Wolverhampton Wanderers enter the 2011-12 season full of hope, having retained their place in the Premier League courtesy of a dramatic 87th minute Stephen Hunt goal. Wolves would have been safe earlier had it not been for a dismal start to the season – Mick McCarthy’s men earned just nine points from their opening 14 matches as they seemed destined for the drop. Their post-January form would have seen them finish comfortably mid-table had they not started the season in such a catastrophic manner.
With that in mind, it was always going to be a case of evolution, as opposed to revolution, for McCarthy. Last season’s loan star Jamie O’Hara joined on a five year deal for £3.5m, Birmingham City stalwart Roger Johnson joined for just a million more while Swansea City goalkeeper Dorus de Vries made the journey from Wales as he joined on a Bosman deal. Perhaps just as importantly, Wolves’ impressive off-field position means the club do not need to sell any of their first team stars in order to bring in new players, having recorded profits of over £25m for the past season. While Wigan Athletic have lost Charles N’Zogbia and Blackburn Rovers sold Phil Jones, Wolves have been able to build upon a team that performed admirably in the second half of last campaign, adding creativity in the form of O’Hara and leadership in the form of Johnson.
With long-term absentee Michael Kightly now fit again, January acquisition Adam Hammill looking promising in pre-season and last season’s final-day hero Stephen Hunt aiming to better the paltry 14 starts he managed in an injury-hit campaign, Wolves have three exciting wingers willing to share the burden of creativity that England star Matt Jarvis has had to shoulder alone for much of their time in the top flight. McCarthy has built his managerial success upon a fluid 4-4-2 system with rampaging wide-men. However, a combination of injuries and the emergence of Kevin Doyle as a lone striker have seen McCarthy abandon the 4-4-2 in favour of the most defensively minded 4-5-1 for much of his side’s two previous campaigns. Having been forced to deploy right-back Kevin Foley, attacking midfielder David Edwards and Belgian import Jelle van Damme in a wing role in previous seasons, Hunt, Hammill and Kightly now provide McCarthy with an embarrassment of riches in the wide areas.
Yet, for Wolves to play 4-4-2 effectively, strikers Doyle and Steven Fletcher will have to forge a better understanding than they did last season. While both Doyle and Fletcher earned plaudits individually, the partnership between the two did not live up to the pre-season hype. Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and utility man Stephen Ward will be waiting in the wings should the partnership fail to flourish once more.
Elsewhere, the left-back position is still one of concern for many Wolves fans. While George Elokobi has improved immeasurably in the last two years, he is still prone to the occasional mistake. McCarthy reportedly passed up the opportunity to sign former Hearts full-back Lee Wallace and supporters will hope he has someone else in his plans to offer competition to the strong Cameroonian.
Newly installed captain Roger Johnson will take his place at the heart of the Wanderers’ defence, yet whether he will be partnered by Christophe Berra or Richard Stearman is still far from certain. Both defenders had somewhat mixed campaigns, combining to shut out the likes of Fernando Torres, Didier Drogba and Darren Bent, but shipping goals against Newcastle United, Stoke City and Everton. Further afield, Wolves lack adequate cover for former captain Karl Henry. Jay Spearing and Thomas Hitzlsperger have reportedly caught McCarthy’s eye as he bids to strengthen the midfield.
These problems notwithstanding, Wolves should have more than enough to survive for a third consecutive Premier League season. The £40m stadium development is well underway and McCarthy will hope that last-day survival fights are a thing of the past as he pushes for mid-table mediocrity and the financial rewards continued survival brings.
Key Signing – Roger Johnson: Johnson’s £4.5m transfer from Birmingham represents quite a coup for Wolves. Johnson, who has enjoyed two impressive Premier League campaigns, was reportedly on the radar of both Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. His move – at nearly £10m less than originally quoted – will bring much needed steel to a porous Wanderers defence.
Key Departure – None: In stark contrast to rivals Wigan and Blackburn, Wolves have moved to quash reports that they will be cashing in on any of their prized assets. Jarvis and Doyle have both been linked with a move to Arsenal, yet McCarthy is adamant that neither will be sold. The ineffective Steven Mouyokolo has joined Sochaux on loan, while squad midfielder David Jones chose to run down his contract before signing for Wigan.
Zubar – Johnson – Berra – Elokobi
Jarvis – O’Hara – Henry – Hunt
Fletcher – Doyle