Story of a Match: Wolves (H)
We only hate the Wolves and the Ipswich, apparently. Given our lack of matches against Ipswich this year (and the foreseeable future), it was therefore nice to get a win over the gold (orange) lot, especially after we threw away the lead twice earlier in the season in a 2-2 draw. It was a tough win and a backs to the wall performance at the end, but a deserved three points. So how did it happen? Warning; this post contains extensive analysis of Elliott Ward.
Lambert decided to make this game interesting and named another unexpected lineup and unexpected formation. Simon Lappin came in and took up a position at left wing-back, paired with Elliott Bennett who did the same over on the right. Russell Martin, Zak Whitbread and Elliott Ward were all centre backs, playing behind Fox, Howson and Hoolahan, with Holt pairing Jackson up front. The most interesting thing about this formation was the approach to building up play. It was a ballsy move given Wolves’ noted strong players are down their wings, and pairing Bennett on Matt Jarvis was risky, as well as the unused Lappin on Kightly. However, the three centrebacks were able to spread out in possession with the wingbacks pushing up into midfield, giving us a 5 man midfield and outnumbering them in the middle of the park. This led to the predictable domination of possession for the first 45 minutes…
As you can see, Wolves barely had the ball and mainly tried to get it to their wide players. In contrast, we dominated possession, passing it comfortably, stringing together some good moves and getting the ball in the box on a number of occasions.
Now, our approach in the first half was interesting and fairly obvious. Elliott Ward was given the job of building play from the back – he was the central man in the back three and Ruddy was always feeding him the ball to build up chances. However, Ward was not a popular man at the end of the first 45 with many fans seeing him as responsible for ‘repeatedly’ giving the ball away, ‘playing men into trouble’, ‘wasting possession’ and generally being shit. I’ve had this discussion with many people on twitter and, frankly, I don’t agree, and I’m going to point out why. I don’t have any argument with people who think he isn’t a good defender as it’s a different argument – I’m looking at his performance in the first 45 yesterday. Now, I’ve analysed the first half of the match with a team of highly trained cheerleaders, so I think we can trust what I’m going to say.
For me, he was guilty of a notably bad pass with barely two minutes on the clock that set the stall for how people saw him throughout the match.
Here you can see Ward stepping out with the ball, and what is obvious from just 1 minute 12 seconds is that Wolves were setting players high up the pitch, trying to press and cut out options. Both Fox and Howson were closely marked while their two front men were cutting out the space between Ward and his other centre-backs. What Ward did, dumbly, was underhit a pass out left to Whitbread, which was immediately intercepted and Fox conceded the foul to stop Wolves breaking. This was a bad pass, but was (for me), the only instance where Ward’s own ineptitude or poor play was responsible, and he was immediately focused on by many fans who saw what he did in isolation.
On 11 minutes, he is again in possession and again Wolves are using players to man mark high up the pitch and cut out space. With few options, he passes to Howson who showed to recieve it. The moment the ball was played, however, he was immediately closed down by a Wolves midfielder. While Howson was able to wriggle free and play it forward, it reflected on Ward for playing the pass when 1) there were few other options and 2) Howson wasn’t aware of how closely he was being tracked. Ward constantly tried to get the ball forward and play positively rather than slide it side to side, and here it was a case of good Wolves pressing. If it was a Norwich midfielder doing that, I’d be pleased.
On 36 minutes he again steps out with the ball, and plays a ball to Howson who is immediately closed down by two Wolves players, before sliding it back to Ward, who plays it back to Ruddy. Space appears in front of Ward so Ruddy slides it back, and the picture on the right is what Ward is faced with; a wall of Wolves players cutting out passes left, right and centre. There are more Wolves players in the Norwich half than Norwich players and so faced with limited options, Ward tries to play a longer pass over the top. It reaches no one, much to the chagrin of many in the crowd, as if Ward had just wasted some golden opportunity, but again you have to look at both the Norwich midfield for not trying to get into space and the Wolves midfield for effectively cutting it out.
Now this is the situation that led to Ward having a verbal with Ruddy. Again, Ward has the ball and Wolves are working hard to cut out as many options as possible. Fox is taken care of, Howson is surrounded by 3 players, Bennett is out of reach and Wes has just run to the right to try and open some space up, but is covered by whoever number 2 is on that picture. With limited options, Grant Holt drops deep to try and offer an alternative, but is immediately closed down by a Wolves centre-back who tracks him all the way. This leads to a Wolves chance, and when Ruddy says something to Ward about his distrubution, Ward gives it back. At this point, the crowd had chosen their side and audibly chanted ‘Ruddy’, even though Ward had a point. It was obvious all half that Wolves were working hard in midfield and cutting out options and making this building from Ward tactic only occasionally effective. Offering some variation, such as hitting it from goal kicks, may have had some effect.
The reason I say all this is because Ward’s passing first half has received the sort of scrutiny not given to other defenders.
Above you can see all of his first half passes, and he was successful in 43 out of 53 of these. As for criticism of constantly trying a ‘hollywood ball’, he’s lost it twice to long passes. This is less than Russell Martin and the same as Zak Whitbread, who this particularly criticism isn’t aimed at. At the same time, Ward was involved in the buildup for the 2nd goal and helped build many attacks throughout the half, which are generally ignored. Half-way through the half (well, 34 mins according to the video) Ward cleared the ball with a defensive header and it went to a Wolves player, something that got a huge groan and plenty of complaints in the Lower Barclay. Just one minute later Zak did the same, to nothing. On 18 minutes Zak and Lappin try to get too pretty down the left hand side and lose the ball needlessly for a throw in, but again this goes by quietly.
You can see where I’m going with this; to me, Ward wasn’t amazing in his passing but neither was he ‘abysmal’, ‘awful’ or any of the other complaints I’ve heard. Nor was he giving it away every time he got the ball. The tactic of building it through him would be fine if the away team was sitting deep and letting us play, but Wolves didn’t do that. This much is acknowledged by Lambert who changed tactics at halftime…
As you can see above, first half Ruddy was passing it short to Ward and building up through defence. Second half it didnt’ happen once and he repeatedly hit it long to Holt or Jackson, and he was successful the same number of times. This bypassed the advanced Wolves strikers and midfielders.
Second half, the wing-back formation was changed to more of a diamond, with Naughton coming on for Lappin. Laps had a generally good first half, coming up with a couple of notable interceptions, but often looked troubled by Kightly running at him, and Naughton was excellent as his replacement. With a midfield 4 of Howson, Fox, Hoolahan and Bennett we again created the better chances and had more of the ball, and highlights throughout this were Howson and Fox who I felt forged a superb partnership in midfield.
Fox outpassed everyone on the pitch by a distance, providing his usual reliable and calm presence in midfield, getting the ball to a yellow shirt and building attacks. Howson was excellent on his home debut, and while he completed less passes, he was a different sort of player with them, constantly driving forward with the ball, beating Wolves players in midfield and trying to get the ball to good attacking positions. Between them they provided both defensive solidity and attacking intent, and looked a very promising duo.
A vital win. It got us closer to mathematical safety but it also put an end to a poor run of form where our performances were perhaps not being rewarded by results. There were excellent performances by Holt, Jackson, Bennett, Fox, Howson and Naughton and the rest of the team was pretty good too. They dealt well with yet another tactical surprise by Lambert and showed excellent team spirit and mental strength to hold on to the win when Holt was sent off late on.