No pyro no party. Wolverhampton Wanderers welcomed Manchester City to Molineux on Saturday lunchtime for a fixture which had the Wanderers faithful salivating. The prospect of welcoming Pep Guardiola’s centurions to the West Midlands is exactly what the club would have been relishing on their march to a domineering Championship title last season, and they proved they are worthy of their place at this level by recording a deserved 1-1 draw.
Following a first-half in which City hit the woodwork twice and Wolves had a goal disallowed for offside, Willy Bolly sent the Molineux crowd into raptures after 57 minutes by stooping to convert Joao Moutinho’s delightful cross at the back post, albeit off his right arm.
But City showed no sign of wallowing in the misery of a controversial opener as Ilkay Gundogan delivered a wicked free-kick in the 69th minute which was met with full force by Aymeric Laporte who nodded the ball beyond Rui Patricio to open his account for the club and tie the score at 1-1.
Both sides probed for a winner, but it was City who came closest to stealing the 3 points with almost the final kick of the game as Sergio Aguero surprisingly stepped up to fire a 25-yard free-kick onto the crossbar.
Here are the key talking points from a pulsating 90 minutes of football which suggested City won’t have it all their own way this season as their 3-match wining streak came to an end…
KDB absence could be City’s Achilles’ heel
Kevin De Bruyne’s absence against Huddersfield last weekend did nothing to prevent goals from raining at the Etihad as City flamboyantly expressed the clear gulf in class between themselves and the travelling Terriers. But the Premier League newcomers took full advantage of a gaping gap in City’s midfield and managed to pinch the ball on multiple occasions before breaking at speed, particularly in the first-half.
Without the midfield general City lacked a presence which typically allows them to control proceedings from the centre of the park. Wolves’ rigid setup forced City into wide positions where Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker are usually able to utilise their blistering speed to reach the byline, but the 5-at-the-back system favoured by Nuno Espirito Santo prevented the full-backs – particularly Walker – from enjoying the space which De Bruyne is so adept at creating for them.
Money can buy success
Critics may be enticed to dissect Guardiola’s team-selection or City’s apparent underestimation of Wolves’ ability to go toe-to-toe with them for the full 90 minutes, but in truth the champions failed to record a hat-trick of Premier League victories due to the perfect execution of a tactically astute game-plan by the home side. Santo set up his side to soak up pressure effectively in their defensive third before counter-attacking at speed, and their approach rattled the visitors at times.
The footballing world has already witnessed the transformative effect of the riches which have been consistently pumped into City during the past decade. The Chinese consortium who have control at Wolves seem eager to emulate something similar to Sheikh Mansour and build the foundations for a long future in the top-flight after financing a £65 million spending spree during the summer.
Propped up by the notorious super agent Jorge Mendes, the array of talent – mostly Portuguese – whom have arrived at Molineux have turned Wolves into a club who are not playing like a side making their return to the Premier League after a 6-year absence: Joao Moutinho’s technical quality in midfield enabled Wolves to gain a foothold in possession and ensured the transition from midfield to attack was both rapid and fuelled with attacking intent, Willy Boly was an immense influence at the heart of defence and Adama Traore’s direct approach after coming off the substitutes bench could have resulted in a shock winner for the hosts.
Wolves will take more points from the top-6 at home if they replicate this type of performance throughout the season.
Time for the introduction of VAR?
Despite the plaudits which Wolves will deservedly claim for their performance, there is no doubt that they rode their luck on the way to a 1-1 draw. Only a delusional supporter could argue against the fact that Willy Boly handled the ball to put Wolves ahead in the second-half, even if his finish lacked the deceitful intent which a certain Diego Maradona showcased in 1986.
Following a World Cup in which the introduction of VAR was almost unanimously hailed by spectators and pundits alike, Boly’s strike begged the question: we know the technology works 9/10 times, so why not introduce it into the Premier League? Naturally the debate on VAR will intensify in the aftermath of Boly’s goal, but there is no guarantee that the presence of VAR would have ruled it out.
The rules of VAR state that the decision should be reviewed in the instance of a ‘clear and obvious’ refereeing mistake. With the benefit of looking at various replays it’s clear and obvious that Boly handled the ball as he stooped low to connect with a header, but in real time City’s players turned to the half-way line ready to chase an equaliser without muttering a complaint, so a sceptical onlooker would be well within their rights to doubt if this would fall under the remit of ‘clear and obvious’.
5-3-2 could be the way to stop City
City’s multi-record breaking 2017/18 campaign provoked an entire footballing nation to ask themselves one question: how can we break this immaculately oiled Guardiola machine? Just over halfway through the previous campaign, Liverpool proved that City were not the invincibles many had predicted them to become by dismantling them at Anfield with their electric speed in the channels and clinical finishing from outside the penalty area.
But aside from the annual defeat at Anfield, City were otherwise the dominant side even when the result occasionally failed to reflect that. City’s first three victims of the new season all deployed systems with 4 defenders and Wolves were the first side to shift the dynamic with a 5-defender system which formed the basis of a successful promotion bid last season.
And whilst there was no element of surprise involved with Wolves’ approach, City struggled to create space in the channels and out wide where they typically carve through their opponents to create golden openings in the penalty area; Mendy was only allowed space to cross the ball on a handful of occasions and City were forced into a crowded central area where they struggled to create opportunities without their baby faced Belgian playmaker.
If Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal are serious about stopping City from striding clear at the summit once again, they would be wise to take a leaf out of Wolves’ book and consider implementing a restrictive 5-2-3/5-4-1 system.