Club Focus – Wolves – McCarthy’s tough decisions vindicated

A deathly silence descended over Molineux when the stadium announcer read out the Wolves starting line-up for their crucial match against rivals West Bromwich Albion. Matt Jarvis, Wolves’ first England international since Steve Bull and, arguably, the Midlanders’ player of the season, had been relegated to the bench – his place taken by Stephen Hunt. An emphatic 3-1 victory, one in which Stephen Hunt claimed two assists, justified McCarthy’s decision to rest Jarvis. ”It was about having fresh legs and people who hadn’t played 30-odd games,” said McCarthy after the match. ”It would have been easy to leave [Jarvis] in because he’s a good player and the crowd love him, but Hunt was the man for the occasion.”

Indeed, this has not been the only big decision McCarthy has made in the past weeks; a dismal run of one point from four games – in which Wolves lost by three goals to Newcastle, Everton and Stoke – saw McCarthy abandon the 4-5-1 system that had worked so well with Kevin Doyle at its head, in favour of a more attacking 4-4-2. Since adopting this formation, Wolves have claimed seven points from a potential nine, a stark upturn in fortune that owes a lot to Steven Fletcher finally establishing himself in the Wanderers’ starting XI. Fletcher has scored five goals in as many games and, in terms of his goal-to-minute ratio, is statistically within the top five strikers in the league. While Fletcher struggled to replicate the form of the tireless Doyle when deployed as a lone striker, the understanding he has forged with the resurgent Stephen Ward has seen the Scottish frontman fire Wolves out of the bottom three and into the heady heights of 16th place. While Ward may not himself be blessed with the goalscoring touch of his striker partner, his willingness to chase down lost causes and technical ability mean that – if Doyle is (as reports suggest) unable to play in Wolves’ final game with Blackburn – McCarthy has a more than able deputy.

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Christophe Berra and Richard Stearman had been mainstays of the Wanderers’ somewhat porous defence this season. Along with George Elokobi and Ronald Zubar, the two had formed a strong partnership at the heart of Wolves’ backline, helping Wolves record wins over Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United. Yet, in an act that has surely proved decisive, McCarthy dropped both for the away match at Birmingham, handing starts to Jody Craddock and Michael Mancienne. Although Mancienne has been at fault for both the Birmingham and Sunderland equalisers, his assured presence at the heart of Wolves’ defence has seen them look far more comfortable in recent matches, whilst his pace has been vital in dealing with the threat of speedy strikers such as Peter Odemwingie and Stephane Sessegnon. Yet it is Jody Craddock who has drawn the plaudits, for his influence at both ends of the pitch. The former Sunderland centre-back opened the scoring against his old club at the weekend, before proceeding to marshal the Wolves back four superbly and restrict Sunderland to shots from distance.

Hunt, Fletcher and Craddock have arguably been Wolves’ stand-out performers as they have launched themselves up the league. McCarthy should receive the plaudits for identifying weakness in both his selection and formation and addressing them accordingly. With a win against Blackburn still required in order to be absolutely certain of safety, it will be interesting to see if McCarthy sticks with the players who have recorded back-to-back wins or hands stars like Matt Jarvis and Nenad Milijas the chance to recapture the form they themselves were showing earlier in the season.

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