In the build-up to this game, Gary Rowett has repeatedly spoken about “controlling games without the ball”, something which José Mourinho also talks about. When Manchester United beat Liverpool 2-1 at Old Trafford despite having been outshot 14-5 and commanded only 32 per cent possession, Mourinho said: “You can be in control without having the ball, you can be in trouble when you have the ball.”
It’s a counter-attacking philosophy – counter-intuitive, you could say – but it is the Mourinho mindset as summed up by Diego Torres, which I mentioned pre-Fulham (a game Derby deservedly lost, with 42 per cent of the ball):-
1. The game is won by the team who commits fewer errors
2. Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition
3. Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it’s better to encourage their mistakes
4. Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake
5. Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake
6. Whoever has the ball has fear
7. Whoever does not have it is therefore stronger
Wolves’ players are operating at a higher level than the Championship and point six, if it is correct at all, is certainly irrelevant here, as the home side should have no fear whatsoever ahead of this one. It’s clear that ‘trying to be superior’ to Wolves at Molineux would be to invite disaster, so we will just have to hope that Derby can defend well enough to dig out a result on the night.
There’s always hope of course and while there’s no logical reason to suggest that the Rams will win, they are probably in with as good a chance of sneaking something from this match as anyone in the division. Derby have 19 clean sheets this season – more than anybody except Wolves – and have a better away record than anybody except Wolves or Fulham. Only Wolves and Cardiff have conceded less goals on than the road than Derby, who I reckon have three players who would be in with a chance of getting a game at Wolves (Scott Carson, Curtis Davies, Matej Vydra).
Wolves have only lost once at home since August – but that was to Forest, which shows that even the best team can have an inexplicable off-day. Bristol City, Sunderland (0-0!), Norwich and Hull have all held Wolves at Molineux, so they are far from perfect, for all their clear superiority to the rest of the division.
Wolves have a remarkably settled team. Nuno Espirito Santo has fielded a 3-4-3 all year, with Conor Coady, Matt Doherty, Diogo Jota and Rúben Neves more-or-less ever-present and Willy Boly, Barry Douglas, Romain Saiss, Ivan Cavaleiro and Léo Bonatini all regular starters. Benik Afobe and Hélder Costa are more-than handy options to play in the front three as well, so the sheer amount of goal threats they possess is enough to give any opposition manager a massive headache:-
Wolves goals plus assists, 2017/8
Cavaleiro – 21 (9 goals)
D. Jota – 19 (14 gls)
Douglas – 18 (4 gls)
Bonatini – 17 (12 gls)
Costa – 10 (5 gls)
Derby goals plus assists, 2017/8
Vydra – 22 (19 goals)
Lawrence – 11 (5 gls)
Weimann – 10 (5 gls)
Nugent – 9 (6 gls)
Johnson – 8 (4 gls)
With an average possession of 52.8 per cent, they are not massive ballhogs, but their pass completion rate – 81.1 per cent – is second highest in the Championship. It seems that they are doing what Rowett talks about wanting Derby to do, which is not keeping the ball for the sake of it, but getting it forward quickly and accurately, creating opportunities to score and taking them with ruthlessness.
Short pass accuracy
Wolves 85.7% (14,891 / 17,356)
Derby 80% (10,821 / 13,510)
Long pass accuracy
Wolves 51.4% (1,431 / 2,782)
Derby 42.4% (1,166 / 2,749)
Wolves’ success, deserved as it is in footballing terms, has always been tainted by criticism of the methods they have adopted. According to the Telegraph‘s John Percy, Derby are among several Championship clubs who have raised concerns about the involvement of Jorge Mendes at Molineux.
It is frankly bizarre that players of the calibre of Neves and Diogo Jota are strutting their stuff in an unglamorous adjunct to Birmingham and there is absolutely zero chance that they would be, were it not for the close partnership between Mendes and Fosun, the Chinese conglomerate which controls Wolves. Fosun have a minority stake in Mendes’ Gestifute agency and the flourishing relationship between the two parties has clearly benefited Wolves to an immense degree on the pitch.
A bunch of Portuguese players joined last season, including Cavaleiro for £7m and Costa for £13m – but most of the rest weren’t particularly successful. Fosun and Mendes simply doubled down by getting rid of Paul Lambert, replacing him with one of Mendes’ clients and upping the quality of the recruits.
Wolves’ position is that Mendes is acting in an advisory capacity, that he is not in control of their recruitment and they are not breaking any rules. But it is a cosy situation indeed and one which has unarguably distorted this season’s Championship as a competition. Parachuting in players of such a high calibre in has given Wolves a gigantic advantage over the rest of us. They lost more than £23m in 2016/7 and have reportedly gone on to spend £35m on players this season, but their promotion will render any Financial Fair Play problems irrelevant, as the Premier League aren’t interested in the EFL’s rules.
So whether it’s rubber-stamped tonight or not, congratulations to “FC Mendes” on going up. I’m sure that they will continue to benefit from the Mendes / Fosun relationship as they stabilise in the Premier League, but in honesty, the way in which it has been achieved doesn’t sit right when it ends up with fans chanting the name of an agent, instead of their own manager or players.
"One Jorge Mendes" coming from the away end. Surely a first. #lufc
— Phil Hay (@PhilHayYEP) March 7, 2018