sá did not dive to, and our Villans would have run down the clock by retaining possession and won. 

Now that Ollie has been capped by England, maybe he’ll get the benefit of the doubt on all the obvious calls like Harry Kane did.

Wolves: Sá, Kilman, Dawson, Toti, Semedo, Gomes (Traoré 69′), Lemina, Aït-Nouri (Doherty 45′), Neto, Cunha (Kalajdzic 76′), Hwang (Silva 86′).

Unused Subs: Bentley, Bueno, Otto, Doyle, Sarabia.

Aston Villa: Martínez, Konsa, Carlos, Torres, Digne, Cash (Bailey 82′), Kamara (Tielemans 82′), Luiz, McGinn, Diaby (Zaniolo 62′), Watkins.

Unused Subs: Olsen, Traoré, Chambers, Lenglet, Durán, Dendoncker.

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