Ralph Hasenhuttl and Nuno Espirito Santo came second and sixth respectively in the race for the prestigious Football365 manager of the year award last season. Unless Southampton win the FA Cup, neither will make the top ten this time around.
Wolves are enduring a season-long hangover and Southampton’s customary 9-0-punctuated slump has come too late in the day for a recovery to be dramatic enough to save their blushes. Mid-table mediocrity is no longer good enough for teams whose managers have – in recent times – led them to achieve perhaps more than what can reasonably be expected.
Nuno Espirito Santo increased the pressure on himself ahead of the game on Sunday through his much-questioned decision to effectively cede an FA Cup quarter-final place to Southampton with his team selection in Thursday’s defeat.
But in pinning his hopes of victory on fielding a slightly fresher side to Southampton – who made just three changes – he appeared to forgo telling his team of the strategy to beat them until half-time.
We saw the best and the worst of both teams in two opposing halves of football.
Nelson Semedo’s pathetic attempt to tackle Stuart Armstrong in the lead up to Southampton’s goal was typical of a Wolves side who had no idea what to do in the first half and didn’t seem to care that they didn’t. Meanwhile, that surging run from Armstrong and the stunning volleyed Danny Ings finish epitomised the performance of a Saints side perfectly in sync, seemingly carrying no baggage after two months of rotten results in the Premier League.
Southampton will argue that the game turned away from them just as Kyle Walker-Peters attempted to as the ball struck his arm in the box shortly after half-time. The penalty converted by Ruben Neves gave Nuno’s side a foothold in another game at risk of slipping away from them.
But it was a simple tactical change – switching Pedro Neto and Adama Traore – that won the game for Wolves. While Southampton strangled the wingers in the first half, forcing them outside to – at best – deliver crosses to no-one, the change allowed the dribbling aficionados to exploit the space in the middle and spread their points of attack across the whole width of the pitch.
Oriol Romeu and James Ward Prowse – who were beyond comfortable before the break – looked scared and provided little protection for their defence, who are understandably brittle having conceded 16 goals in the preceding four games.
Jannik Vestergaard was a dominant, reassuring presence in the first half – spraying passes around and generally going untroubled – but was made to look cumbersome in a moment of genius from Neto as he scored Wolves’ winner.
Receiving a lovely pass from Neves on the right wing, Neto cut in looking as though he was scanning the box for passing options; after waiting for Vestergaard to move he chopped the ball back towards the byline, beat the centre-back and curled the ball past Alex McCarthy from a near impossible angle.
The plaudits Nuno will rightly receive for his tactical alteration must be caveated by his side’s complete lack of direction before that change. But he won and Hasenhuttl didn’t, and the Southampton manager must be concerned that the not insignificant confidence built up in 45 minutes of very good football could be completely extinguished through one simple tactical change that he and they could do nothing to stop from hurting them.
Will Ford is on Twitter
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