Wolves – a Football Manager story: Chapter Six – November and December 2016

Nouha Dicko Wolves

Only three points from the automatic promotion spaces and in a rich run of form, we enter the winter months with confidence and enthusiasm.

Granted, the defeat to Blackburn Rovers was a punch to the gut, ending a six-game winning streak, but my Wolves side have become a team with a settled style and a penchant for gutsy performances.

Still, optimism isn’t enough to see us through our opening November game as we play out a fairly dull 0-0 draw at home to Derby.

Preston North End away follows, a side battling not-so-bravely against the drop.

Their defence is a bulky setup – strong, physically imposing but certainly not blessed with pace – and so we decide to change things up and welcome Nouha Dicko into the first team.

He’s missed the whole campaign through injury so far but has impressed in the reserves over recent weeks. It’s hoped his speed will cause problems as we try a less direct style.

Dicko performs awfully, though, and it takes a deft finish from Magnus Wolff Eikrem to edge a cagey game 1-0.

Preston North End

A similarly tight game unfolds next as we beat Sheffield Wednesday 1-0 before entering December with the challenge of Queens Park Rangers away.

With the Dicko experiment failing miserably – it was hoped his return would mean we can change our style for different teams, but his two early performances suggest it just isn’t working yet – Jón Daði Böðvarsson returns to lead the line.

QPR v Wolves line up

It’s become clear of late, as we eek through 1-0 victory after 1-0 victory, that, yes, we’re doing well, but we’re not dominating to the extent that a true promotion contender should.

As such, I choose to attack QPR from the off with a high-tempo, pressing setup. Böðvarsson puts in an excellent shift, bagging a brace in a free-flowing, 2-1 victory.

Fulham at home follows and an offensive display sees another 2-1 win before we face Cardiff City away.

The Welsh side play with such attacking intent that I decide to change tack and drop into our more familiar counter attacking manner. It proves a clever move as we ease past Cardiff 3-0, Böðvarsson again impressing.

Cardiff city 0-3 Wolves

Whether it’s the colder months that have stirred the striker into shape, or simply the threat of Dicko behind him, the Icelandic forward is beginning to show the traits of a truly powerful target man.

As always, though, it’s when you’re at your best that you start to get complacent and, eyeing up a sixth straight win at Nottingham Forest, we come undone.

An aggressive setup designed to unsettle the hosts works, to an extent, but a mixture of terrible finishing, superb goalkeeping and a smidgen of misfortune means we fall 2-1.

Nottingham Forest 2-1 Wolves

It’s an upsetting fall from grace – not least because we would have penetrated the top two with only a draw – and Böðvarsson puts in his worst performance of the season by far. Ivan Cavaleiro misses a penalty, too.

The knock dents our confidence and we see out the month with two drab draws, leaving us five points from automatic promotion.

Results November December 2016

Off the field, Ben Marshall asks to leave after a lack of first team opportunities. I say, quite fairly, that it will be difficult to break into a first team currently boasting both Cavaleiro and Hélder Costa, but he’s having none of it.

The next day, he doesn’t turn up to training and is immediately transfer listed. The sheer triviality of his role in our recent success means, in truth, I’m not in the slightest bit troubled as Norwich City immediately eye up his services.

With January about to begin we start to search the market for new talent but the hunt is not desperate – this is a team that, in spite of outside wobbles, has a certain steely undercoat.

Things are looking up for Wolves.

Championship league table December 2016

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Where Fulham need to improve for 2017/18

Fulham Football Club Johnny Haynes Stand

In spite of its eventual disappointment, there was much to be merry about for Fulham fans throughout the 2016/17 season.

We showed the Championship – the cruel, unforgiving Championship – that it is possible to play your way into promotion contention.

That we were undone by the rigid tactics of a dogged Reading side is incidental – we played consistently with beauty, finesse and not a little bit of spirit.

It wasn’t enough, though, to get us over the line. And, as the opening of the transfer window begins to loom, you have to worry about the future of a significant number of our better players.

Tom Cairney has been attracting attention for some time now, as has Ryan Sessegnon. Marcus Bettinelli supposedly has his suitors.

Marcus Bettinelli Fulham
Fulham goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli is reportedly interesting Championship side Bristol City

And let’s not forget the myriad temporary deals that provided such support throughout the campaign, from Tomáš Kalas through to Lucas Piazon. Come August, there’s every chance we could be looking at a squad depleted.

You’d hope it won’t come to that.

Permanent deals for Piazon and Kalas have been discussed and retaining Cairney isn’t unfathomable – the player clearly loves it in South West London. And, if his old pal Matt Smith remains local, there’s every chance their cutesy bond could save us a significant loss.

Regardless, in the face of uncertainty, Fulham must spend. Spend to improve the squad. Spend to plug the gaps. In many ways, spend simply because everyone else is doing so, too.

We could do with a goalkeeper, that’s for sure. David Button proved an ineffectual signing, in the end.

His statistics actually show him as one of the best ‘keepers in the league but as anyone who’s seen the 28 year-old live will attest, his penchant for the ridiculous and particularly poor distribution make him a weakness more than a strength.

Of course, Bettinelli stood in towards the end of the season and excelled. I, for one, wouldn’t be aghast at the idea of him retaining the number one jersey for another year.

That’s not to say there aren’t better alternatives out there, though, and we’d be foolish not to pursue them.

At centre back we’ve been blessed with a surprising number of options this season. Kalas, Tim Ream, Michael Madl and Ragnar Sigurðsson have all had their moments.

But, as has been so very Fulham over the past few seasons, none have shown the kind of consistency required by a table-topping team. Retaining Kalas would be huge but bringing in someone alongside him may be even more important.

Depth in midfield could be a problem, but Slaviša Jokanović’s (blessed) refusal to rotate a central trio of Cairney, Stefan Johansen and Kevin McDonald means the likes of Lasse Vigen Christensen and Jozabed – who return from loan – remain truly untested.

Jozabed Sánchez Ruiz RC Celta de Vigo Fulham
Jozabed, pictured on loan at RC Celta de Vigo, could potentially play an important role next season at Fulham

Where money needs to be thrown the most is up front. With Chris Martin – chastised by many, loved by few, but ultimately a key cog in much of what we achieved last season – and Cyriac returning to their parent clubs, Cauley Woodrow is our leading viable striker.

With a tactical setup that exploits pace on the wings we need a strong, physical presence up top who can hold up the ball and bring others into play. They need to be good in the air, too, and as a focal point for our attack, ruthlessly clinical.

Basically, we need the perfect centre forward.

Automatic promotion would not be off the cards if we can invest wisely and keep our key figures – not least Jokanović himself.

It’s all a very big ask, of course, but you don’t get far without a bit of ambition.

Wolves – a Football Manager story: Chapter Five – October 2016

Danny Batth Wolves

If September brought around a minor revival of sorts for Wolverhampton Wanderers, October requires, at the very least, something a little more galvanising.

While the previous month had its positive results – the 1-1 draw at St James Park was a particular highlight – it had been up and down.

In some games we’d performed exceptionally, only to let ourselves down. In others we’d played with remarkable mediocrity and still ground out victories.

October, then, needs both performances and wins. We are crying for consistency.

Off the back of two straight wins, we enter the third month of the campaign in buoyant mood.

Much to the misfortune of Norwich City.

The Canaries travel to Molineux in fine fettle, topping the table and boasting a noteworthy goals-for column.

Nonetheless, we go in with the intention to attack, matching Norwich’s 4-2-3-1. Injuries have struck the squad and in the absence of David Edwards and the indomitable Hélder Costa, youngster Bright Enobakhare and the out-of-favour (because he’s been terrible) Ben Marshall start.

Wolves vs Norwich 2016 line up

We begin well, Marshall proving me wrong inside seven minutes by teeing up Jón Daði Böðvarsson with a delightfully precise cross.

After the break, Yanic Wildschut equalises as the visitors begin to push on. We go into a more counter attacking style, with Norwich maintaining possession well, and it pays off.

18 year-old Enobakhare stabs home from close range after an incisive break and we hold on tight to make it three on the bounce.

Wolves 2-1 Norwich 2016

A local derby then awaits – Aston Villa away. On paper it’s a tough match but the host’s form has been patchy at best.

Danny Batth, who, it’s worth mentioning, has been by far our most consistent performer so far this season, misses out, and 21 year-old Kourtney Hause steps in to replace him.

However, we’re blessed by the return of Hélder Costa and decide to take the game to Villa. In general, they line up quite defensively, even at home, and so it’d seem counter-intuitive to do the same.

And, as the game begins to settle, it seems a sensible plan. We dominate possession and begin to carve open the home defence. Before long, David Edwards has put us in front with a fine header.

At half time, the Villains change tack and stick three up top. We revert to a more defensive formation in response, tucking Jack Price behind two deeper-lying central midfielders.

It’s designed to stifle Aston Villa and on the whole it works. They show brief glances of their innate talent but, ultimately, the second half flies by with little in the way of action. It’s now four wins in a row and the Wolves faithful are delighted.

Aston Villa 0-1 Wolves 2016

We perform with equal verve against a steely Brighton and Hove Albion side, who sit just below us in the table. Glenn Murray gives the Seagulls an early lead but we take the game to them in response.

We’re thankful to two set-pieces as we fight back to win 2-1, Ruben Gabrielsen scoring in extra time. It’s all coming together nicely.

Leeds United at home follows, a tricky tie against a side who are, again, only a place below us in the table.

Leeds play quite openly away from home so we decide to attack from the off in a high-tempo, direct manner. Within 10 minutes we have the lead.

On 22 minutes we double our advantage, finally showing the clinical edge that has been absent all season. Given our dominance I leave things as they are, even as the away side make a number of tactical tweaks to steer themselves back into the match.

One such tweak appears to be a far more physical approach. Eventually, with the referee throwing yellow cards around left, right and centre, Liam Bridcutt gets sent off and hands us victory on a plate. 3-1, and six straight wins, we sit pretty in fourth place.

Wolves 3-1 Leeds October 2016

Of course it all comes unstuck when you least expect it. We round off the month with a visit to Ewood Park, where mid table Blackburn Rovers have been performing above expectations in a fancy 5-3-2 formation.

Their first choice right wing back is out injured and a young Ryan Nyambe gets the nod – I opt to exploit the left flank, believing a mixture of Hélder Costa and Ivan Cavaleiro will give him hell.

They don’t and we come massively unstuck. Indecisive about whether to attack or counter, I make some sloppy tactical decisions and we fall to a graceless 1-0 defeat.

The run is over. And so is October.October 2016 results

Our superb run of form – Blackburn aside – leaves Wolves in a comfortable play-off spot, three points off the top.

Wolves league table October 2016

Read Chapter Four

Read Chapter Six

Wolves – a Football Manager Story: Chapter Four – September 2016

Newcastle United St James Park

After a shaky August, we enter September with nervous positivity. 

The 3-0 loss at Huddersfield was a shock to the system – we defended abysmally and offered nothing in attack – but we look ahead optimistically at a favourable month of fixtures.

Our exhaustive injury list has curtailed us quite considerably – there’s no option to dramatically alter our tactics because, put simply, we don’t have the players to go about things differently.

In spite of his form, Jón Dadi Bödvarsson remains a key player – his strength and hold up play means a more direct style is logical. Hélder Costa and Ivan Cavaleiro are so talented that not playing with width would be foolish.

And so, with only minor amends to our style of play – we go more attacking and line up in a 4-2-3-1 – we face Burton Albion at home.

A dire 0-0 draw ensues.

Wolves 0-0 Burton September 2016

In truth, we dominate the game and barely give Burton a sniff. Once more, it’s Bödvarsson who lets us down, spurning two good opportunities in front of goal. I just don’t know what to do with him.

Still, we take the positives and go again, facing Barnsley at home just three days later.

We perform with a typical level of ordinariness but, somehow, churn out a 2-1 win. Two set pieces see us through as we edge out a 2-1 victory. Perhaps it’s just the good fortune we need to begin turning things around.

Newcastle away is the next test and, let’s be honest, it’s a huge one. A Goliath of a team at this level, they line up with immense talent in every position.

Newcastle v Wolves line ups 2016

I opt for a counter attacking 4-1-2-3, with shorter passing to help retain possession just a little better. Magnus Wolff Eikrem is unfortunately unfit and so Lee Evans gets a start as playmaker. In spite of everything, Bödvarsson starts up top.

Grant Hanley scores for the hosts nine minutes in and the signs are there – this will be a long day. We move to a more direct style and up our tempo to get back into the game with haste, but it’s not until the 44th minute that it pays dividends.

It’s Bödvarsson who shows up, smashing a strike into the top left hand corner. The second half is a tamer affair – we remain tight, Newcastle become warier of our threat on the break. We see out an onslaught in the last few minutes to take home a very impressive point. For a draw, it feels momentous.

Newcastle 1-1 Wolves September 2016

A second string side then fall to Sunderland in the EFL Cup third round. We actually play exceptionally well but an inexperienced defence concede two early goals before we battle back to 2-2. We lose on penalties.

We remain upbeat, though. A league tie against Brentford follows and sticking with the 4-2-3-1 at home seems to be paying dividends. Thanks to a Ruben Gabrielsen header and a Kieron Richardson missed penalty for the visitors, we run out 1-0 winners.

Wigan Athletic away rounds off the month as I put my fairly simplistic policy of attacking 4-2-3-1 at home, counter 4-3-3 away, into beta test mode.

In truth, lining up against a team of Wigan’s caliber shouldn’t really require a defend-first, attack-second approach but in the face of such profligacy in front of goal, it’s become crucial we don’t concede.

Wigan 1-2 Wolves 2016

We do concede, of course, but it’s too little too late for the Latics as we ease past them 2-1. Bödvarsson doesn’t score but takes home the Man of the Match award after a superb performance.

My faith in him – or, more accurately, my faith in absence of any other reasonable alternative – is beginning to reap its rewards.

Wolves September 2016 results

All in all, it ties off a solid, if not overwhelmingly good, September for the club. We finish the month in a flattering 5th place. Can we keep it up?

Wolves Championship table September 2016

Read Chapter Three

Fulham losing Ross McCormack was a blessing in disguise. So would selling Tom Cairney be all that bad?

When Fulham sold Ross McCormack to Aston Villa in the summer of 2016, the furore among fans was understandable.

The striker, with 38 league goals in two seasons at Craven Cottage, had twice been critical in saving the club from relegation to the third tier.

His strikes were regular, timely and on many occasions, simply sublime.

With him and Moussa Dembélé forming a lethal partnership in 2015/16, goals and entertainment became the only undoubtable commodity in a season of severe uncertainty.

And so we mourned his loss and posed serious questions to those in charge. Where’s the ambition? Why can’t we keep our best players? What, exactly, does the future hold?

Fulham Ross McCormack

The answer to the latter, of course, was as surprising as it was joyful. Not perfect – perfection would have been beating Reading and making Wembley – but nonetheless a journey of extreme fun.

Slaviša Jokanović has done so well to morph the team at his disposal into one that is truly revered among Championship counterparts. He did so with a vision – one which centred around attractive, possession-based football.

A vision that, ultimately, didn’t need Ross McCormack.

It didn’t require one extraordinarily prolific striker – it certainly didn’t need two. With Fulham this season – showing such grit, desire and determination – it was clear that the whole had become greater than the sum of its parts.

And so, as the vultures circle around Tom Cairney, we have to ask again – is losing our best player all that bad?

I say best player because, quite palpably, Cairney is the one to make this team tick. That might seem at odds with the idea that this season’s successes were down more to teamwork than individual triumph, but it’s true.

One look at his stats – a 92.6% passing success rate, 10 assists, 2.6 key passes per game – says all you need. One look at his performances this season – his consistency, his genius, his vision – says even more.

He has become a creative lynchpin for this team, buoyed, I’m sure, by the captain’s armband and the infinite faith shown in his talents by Jokanović.

Is he replaceable? Sure. Any player, up to the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, are replaceable in their own right.

But in the context of Fulham, our reliance on his style of play and his centrality to everything positive we do, I’d argue perhaps not.

Don’t get me wrong – if a club like Newcastle United step in and throw upwards of £15 million at the 26 year-old, owner Shahid Khan may be tempted to accept.

And, for all the stick that has been thrown the way of Khan over the last few years, it’d be hard to hold him personally accountable. We’d surely reinvest – maybe we’ll even find that stellar striker we’ve been craving in the absence of Chris Martin’s willingness to really try.

But would it be the same? It’s hard to envision a Fulham team, now, without Cairney as its beating heart.

Whether he is willing to stay, whether Khan is willing to sell, who knows?

What’s certain is that losing Cairney won’t be like losing McCormack. Selling our star striker freed up our system, allowed us to play more dictatorially and, in many ways, propelled us forward this season.

Selling our captain this year, I fear, would do quite the opposite.

Wolves – a Football Manager story: Chapter Three – August 2016

Bodvarsson

After a mildly promising pre-season, it’s time to get the full campaign under way. 

Rotherham United away is our first test of 2016/17 – the second easiest game of the year, behind Rotherham at home.

As such, we go in confident.

We line up in our more defensive 4-1-2-3 formation but I instruct the players to push on and control the play. Given the state of the host’s squad, it shouldn’t be a problem to dictate the match.

Rotherham v Wolves formations

We play a direct game, clearing the ball to the flanks and getting it into Jón Daði Böðvarsson as quickly as possible.

It works. Rotherham end up edging the possession stats (who really cares) but we run out 3-1 winners, Ivan Cavaleiro, Böðvarsson and Hélder Costa bagging our goals.

Frustratingly, Joe Newell gets a 90th-minute consolation for the Yorkshiremen – an annoyingly simple goal that leaves Richard Stearman statuesque. I’ll be having words.

Rotherham 1-3 Wolves

After opening day success, we take on Bristol Rovers at home in the EFL Cup. A simple game on paper but not so in execution.

A second string eleven, lining up in a more offensive 4-2-3-1, can only beat Rovers in a penalty shootout, despite 37 shots at goal throughout 120 minutes.

It’s the first sign of a common theme throughout August – a severe lack of composure in front of goal. A 0-0 draw with Reading is followed by a torrid 1-1 at home to Ipswich Town and I hastily decide it’s time to tweak the formation before our local derby with Birmingham City.

We’re away from home and so set up in a counter attacking 4-1-2-3. Böðvarsson is pushed further up – previously his target man role had been a support one, but now we’re looking to him as a goalscoring focal point – while some minor changes include rotating wingers and a slightly less direct style of play.

Before the tie, we announce our new signing, Ruben Gabrielsen, a centre back from Norwegian side Molde FK. I love the Norwegians, you see.

Ruben Gabrielsen

He joins for just under £700k and settles straight into the first eleven, taking the place of a disappointing Stearman. He brings a bit of pace to our backline which, with the somewhat immobile Danny Batth at its core, is integral to steadying our defence.

The slightly adapted setup appears to be working as we throw everything at Birmingham. By half time, though, we’re a goal down and Böðvarsson has missed two glorious opportunities.

I’m frustrated but we persevere and the Icelandic striker redeems himself, bagging an equaliser with 15 minutes to go. We deserved more from the game but, at the very least, we did dominate.

Birmingham 1-1 Wolves

Our more attacking setup allows us to brush past Walsall in the EFL Cup but we come massively unstuck in our final game of the month, losing 3-0 at Huddersfield Town. In truth, we failed completely to show up.

The match again highlighted our profligacy in front of goal, with Böðvarsson in particular proving wasteful.

Our only other striking options, currently, though, are Bright Enobakhare and Andi Weimann – both slightly under par and requiring a completely different style of play.

As September draws in and transfer deadline day passes without a whimper, I’ve got some big decisions to make to get this team firing.

August 2016 results

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Wolves – a Football Manager Story: Chapter Two – pre-season 2016

BSFZ-Arena

It’s a sunny July day at the Sir Jack Hayward Training Ground in Wolverhampton.

I’m putting my players through their paces ahead of a gruelling training camp in Austria.

“Come here”, I call, signalling two first-teamers chatting away from the main group.

“Yes boss” replies Joe Mason, an attacking midfielder brought to the club only the season before.

“I’m afraid you’re both on the transfer list. Sorry boys. You just don’t fit into the system we’ve got planned. We’ll get you good deals.”

Mason walks away, meekly accepting his fate but George Saville kicks up something of a fuss.

“What, you’ve been here a week and you think you’ve seen enough to chuck us out?” asks the 23 year-old.

It smarts a little – I’m not the mean type – but I carry on walking.

Players out

Saville and Mason are both available to move – neither are particularly good, to put it bluntly. Saville’s up for £400k, Mason £1m.

Both receive no offers over the pre-season period but hope remains high that they can be shifted.

19 year-old goalkeeper Harry Burgoyne is popped onto the loan list but, similarly, receives little-to-no attention.

Niall Ennis is the only one to depart during the pre-season run of games, joining Stevenage on loan for six months. A talented young striker, he’s expected to do well at League Two level.

Players in

We’re looking mostly at central midfield. As things stand, our creative lynchpin in the middle is Lee Evans. Lee bloody Evans.

Searching far and wide for a CM with palpable vision and good passing, we settle on 25 year-old Magnus Wolff Eikrem, a former Manchester United youth player now playing for Swedish side Malmö FF.

Magnus Wolff Eikrem

His agent pushes a hard bargain on his contract but he’s just what we need and we bring him in for £1.1 million.

Friendlies

The tour of Austria takes up the bulk of our pre-season action. We face a series of exceptionally-poor First Division and regional sides, as well as the somewhat-more-respectable Bundesliga outfit FC Admira Wacker Mödling.

We win the majority, dabbling with a more attacking 4-2-3-1 for the easier games. Kortney Hause impresses throughout the tour, trying to keep first-choice centre back Richard Stearman at arms length.

We finish up with Motherwell at home, a game arranged as something of a more genuine test of our ability.

Wolves 3-0 Motherwell

Lining up in our preferred 4-1-2-3 formation with our strongest available squad, we roll the Scots over in a 3-0 rout. Eikrem impresses as the formation looks like truly coming together.

Wolves pre-season 2016:17

Böðvarsson has a clinical period, Hélder Costa naturally runs riot and youngsters like Bright Enobakhare get their chance to shine. All in all it’s a pleasant little summer break.

What could go wrong?

Read Chapter One

Read Chapter Three