Walsall inflicted Wolves’ first defeat of the season on a cold and miserable night in Wolverhampton.
The home side were going into the game off the back of five straight league wins and were hoping that this ‘local derby’ could make it six and move Wolves into 2nd place after seven games. Walsall’s momentum was good after comprehensively beating Crewe at Gresty Road on Saturday afternoon, 3-0. It was all set up to be an exciting match on an extremely cold Tuesday night in The Midlands, the South Bank was packed to the rafters, whilst Walsall had filled out their away end admirably.
Jackett made just the one change from the narrow win against Swindon Town, Bjorn Sigurdarson came in for Leigh Griffiths. Probably in order to bolster the striker options, give Walsall something think about and give make Wolves’ play more direct than previous weeks, with that Wolves lined up, as usual: Ikeme; Doherty, Batth, Ricketts and Golbourne; Sako, McDonald, Davis and Evans; Doyle and Sigurdarson occupying the front two positions. ‘The Ginger Mourinho’ or Dean Smith, as humans like to call him, made no changes to the side that swatted Crewe away, on Saturday. Their eleven was like this: O’Donnell in goal; Taylor, Butler, Downing and Chambers at the back; Hemmings, Mantom, Featherstone, Chambers in the midfield; Westcarr and Hewitt took up the striking positions.
The game began rather quietly, neither team wanted to concede an early goal so were tentative about going forward nor making the opposition defenders uncomfortable. Wolves’ first chance came after some intelligent, one touch, build up play. Kevin McDonald lofted a delicately placed ball onto the head of his fellow Kevin. Doyle lost the challenge and the ball was headed out, from nowhere, Sigurdarson came running in and dispatched his volley with particular venom. Sadly, Sigurdarson’s shot did not trouble O’Donnell and his shot went high and wide.
The game quickly began to liven up, Lee Evans chopped down Sam Mantom down. The resulting free kick, from Craig Westcarr , hit the cross bar and drew gasps from both sets of subdued supporters. Walsall looked to sit deep and try hit the Wolves on the break, a rather tame long shot from former Wolves man, Ashley Hemmings and a cross-cum-shot from Sam Mantom were both saved by Carl Ikeme. With the game now in full swing it was clear that Wolves did look comfortable on the ball in the middle third of the pitch, problem was, when they got into the final third there was no penetration from Doyle or Sigurdarson, as both these players were dropping deep. Neither players were running in behind the Walsall defence, a defence that does not possess a lot of pace, Wolves missed a trick there, they could have really punished Walsall if they got in behind them.
Wolves’ best chance came when Bjorn Sigurdarson showed immense strength, speed and awareness, he broke three tackles in quick succession and played the ball out wide to Bakary Sako, who dragged his shot wide. Wolves’ fans were purring at the display from Sigurdarson, he was breaking tackles like the defenders were not even there and showing great vision to pick out his French team mate. Wolves were continuing their good work, intricate passes between McDonald and Sako to the full back/auxiliary winger Scott Golbourne, whose chipped ball in was cleared away. Wolves found themselves with a corner to defend, shouts of handball were waved away from the referee, even though, from where this reporter was sitting, Doherty’s hand had indeed touched the ball. Though from where the referee was standing, he would have seen Batth’s head in front of Doherty outstretched hand. The ball was cleared, only to the feet of centre half, Downing, who, like every other English centre half (barring Gary Cahill) blazed his shot high and wide.
With half time around the corner, Wolves attempted to nick a goal. Sigurdarson, effective once again on the turn, broke a tackle and attempted to give Wolves the lead. Soon after, Sako had a free kick which, as expected, was agonisingly close to making it 1-0. It was tipped just over by an outstretched O’Donnell. Batth’s header from the resulting corner was a foot or so wide, if he had timed his run a little earlier, O’Donnell would have had to been at his very best to prevent a goal from the future Wolves captain. Wolves were awarded a free kick with just a few minutes of the first half. Evans hit the in swinging at around O’Donnell midriff, he saved comfortably as the first half fizzled out.
The first half was brought to a close with the scores at 0-0 – Wolves were probably the better team by nature of Walsall’s game plan. They chose to sit back and soak up the pressure brought onto them by the home side. To an extent, Walsall were probably very happy to go into the dressing room with the scores at 0-0, Wolves, probably not so much.
With those 45 minutes behind both teams. The players returned, unchanged for the second half. Wolves began brightly, the ever present Scott Golbourne was on hand to deliver a ball into Kevin Doyle whose header went wide. Minutes later David Davis hit a thirty plus yard through ball out onto the right hand side to the oncoming Kevin Doyle who managed to trap the ball well but was unable to deliver the right ball in, the attack broke down and Walsall countered. It really highlights how blunt Wolves are without Griffiths on the pitch when your main striker is on the right hand side delivering a cross into no one – it was a facet that Wolves were missing.
Wolves were tending to go wide, partly because of the lack of a proper striker up the top end of the field. Davis and co had no other choice other than to play it out wide. With Walsall’s strong and physically robust centre halves, Wolves were finding it impossible to get any sort of success through the air.
With an hour gone, Jackett was the first manager to show his hand, bringing off the effective Kevin McDonald and the robust Lee Evans for Leigh Griffiths and Kevin Foley. Jacket switched to a more conventional 4-4-2, with Doyle and Griffiths as strikers and Sigurdarson and Sako occupying the flanks. An odd choice to bring off the new signing as he is probably the best midfielder at his new club, certainly, he is most likely to get forward and influence the game, more than Evans or Davis.
One positive was the relationship sparked up between Sako and Golbourne down the left hand side, despite the readjusting that Jackett has had to do to the defence, it looks like Golbourne and Sako are reading from the same hymn sheet, which bodes well for When Wolves are counter attacking.
Sako attempted an audacious 40 yard attempt after seeing O’Donnell off his line, needless to say Sako was not particularly close to breaking the deadlock, which drew jeers from the away crowd. Batth had another great chance to score after some neat build up play forced a Wolves corner from which the man from Brierley Hill headed just wide. Dean Smith made his first change on the 65th minute, the former Wolves man Ashley Hemmings, who was anonymous throughout the game, despite some promising runs, he failed to produce anything of real quality – he departed for James Baxendale.
Soon after the substitution, the deadlock was broken, with the first real chance of the second half. A free kick was awarded after Danny Batth cynically tripped a Walsall player, the ball was swung in and Wolves, once again, were slow to react. The ball was headed back in and time stood still as Andy Butler brushed his forehand against the ball and made it 1-0. It was a very frustrating goal to concede Wolves were all of a sudden Wolves were chasing the game, within space of two minutes. It was Batth’s faults for awarding Walsall the free kick, but furthermore, it was the slow and lazy reactions of the home team’s defence.
Wolves brightened up a bit after the goal was conceded, their tales were up. Sako had a free kick saved, Griffiths smashed a volley wide after doing well to read the height and weight of the chipped ball. Soon after, Sako had another chance but O’Donnell was on hand to save. Despite all these half chances Wolves amassed three shots on target despite shooting sixteen times in the match. That gives you the clearest indication that Wolves, without Griffiths, struggle to put chances away.
Walsall made two further changes, after the linesman had real difficulty working the electronic board, after much jeering and eventual annoyance at the blunder, Westcarr and Hewitt were replaced with Sawyers and Lalkovic.
Batth then played a cross field pass to Sigurdarson who effortlessly won the header which was half a second away from finding the boot of Leigh Griffiths, unfortunately, Butler cleared before Griffiths could cause some damage.
With minutes left, Wolves looked out of ideas, there were no options going forward, at this late stage and Walsall looked to have the game wrapped up. Ikeme then had a rather odd moment when his face met the football. It was such a strange that this reporter is finding it difficult to describe, even after seeing the replay. Ikeme collects the ball, goes to roll it out, the ball then bounces off his foot, it goes askew and a frantic Ikeme was desperately trying to claw it away, despite being outside his eighteen yard box. He was given a yellow card for handling the ball outside the area, though it was more likely for not being able to throw a football, with your hands, and work out where your feet are, at the same time. Lalkovic’s resulting free kick nearly sewed the game up, fortunately, Ikeme’s blushes were spared as the ball was denied by the wood work.
The referee blew the whistle soon after as Wolves slumped to a first loss in five games. Diluted applause came from the South Bank as Sako and Griffiths applauded the rather annoyed Wolves fans. Contrast that with the away end, were scenes of jubilation were the order of the day, the Walsall fans were delighted with beating a ‘local rival’ and rightly so.
So, the unbeaten Wolves are finally wounded and, in some respects, this might be a good result for us, in the long term. Performances, since Crawley, have been complacent, cocky, with an air of “well we just have to turn up to win”. This result should change that, the players will now realise that there are experienced players who know this League inside out and know that Wolves are seen as the ‘big boys’ of division, this will make them try that little bit harder against us.
Shrewsbury on Saturday will be tough, no doubt, but the away should demand, and expect, and bounce back from a fired up Wolves side.