The game at the weekend could be summed up in one word - frustration. Starting the match at a good pace and controlling it gave early cause for hope but in the end it was stifling because of the dull, but eventually impressive-in-its-own-way, ultra-defensive set up of the visitors. With 76 per cent possession we probably should have created more chances but every player has been there before, when that system wins the day, or nearly does!
When I played it mostly happened in international games when lesser nations turned up with the simple notion of keeping the score down. There might have been the odd break but you knew that every time you got the ball there would be a wall of nine, 10 or usually 11 players packed in and around their own penalty area. Getting through that mass of humanity was never easy, but with their limitations you usually found a way eventually.
Breaking those teams down was apparently my speciality, hence my goals against Malta, San Marino, Estonia and the USA. The latter two have improved since then but the way through for us ‘lock pickers’ was to play on their weaknesses. The defenders were keen but a bit naïve. They usually tired markedly after an hour and they were then tempted into rash tackles. These usually happened in their own penalty box because that is where they spent the entire game anyway. So I was able to win penalties against Luxembourg, San Marino, Estonia and…well you can guess the rest.
The reason for explaining this is that watching Eden Hazard, Pedro and Willian face that Wolves wall made me understand that they had exactly the same problems as I had back then but against a better, fitter and a more-organised set of players. Wolves also are a bit better at playing on the break and actually trying to score with that small percentage of possession.
At the end of the first half there were some boos ringing around the Bridge and I noticed a few of our players look round as if to say, ‘Really, don’t you understand how hard it is to break down that sort of packed defence?’ I watched Manchester United park the bus in Paris last week to great effect and get an amazing result with a few breaks. It is part of the game, but as a player you feel so cheated that your positivity and endeavour isn’t rewarded fairly in your eyes. To then be chided by your own fans feels harsh but when it calms down the players understand it is a perfectly understandable reaction from the stands.
We need to find ways round this problem more often if we are going to make the top four and the fans are just as frustrated as the players at it being so close yet so far because of this.
One of the ways is obviously to do what Man City do in the same circumstances, continually get their creative players on the ball in the last 30 yards of the pitch. Eden Hazard getting the ball on the halfway line with 10 players between him and the goal is suboptimal. He obviously wants to get involved and he can glide past two or three players with ease, but by then he hasn’t even got close to their back line and he has usually been fouled half a pitch away from the goal.
Pedro, Willian and the likes of Callum Hudson-Odoi are the same. They have to get possession where they can hurt the opposition more quickly. This means moving the ball far more quickly when the opportunity arises. Maurizio Sarri says as much after each disappointment. Clearly it is easier said than done but City do it expertly every week. It is not a dig at the players mentioned, or their team-mates or the coaching staff, but it is imperative to find an answer to this conundrum between them all.
Take a look at when we did score. Eden picked the ball up 20 yards out from goal, not 60. He still had a huge amount to do but fouling him there is more dangerous with our talented free-kick specialists on the prowl, and quite simply there is less ground for him to travel before having a pop at goal.
I watch Callum trying to learn this as he goes along and he realising how much harder it is against better teams, with better players and better-organised systems. He has the ability like Eden to beat anyone, but he is much more dangerous receiving it further up field. When he did get it in the right area he put in some wicked crosses. When he didn’t he got caught on the ball a few times and Wolves were able to break dangerously.
In the end the least the team deserved was the point we got and we are still very close to the ultimate goal. I just feel it will be a few marginal gains that might make the difference between top four and being back in the Europa League again.
One marginal gain we could make in my opinion is to improve our corner-kick delivery. As everyone groans when another one fails to clear the first defender I have a deep sigh to myself. Why is it that from a free-kick players can ping a ball over a wall to within an inch of the crossbar from 25 yards but cannot always get a decent corner over? Having taken 19 years’ worth of corners professionally, can I respectfully explain why it is harder now than it has ever been?
The players have to run up a hill, the run up is too short, the plastic surface goes right to the line and as such your planted foot is half on grass and half on the synthetic surface. If you were devising a method of making corner-taking more difficult, this is exactly what you would do! Maybe adding a step, as they do at some clubs, would make it even harder, but you get the point. Even so the players can all ‘dolly’ a ball in there quite easily, but if you don’t hit it with precision and pace, the modern keeper will almost certainly come and collect it.
If we could find a way to flatten off this area around the corner flag and grass it, it could add a few more goals per season. Then opposition might benefit too, but not as much as us because we always get more corners than they do at home, it was 11-0 in that department at the weekend. Those extra few goals that would be created and that marginal gain might just be the difference between Europa League and Champions League.