Wolves serve up a reminder of just why Gary O'Neil wanted a striker
There were moments in the January transfer window when the reasons Wolves wanted a new No 9 might not have been entirely clear to the wider world.
They were scoring freely and climbing the Premier League table with an exciting brand of attacking football. The absent Hwang Hee-chan was in double figures for goals and Matheus Cunha was hunting him down fast. It was far from certain that any new centre-forward would have walked straight into Gary O’Neil’s team.
Saturday’s defeat to Brentford provided the clearest insight yet into why O’Neil wanted a ‘proper’ central striker. After 45 minutes of seeing Brentford deny his in-form forwards the space behind defences into which they love to run, O’Neil turned to 18-year-old Nathan Fraser at half-time.
The experience will only benefit the teenager and so, in the long run, it might benefit Wolves.
But at present, asking the academy product to lead the line against Premier League defences is simply asking a kid to do a man’s job. Fraser is not ready to shoulder the responsibility.
He is a talented player for whom Wolves have high hopes. But had they decided to loan him out in January instead of keeping him around the first team, it is likely he would now be playing in League One — possibly for nearby Shrewsbury Town — fine-tuning his game.
That is where he currently is in his development. On Saturday, Wolves needed a more rounded, developed, experienced player to spearhead their attack.
“We’ve been creative in who we’ve used there,” said O’Neil, who at various times in his six months as Wolves boss has deployed Cunha, Hwang, Jean-Ricner Bellegarde and Pedro Neto as makeshift strikers. “We’ve used attacking players that aren’t nines to try to exploit some things against different teams.
“But against Brentford, especially once they went 1-0 up, we knew that they were going to be tough to break down and felt we just needed a natural No 9 that was going to be in and around the goal, sniff out chances and make the runs that No 9s make.
“Nathan worked hard and did his best. We weren’t able to create as much as we wanted because of our lack of quality in moments and how good Brentford are defensively, especially once they’re in front.”
O’Neil’s assessment of the first half was easy to understand. While all four of O’Neil’s stand-in centre-forwards have enjoyed success against certain opponents, utilising their pace, intelligent movement and ball-carrying abilities to trouble opponents who have often displayed more attacking intent than Brentford, Saturday was crying out for a more traditional centre-forward.
With no space to race into, Wolves needed a forward with a physical presence, able to pin the visitors’ centre-backs, compete with them for strength, hold the ball up and allow the more nimble attackers at O’Neil’s disposal to operate around them.
Fraser has the right physical profile but, for now at least, lacks the know-how and refinement required in one of the world’s most exacting leagues.
The reasons behind Wolves not adding to their squad were logical. They could not do a deal they deemed affordable for main targets Armando Broja and Yuri Alberto and, with their situation in the table much healthier than a year earlier, were unwilling to settle for inferior targets.
Instead, they chose to wait until the summer to dip back into the market at a more advantageous moment. They were safe in the knowledge that a gap in their squad was unlikely to have long-term consequences in terms of a relegation battle, such was the scale of their over-achievement at the start of O’Neil’s reign.
But the short-term consequence of a rational decision is that occasionally they will suffer days like Saturday when the absence of that specific option in their forward line will be exposed. It will not cost them in the long run as survival was always the primary objective this season. But it will create some days of frustration over the next four months.
The lack of an experienced, ‘real’ striker would have been evident irrespective of Cunha’s 20th-minute exit with a hamstring injury, but the loss of the man who bagged a hat-trick at Chelsea six days earlier was a blow all the same. O’Neil will receive further news in the next few days but the need to get Hwang back from the calf problem that kept him out on Saturday could become more acute.
The bigger picture is that miserable days like Saturday will happen to Wolves. They are in mid-table precisely because they are not yet able to eliminate inconsistency, and in truth, they have had far fewer off days this season than most supporters expected when the season began.
Wolves were below par and Brentford did not set the world alight either. O’Neil’s side paid the price for some awful defensive moments. One bad day at the office did not undo the several weeks of positivity that had gone before.
But it did offer a reminder of just why O’Neil wanted that No 9, and why finally landing one will be vital this summer.
(Top photo: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)