Substitutions can often change a game for the better but in Wolves case on Saturday, Mick McCarthy’s decision to take off Jelle van Damme and replace him with Steven Fletcher may well have cost his side at least a point at Fulham. Admittedly, it’s still not known exactly why Mick chose to end van Damme’s game after only 45 minutes. The Belgian has yet to finish a Premier League game for Wolves, suggesting that fitness or an underlying injury may be a problem. The team, however, went into the break 1-0 up, courtesy of the £2.5m summer signing, and throughout the half he was a constant threat, winning possession in midfield and proving a handful to Fulham’s John Pantsil. He linked up great with Kevin Doyle who also put in a resounding first-half effort. The Irishman challenged for, and almost always won everything in the air, and his backtracking and holding up of the ball was impressive.
Mark Hughes opted, also at half-time, to replace Pantsil, reflecting his difficulty to contain van Damme, and as Fulham became more imposing, Wolves lost their spark and by the 61st minute, the two players who had contributed so much in the first-half were not even on the pitch anymore. Doyle, who featured for his country during the international break, may also have been suffering from a lack of fitness but it is surprising that McCarthy has kept quiet on why he chose to make these changes and his silence could hide the simple fact of an error of judgement. Choosing to replace van Damme with Steven Fletcher may seem like a positive offensive move but David Jones would have probably been a better option as it in fact disrupted the balance of the midfield, which was not able to contain the Whites, and with Doyle operating from the right wing, his influence was lost.
Changing a winning team is never a good idea and although McCarthy can easily learn from this, there were other factors which also contributed to Wolves’ 2-1 defeat. The main talking point has been Bobby Zamora’s leg break which occurred after a strong challenge from Karl Henry. The midfielder hit the headlines after his tough performance against Newcastle and he was again centre of attention. There’s been criticism of the captain and suggestions that he is a thug and was out to cause damage. This, however, is grossly unfair. Whether it was necessary to tackle Zamora in such a way is questionable but his challenge was firm but fair and the reason the striker was injured was because of how he landed afterwards. Both Fulham’s Danny Murphy and Mark Hughes have dismissed claims that there was malice intended and Henry’s reaction to what happened highlights just how he is not a dirty player. Having enjoyed a commanding display before the injury, Henry then appeared to withdraw from the game, understandably shell-shocked, and his strong presence in midfield was lost. In contrast, Fulham came out for the second-half ready to avenge the loss of their teammate, and their early goal, four minutes after the restart, buoyed them.
Henry is not the only one to be branded with the dirty tag and with the team sitting bottom of the fair play league and facing a £75,000 fine, there’s been questions as to whether Wolves are taking their ‘bully-boy’ tactics too far. Both McCarthy and captain Henry have hit back at the claims, with Mick declaring “ I think it becomes media driven and I think that perception affects officials and fans,” and the midfielder remarking: “ It’s within the rules of the game to tackle.”
Whilst it is too early to take any real notice of the disciplinary table, what a number of fanzines have interestingly pointed out is that the majority of Wolves cards have come from clumsy, not vicious, challenges. Christophe Berra’s dismissal was an example of this and Michael Mancienne got booked for shirt pulling. The Black Country side are playing a physical game but if they are to get a bad reputation based on disciplinary, when in fact the majority of their cards come from clumsy incidents, then they will inevitably lose favour with referees for no real reason. Given that the side have also conceded almost entirely from set pieces this season, the need to not give away unnecessary fouls comes even more important and is highlighted by the winning free-kick which Moussa Dembele drilled under the Wolves wall.
Losing a goal in the last seconds, regardless of whether you’ve put in a storming performance or a shocker, is always devastating, especially considering Wolves came so close to a point that in all truth they probably did not deserve. They were outplayed by Fulham in the second-half and the Whites also had a number of penalty shouts, most notably two in the early stages of the game. The negatives will continue to dominate discussions but there are a number of positives that fans can take from this fixture.
True, Mick got his tactics wrong, Michael Mancienne’s decision to just hoof balls up field against the towering Brede Hangeland was bemusing, Adlene Guedioura probably should have been given a chance and the wall for the free-kick could have been stronger.
But Doyle was superb when upfront, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake’s workrate was immense, van Damme looks like a steal and despite all Fulham’s chances, it took them until the final seconds to increase their tally. It’s the first loss of the season but there’s a lot to work with. At the moment the problem is getting the team to play well for ninety minutes, trying to take on opponents rather than take them down and opting for the right formation. Mick is more than capable of sorting this out and hopefully against Spurs, we’ll see a side that is ready to counter the shortfalls of last Saturday’s game.