Football League Round-Up: 5 star Wolves, rampant Rams and divided Rovers

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 27 November 2017, 09:21

Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) reflects back on another entertaining weekend in the Football League, which saw Nuno Santo's Wolves thrash Bolton and Gary Rowett's Derby continue their fine form, while Darrell Clark's Bristol Rovers continue to struggle.

Wolves are wicked like water is wet

In their first 19 league games of the season, Wolverhampton Wanderers have dropped just 10 points.

That statistic looks even more impressive when put into context. In the first 19 games of Reading’s 2005/06 campaign, they dropped 13 points. The Royals played some excellent football that year and not only did they lift the Championship title, they did so with 106 points, the highest second-tier return since three points were awarded for a win in 1981.

The debate for much of this campaign has not been about whether Wolves will get promoted - or whether they will win the title - but whether they will better Reading’s tally. Considering that it's only November, it speaks volumes that we are registering the possibility of promotion in 2nd place as almost an underachievement.

While there is a long way to go, I'm making a case for why this team will beat the points record. In Saturday’s 5-1 win over Bolton Wanderers, they dominated for 90 minutes and goals originated from a wonderfully wide variety of sources.

The first came about from another excellent Barry Douglas corner, the second a breakaway which was set up with a fine, outside-of-the-boot pass from Ruben Neves, giving them a two-goal lead at the break.

Diogo Jota played a clever through ball that led to the penalty for the third, Ivan Cavaleiro scored a fine individual goal before John Ruddy – of all people – kicked it over the top for Jota to round off the scoring.

In that list of exquisite footballers, we have not yet mentioned striker Leo Bonatini, who is now on 11 goals for the campaign and presses with natural enthusiasm.

Wolves willingly defend from the front and they also attack from the back, which means that when opposing teams mark Neves and Romain Saiss - who deserve a eulogy all their own - there are other players like Conor Coady and Boly who can switch play effectively.

With so many players possessing such a wide array of qualities, this Wanderers team is like nothing we’ve ever seen at this level. They are, quite simply, on another level.

Rowett’s Rams rampant at the Riverside

In the game before Gary Rowett took over as their manager, Derby County lost 3-0 at Brighton, where they looked like a shoehorned collection of individuals. All of them were waiting to be given the ball, without making the right runs or doing their bit for the team.

The ex-Birmingham manager hasn’t stood for that: his side are now made of sterner stuff. They have midfield power in Tom Huddlestone and Joe Ledley, who sit in front of aggressive centre-backs Richard Keogh and Curtis Davies.

The Rams benefited in their 3-0 win at Middlesbrough from one or two good saves from goalkeeper Scott Carson, who completes an experienced spine along with selfless hold-up man David Nugent.

The latter has formed an effective partnership with the nippy Matej Vydra, who bagged a hat-trick at the Riverside. Vydra does not run in behind as overtly as Jamie Vardy, who Nugent partnered during Leicester City’s 13/14 title win, but his agility and sudden movement allows him to get in between defenders and finish ruthlessly, with the Czech now up to 11 goals.

However, the man who best encapsulates Derby’s turnaround under Rowett is Andreas Weimann. Having struggled in his previous stints in the Championship, this season was perhaps his last chance at this level – because of that, he’s worked harder.

There was a game at Bolton in August when the team needed somebody to close down Felipe Morais, their most dangerous crosser of a ball. Weimann never allowed him any time in possession and the opposing team had no alternative threat, which means that even though the Austrian wasn’t a prominent attacking influence, he had a massive say in that victory and continues to impress this term.

Derby have kept the quality that has seen them challenge over the last few seasons - this year though, they might just have the tools to go all the way.

Divides appearing at the Mem

One would have thought that back-to-back promotions, followed by a 10-place finish, would create togetherness at a football club. At Bristol Rovers though, we’re not necessarily seeing that. A 2-1 defeat for the Gasheads at Blackburn, albeit where they dominated for an hour, was their sixth loss in seven league games.

This bad run has affected the sense of unity at the Mem. One might say the problems started in August, when Darrell Clarke was unhappy that plans for a new UWE Stadium had fallen through. Although that cancellation was not president Wael Al-Qadi’s decision, the plans for a move had limited the club’s budget in the summer.

When Clarke was interviewed following this news, a couple of days before the season’s opener at Charlton, the wind had seemingly been taken out of his sails at a time that should have been about fresh hope and optimism.

As the poor results have gone on, the manager has looked an increasingly agitated figure in interviews. He has had to tersely deny that fans have turned on him, claiming that a minority are getting ideas above their station, or are ungrateful for the progress the club has made.

While he might not be entirely wrong about what he says, it is understandable that a section of paying fans feel the club should not be content to remain in the lower reaches of League One.

To climb the table, they will need to improve their defensive record, with 35 goals conceded in 19 games. Joe Partington could be part of a solution: he moved from right-back to a holding midfield role against Blackburn and nullified Bradley Dack, doing the defensive work more effectively than Chris Lines, who often wants to move forward with the ball.

At the other end, a more predatory mentality is needed from forwards Rory Gaffney and Ellis Harrison, who are at times drawn away from the penalty area, with back-up Tom Nichols yet to convince.

It would be premature to write off Darrell Clarke and Bristol Rovers - who have formed such a happy partnership in recent years - but this looks like their toughest period since their Football League exit in 2014.

Could Jones-less Cov lose their mojo?

Considering the size of Coventry City as a club relative to League Two - and the quality available to manager Mark Robins - it is surprising how defensively the team has performed.

The Sky Blues deploy a double-pivot, normally consisting of Michael Doyle and Liam Kelly - or Jordan Shipley when the latter has been out injured. The defensive stability that setup provides has been key to their record of just 12 goals conceded in 20 and their big-game performances, which have seen them take maximum points from three matches against teams above them.

However, they have failed to score against Barnet, Chesterfield, Forest Green and Yeovil, who have kept just eight clean sheets in 76 other matches between them. While a late equaliser from Marc McNulty spared Coventry another blank at the weekend against Crawley, with whom they drew 1-1, results against the lesser sides call Robins’ flexibility into question.

In possession, he has asked his side to give the ball to Jodi Jones and wait for the magic to happen, which it did in the turnaround at Lincoln the week before. However, the Dagenham academy graduate picked up an injury in the week, which forced a switch to a 3-4-2-1 at the weekend, with McNulty and Duckens Nazon in a double-10 role.

The latter has not started every game but has impressed in patches with his energy, skill and composure in the final third. Although the Haitian doesn’t play quite the same position as Jones, he is someone that will need to provide some extra quality in the teenager's absence.

Stuart Beavon hasn’t looked as sharp as he did at this level for Burton so far this season and with Jordan Ponticelli still rather raw, Coventry may need to add another striker. Whoever they bring in though will need improved service - especially against the lower-placed sides.

Codheads in-form but off-field trouts remain

Russell Slade is no stranger to political tensions. Since his previous stint at Grimsby Town, he has managed various clubs including Leyton Orient, briefly interluding with Francesco Becchetti’s ill-fated regime, Cardiff under Vincent Tan and Coventry during the SISU era.

Right now, he has a similar job on his hands in his second spell in the Blundell Park hot-seat. Head director John Fenty could not be doing much more to make himself unpopular with supporters, ahead of what is likely to be a heated Fans’ Forum.

As a Tory councillor, he hardly appeals to a historically Labour-based area, while the squad has suffered from a lack of investment. Stella Lewis, an investor in the club’s new stadium, claimed on social media that a fan who believes Fenty has done more damage to the club than good is ‘not a fan’.

Slade’s diplomatic qualities are once again put to the test, but at least his side are starting to see some results on the field. The Mariners have just won back-to-back games after coming from behind to beat Swindon 3-2 on Tuesday, before a comfortable 2-0 triumph at relegation-threatened Barnet.

As well as those results, older players have been dropped, the team is now playing with more freedom and key attacking players like Siriki Dembele and Sam Jones have been let off the leash. Jamille Matt provides a physical presence up top and, if his performances for Plymouth at this level a couple of years ago are anything to go by, he could be a key asset.

Grimsby are finally fishing in the right area on the pitch - but off it, the club isn’t in a good plaice.

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Leonid Slutsky
(Hull City)
3rd December
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