Blackburn Rovers arrived at Molineux after acquiring 7 points from 4 games, dossing about mid-table, but with an impressive squad. Many fans, myself included, had earmarked this as our toughest game yet; Blackburn were the first experienced Championship team whose ability had not been cast into flux by a divisional change. Standing firm to Hull`s attempts to nab prolific goal-scorer in Jordan Rhodes, Blackburn remain a team with undoubted talent and rigour.
The first half was quite typical of what one comes to expect watching the Wolves. We played our usual possession game, which gave us 58% of the ball after 45 minutes, according to the television screens in the Billy Wright Upper concourse. Admittedly, the ball was mostly in our own half and we attacked largely on counter movements. However, we were certainly good for a two-goal lead by half time. The deadlock was broken by two pieces of individual brilliance: Sako liberated himself from a bit of a cul-de-sac with some great footwork and technique, to pass to Kevin McDonald, who lofted a peach of a cross for Dicko to glance in off his head. Our second was a pacey and powerful free-kick from Sako at an acute angle, although perhaps between the wall and Paul Robinson, more should have been done to prevent a goal like that. Blackburn had a flurry of opportunities late in the half from a series of very dubious free-kicks. It was at this point that it was clear that the referee was keen to wantonly sanction both sides as frequently as he possibly could, which I feel Blackburn were better at exploiting than we were. In the second half, Gary Bowyer appeared to have copped onto our playing style and matched it, with Blackburn knocking the ball about in their half patiently before mounting some well-built attacks, with Marshall as the primary outlet of their creativity. Whilst we were not under the cosh per se, Blackburn enjoyed more possession and exploited some gaps in our midfield to rush through it with pace. Rhodes scored a very suspect penalty, but Blackburn never capitalised on the momentum, and shortly after Doherty threaded a ball to Dicko on the edge of the box, who in turn beat his man with a burst of speed and squared to Sako, whose clumsy shot was enough to see the game through for Wolves.
For all of Blackburn's latent dominance, Ikeme was largely untested in goal. Called into action early on, he made a smart reflex save when Ben Marshall's persistence caused the ball to ricochet with pace at his top right corner. Undoubtedly, Ikeme forms part of the iron defence that emanates confidence, and this did not change. His distribution remained strong and he dealt with the handful of long-run efforts that Blackburn resorted to.
A strong contender for man of the match, Doherty's attacking prowess really came to the fore. As well as not really having any defensive issues, it struck me how strong the young Irishman is in the air. He moves the ball with great intention and ambition, and is unafraid to act as a mobile wing-back. His first touch is one of his greatest assets, wrong-footing numbering Blackburn players. Doherty was very unlucky not to get on the score-sheet early in the second half, when he pioneered and finished an excellent string of intricate passes, only to be denied by a firm Robinson save.
As imperious a defender as ever, Batth again lost nothing in their air to £10,000,000 rated Jordan Rhodes and completely nullified his threat. Generally a game where you don't notice a centre-back is a good one, and this was largely the case. Admittedly, Batth did concede the penalty, but upon reflection it looks very soft and I think he simply got the better of his man in that situation.
It is remarkable how we picked up such a technically gifted and intelligent player in Golbourne, and I am yet to see the man have a bad day on the pitch. With surprising speed and an inexplicably cool head, the full back oscillated up and down the pitch at a canter, without having to really get out of first gear.
Another comfortable performance from Stearman. As with Batth, I struggled to take huge note of him, with the exception of one lapse in concentration which cost us possession. I think Stearman is such an important unit in defence, providing us with experience in the absence of the skipper, and forming the critical link between the defence and midfield for the ball-playing, patient style that Wolves have found an identity in.
Reliable but not dominant or as in control as we are used to seeing him. I thought McDonald had a fairly solid game without making any glaring errors, but he just did not have as much of the ball. His party trick has historically been keeping the ball despite a multitude of obstacles, yet against Rovers, he seemed to want to pass and move as quickly as possible. In some ways, I think this perhaps highlighted the problems with Evans, for whom McDonald's strong ball possession sometimes hides. Saying that, what I did notice about McDonald, as well as Evans and Sako to a lesser extent, was that he tucked in deeper than usual to afford the defence more protection. Our midfield is incredibly fluid and adapts to the pace and intensity of the game and opposition, which I can only really chalk up to the nous of Jackett and the newly imposed fitness regime.
This was a difficult game for RVP, who was not left wanting in his work rate or skill, but may not have lasted the full 90 minutes. He failed to curry favour with the referee and picked up a yellow and a further warning within 45 minutes. The substitution was fair and a good decision by Jackett, but it leaves RVP with something to prove next match I feel.
Another sterling performance from the experienced Welsh midfielder! I can't have said that too many times over the man's playing career. Obviously he displayed his insatiable thirst to run himself as much as his prodigious lungs would allow, but he has also improved quite a bit technically. There was more than one occasion where Edwards displayed some genuinely neat footwork and dug himself out of pressure through ability rather than graft. An important cog in the midfield and very reliable throughout the match!
Another very strong performance from Sako, with two goals to his name as well. Even on Blackburn fan boards, the overwhelming comment about Wolves is 'that big black winger of theirs who ripped us apart'. This was a Sako performance that showcased his raw pace, power, flair and ability, without the hitherto expected caveat of petulance and arrogance. It was great to see Sako so well endeared to the fans, and I think this marks the strength of the bridge between the team and the fans, where players begin to become regarded as 'one of our own', rather than the impersonal mercenaries they have been in the last few seasons.
I am conscious not to be overly critical of Evans, because he is still developing quite a lot as a player. Moreover, I would argue that his past two games have seen some strong performances. However I think he was probably the weak link in our midfield against Blackburn. In the first half, he was solid if unspectacular, although he did not display the range of passing we know him to be capable off. In the second 45, he went off the boil completely and was rightly substituted for Saville. One thing I noticed about him is that he isn't a terribly physical player, and he relied quite heavily on having possession and space to play his natural game. With Blackburn closing down in the midfield, he got harried off the ball a bit, and was not able to intercept or reacquire it. He is prone to losing to aerial battles and does not compete for the ball in 50-50s with much vigour. Moreover, I think he perhaps lacks a yard of pace.
I was really pleased to see Dicko get off the mark, and with a header no less! It was getting to a point where, despite some very strong performances, you can't let a striker who doesn't score keep his place. In one fell swoop, Nouha Dicko justified Jackett's faith with the all-important opener. Moreover, the man continues to impress me with his sheer pace and strength. He holds the ball up with all of the confidence and ability of a man a foot taller and wider. The assist he claimed for Sako's second goal pays ultimate testament to this ability, and I look forward to seeing Dicko kick on now that he has found his goal-scoring boots, or head.
I was particularly impressed with James Henry against the Rovers. Coming on for RVP was a difficult act to follow, after the Dutchman has received so many plaudits for the season thus far. However Henry slotted into the midfield very comfortable and acted as a wide midfielder rather than an out-and-out winger, I feel. He retained possession very well, running the channels with the ball and earning lots of throw-ins and corners in the Blackburn half. His deliveries, I think, are second to none: I did not see a single bad delivery go in, but sometimes his brain is a step ahead of the other attacking players, and they haven't made the runs they ought to have. Indeed, he also had a yard more pace than I had remembered him having, and he is such an eager combatant for the ball that if Jackett started him next game, I would not complain one bit.
A fiery start for the ex-Chelsea debutant where he showed that Jackett's appraisal that he could do 'a little bit of everything' was on the money. It only took him a few minutes to pick up his first yellow, but he steamed through the midfield with the ball magnetically attached to his body at one point. He's fast, aggressive and a comfortable ball-player, which fills me with much anticipation and excitement.
It was essentially too short a debut to form any judgement on Rowe, but he came on fired up and willing to get in amongst the bodies. I also thought there was a good display of athleticism to chase the ball to incessantly after slipping over more than once.
I thought Jackett got his substitutions absolutely bang on this time, and that has been a criticism of mine for Jackett in recent games, including those that we have won in. Evans and RVP were both liabilities in some respect and we replaced by suitably fitted players. Holding the formation steady appears to be working well, and there is a sustained confidence that we must be thankful to Kenny for.
Bowyer's comments about dominating the match were a little awry I felt, and judging from Blackburn boards, the decision to play Williamson was a poor one. However I do think Bowyer deserves some credit for the way that Blackburn started the second half, because there was a deliberate and conscious change in playing style that emulated Wolves and really caught us off-guard for a portion of the half.