And today’s annoying cliché is: goals change games. There were a lot of similarities with the game against Reading. The differences were the approach of the opposition – Wolves were determined and cohesive rather than the sulky, sullen appearance of a team which feels they should not be here – and the fact that last time around at home we scored when we needed to. At half-time I thought it was a case of next goal wins it (either we would score again and go on to win or Wolves would get back on level terms and be more likely to take the points). And in the second half we had a golden chance to take a 2-0 lead. We didn’t take it and paid the price. I’m not saying we would have won if Luke Varney had converted the chance, with Wolves having the lion’s share of possession through the game and always looking capable of scoring. Neither am I saying that we would have won if the referee had not given them a penalty. But it’s a percentages game, especially at this level.
The Charlton line-up was entirely predictable, with Martin Cranie coming in a right-back to replace Yassin Moutaouakil, who unfortunately after the Preston games seems to need a spell working on his game, with Kelly Youga returning at left-back and Lloyd Sam returning out right. The only mild surprise was no Zheng Zhi on the bench, with Darren Ambrose keeping his place there. And we were denied the opportunity of giving Chris Iwelumo a decent welcome back as a late injury saw him sit this one out.
The game started sluggishly, but soon sprang into life as a clearance fell over the shoulder of Nicky Bailey some distance outside their box. His controlled and powerful volley was a masterclass of technique. If their keeper hadn’t got a hand to it the decision for goal of the season would have already been done and dusted. He nearly repeated the trick a little later when from a decent position shot just wide with the keeper nowhere. And with Hameur Bouazza buzzing around and creating shooting opportunities it was looking promising.
However, Wolves are made of strong stuff, at least their midfield and attack are. Their defence looks far too ponderous to support a promotion bid, but you have to expose them first and we failed to do that consistently. Bailey and Matt Holland were gradually losing the central midfield battle, with Wolves Karl Henry starting to dictate the play and demonstrating an ability to go past players. And with Ebanks-Blake a constant threat we were being ground down, losing the physical battle, and surrendering possession too easily. That was down to not working hard enough when we had the ball and creating space. We started to look like the away team, relying on pace and breakaways.
A couple of half-chances for Wolves, a run through by Ebanks-Blake, and close to half-time a complete miskick in front of goal by Keogh and we had made it to the break still in front. But there was nothing comfortable about it, with Mark Hudson holding the back line together but Youga having an erratic game (some good things but some worrying errors too) and the midfield proving unable to hold the ball.
No matter, we were winning. Just a feeling that we needed another. Lloyd Sam had a mixed game, looking threatening at times but also a little rusty. But early in the second half he put in a peach of a cross from the right. We had claims for a penalty as Andy Gray appeared to be manhandled, but the ball went over him and his marker to Varney. A decent contact on target and the keeper would have had no chance. But Varney put it wide. It came to him quickly, but it should have been buried.
Not long after the referee gave a foul for a challenge on the edge of our area. Others thought our guy (Bailey or Holland) got the ball, but I thought it was a foul. We were still discussing the incident when the ball was played quickly and suddenly their guy got brought down (apparently). I’d have to see it all again to have a real opinion, but I can’t say it was a travesty. (In truth I thought the officials collectively had a good game; challenges by Sam and by Jonathan Fortune could have seen red cards delivered rather than yellow – yes, officials not sending off our players counts as a good display as far as I’m concerned – and in particular the linesman in front of us close to the North Stand was immaculate through the game.) Ebanks-Blake dispatched the penalty and the momentum was all with Wolves.
Echoes of Reading. Except that then after having been pegged back we scored. And then scored again. This time we didn’t really get a look-in. Alan Pardew decided it was time for some changes, which was a fair decision, but they didn’t work out. Sam was replaced by Grant Basey, with Bouazza switching to the right, while Dickson came on for Gray. I was surprised it wasn’t Ambrose coming on for Sam or Varney (not Gray) making way for Dickson (Gray and Dickson looks viable to me, not Varney and Dickson). But there you go.
A cross from the right to the far post and Nicky Weaver seemed indecisive. I thought he could have come for it but didn’t. Having switched wings Bouazza was absent in defence on that side. And we conceded a soft goal. Once behind we seldom looked as if we could turn things around and Wolves scored a third, with Henry carving through midfield and a splendid save by Weaver falling to someone on a gold shirt. All that was left was to cheer Michael Gray coming on as substitute and think of better days.
It was a game we could have won, but you can’t say we deserved to win it. If we had taken the points it would have been a steal – but if we had gone 2-0 up who can tell how the game would have panned out? On the balance of play and chances Wolves were worthy winners. It’s just that they are not world-beaters. That’s what still hurts.
The worrying things for me were that Holland and Bailey were outmuscled and outpaced in central midfield. They looked good together against Reading and maybe against most teams they will be effective. Maybe there is a case for Zhi and/or Ambrose coming into the equation. Also, it is adventurous but can we play both Sam and Bouazza? Ditto re Zhi, Ambrose, and Jonjo Shelvey. Is Cranie a right-back or a central defender filling in? With Linvoy Primus finally arriving (after all the fuss until December) presumably he will take his place alongside Hudson when ready. But we still have work to do finding the right blend in front of them – and perhaps selecting teams to do a job in particular games. We waited until Wolves had equalised before trying to address problems.
Oh, crap. It’s one game. We have two more coming up next week. On another day we would have won. Three or four points from the next two games and things look differently. It just hurts (for me) that at the end of the game one club looked as if it was expecting to mount a promotion challenge, the other looked like it hoped it would.
Weaver: 6/10. Not obviously to blame, but seemed a little hesitant through the afternoon. Forget about the poor kicking, it’s irrelevant.
Cranie: 7/10. Looked accomplished in defence but seldom got forward. Looks more like a (possibly very good) centre-half in waiting than a right back.
Youga: 6/10. He can do better. In the first half in particular he was erratic and nearly cost us with a couple of bad mistakes. I had hoped that he and Yassin would be cornerstones of our team – and our style of play – this season. But so far it’s not working out.
Hudson: 8/10. My man-of-the-match this time. Strong and composed.
Fortune: 6/10. Would have had a better mark had it not been for a mistake in the first half that almost saw Ebanks-Blake run through to score. I think he could play with Primus, but we have chosen Hudson. So if Primus is ready it looks like Fortune will be back on the bench.
Bouazza: 7/10. Had a very good first half but seldom threatened in the second.
Holland: 6/10. He and Bailey looked excellent against Reading. Today they were exposed for lack of muscle and lack of pace and mobility. Maybe they won’t come up against better central midfielders than those of Wolves, but today they were, together, second-best.
Bailey: 7/10. As for Holland – except he gets another point for a truly splendid goal.
Sam: 6/10. Mixed. Almost won us the game with that cross in the second half, but could have seen red for a rash lunge in the first half.
Gray: 7/10. I thought he had an excellent first half, but as we lost midfield became isolated and less effective as we kept looking for the ball over the top.
Varney: 6/10. Less would be unfair. But, come on Luke. Bury the chance when it comes. You are a forward and you get judged on these things, not your workrate.