Stoke City: Evolution?

25 09 2011

by Adam Bate

It was no surprise to hear Jon Champion use the term “Neanderthal” to describe the Stoke experience on ESPN at the weekend. After all, when it comes to Stoke City, everyone seems to be pre-occupied with the notion of evolution.

This time last year, the man often seen as the personification of Stoke’s direct approach launched not a throw-in but a defence of his club’s style. Rory Delap said: “People go on about us being a long-ball team and relying on set-pieces. Well, we had to do a job to get in the league and stay in the league, but now we are looking to progress. But it won’t be an immediate change, it has to be slow.”

Speaking after Stoke’s stunning 5-0 FA Cup semi final triumph at Wembley in April, Tony Pulis was also keen to articulate the idea of an evolutionary side. Pulis said: “The team that won this semi-final is much different to the one which started out in the Premier League two and a half seasons ago in that we have become more expansive. It’s a case of evolution not revolution.”

Perhaps this is a good time to clarify this is no hatchet job on Stoke City’s style of play. The idea that there is a right way to play football is a risible concept. Beauty can be found in a tiki-taka passing move, a fast counter-attack or a long-ball through the middle. This piece merely seeks to answer the question – ‘Is Stoke’s style of play evolving?’

The first port of call should probably be to look at the Opta statistics for ‘short passing’. Although the quality of ‘style of play’ remains subjective, these stats are usually considered to be indicative of an aesthetically pleasing brand of football. Indeed, a feature of the better sides has been the number of short passes they have played per game.

For 2009-10 Arsenal topped the table for short passes ahead of Manchester United and Chelsea and this pattern was repeated again last season. This is in line with the widely held belief that Arsenal are a nice team to watch – better than their results would indicate. The start of this season has seen Manchester City climb to the top of the short passing table. This supports the idea of a team that is evolving and indulging in a more expansive game with better players.

Number of Short Passes per game: 2009-10, 2010-11, 2011-12 (part)

The evidence for the evolution of Stoke City’s style of play is somewhat more flimsy. Stoke City were at the bottom of the short passing table in 2009-10, 2010-11 and have already taken up their customary place after the early exchanges of the 2011-12 season. What’s more, there is a remarkable consistency. Stoke played an average of 215 short passes a game in 2009-10, then 220 a game last season and 221 a game this campaign. Well I guess they do say evolution is something that takes place over millions of years.

Another key performance indicator in terms of style is the ‘Goals from Open Play’ statistic. The common belief that Stoke rely on set-pieces should not preclude success from open play situations. And yet, while the top four of the ‘Goals from Open Play’ table for 2009-10 exactly mirrored (in order) the actual league table, Stoke languished down in 17th. Last season saw only a particularly turgid Birmingham side score fewer goals from open play. So far this season it is only the luckless Swansea that have failed to score as many as Stoke from open play.

But the key for Stoke fans must be that the team’s results are going in the right direction. Stoke have finished between 11th and 13th in their first three Premier League seasons and it would be no surprise if the team significantly improved on that showing this time around. And the key to that has to be the improvement in personnel:

While four of the starting eleven remain the same, the superiority of the current side is clear. This is further highlighted by the presence of high profile players such as Wilson Palacios and Matthew Upson on the bench.

So given the improvement in the quality of players, perhaps the real question ought to be: ‘Why is Stoke City’s style of play not evolving?’

It would seem the real evolution of the side has been in buying better players to play the same way rather than actually changing the style. Peter Crouch is the T-1000 model Terminator; an upgrade on Big Mama Sidibe. Elsewhere in the team, there is Jonathan Woodgate – regarded by some as the greatest defender England nearly had. He has impressed but, importantly, only within the framework of Stoke’s style – Woodgate completed just 14 passes against Manchester United.

One suspects Tony Pulis has realised this is the best way forward. He has experimented with introducing players such as Eidur Gudjohnsen and Tuncay to play between the lines and these players have been unable to be assimilated into the collective.

As a result, it would seem that Stoke’s real evolution may well be in purchasing superior players to fit into their already effective system. But don’t expect that to stop people inside and outside the club paying lip service to the God of style.


Martin Jol Can’t Win

30 08 2011

by Adam Bate

More often than not, football managers find themselves in a new job because the previous incumbent had failed to meet expectations. It usually means taking over a team said to be ‘in crisis’ and, if you’re Harry Redknapp, might be something worth mentioning at every available opportunity.

Martin Jol is a manager without this luxury. He has taken over a Fulham side that has exceeded expectations in recent seasons. Roy Hodgson guided the club to a Europa League final in 2010 and Mark Hughes followed this up with an impressive eighth place finish last time around. As a result, Jol could well be on a hiding to nothing – do well and he’s reaping the benefits from the work of others; fail and he must be the man to blame.


Chalkboard Analysis – Positive Start For Wolves

24 08 2011

*A version of this post appeared on WolvesBlog earlier this week.
** All chalkboards courtesy of The Guardian and powered by Opta data.

Five Things We Learned From Wolves vs Fulham – August 21st 2011
by Adam Bate

Johnson to the Rescue

The signing of Roger Johnson has obviously excited Wolves fans. It seems too much to dare to hope that one man can transform last season’s 17th leakiest Premier League defence into a formidable unit. However, he’s made a positive start and he’s done so by doing the things that earned him such praise at Birmingham City – tackling, blocking and intercepting. Johnson managed more successful tackles than any other player on the pitch on Sunday.

Roger Johnson made more successful tackles than any other player

Henry Still Important

The dirty Wolves tag is one that haunted Mick McCarthy and his side for much of the 2010-11 campaign and, for many, Karl Henry personified all that was wrong with that team. The player himself was clearly affected by the controversy but he has begun this season in encouraging form by doing what he does best – tracking runners, pressing the ball and making interceptions. Henry intercepted the ball high up the field on five occasions on Sunday. Astonishingly, this was four more than the entire Fulham team combined. Jol’s side preferred to sit back before pressing the ball but only succeeded in inviting Wolves onto them. The contrast between Henry and one of his chief detractors, Danny Murphy, was stark. The Fulham captain did not attempt let alone succeed in making a tackle in the entire contest.

Contrast Karl Henry's midfield interceptions with the entire Fulham team

Stearman’s Role

The inclusion of Richard Stearman at right-back was arguably the most controversial selection at the start of the season. Kevin Foley remains a firm favourite and Ronald Zubar has become a cult hero. In particular, the case for Foley’s recall was enhanced by an assured second half performance at Ewood Park during which the Irishman completed more passes than any other Wolves player. However, Mick McCarthy has expressed concerns about the size of his midfield and clearly favours Stearman’s height in the back line. Although it was Stephen Ward who made the most high profile interception of the day, Stearman actually made five to Ward’s spectacular one and it was noticeable that he frequently tucked in and won key headers at the far post. Indeed, the heat maps show the contrasting roles that the two full-backs had on Sunday. Stearman had a higher percentage of the ball than Ward in every equivalent zone within Wolves’ half, while the attacking left-back enjoyed an astonishing 51% of his possession in the opposition’s half. Foley may be the ball player but that is not currently the role that McCarthy is looking for from his right-back.

Richard Stearman & Stephen Ward - full-backs with different roles

Shoot, Shoot, Shoot

Wolves’ shoot on sight policy may have veered into the self-indulgent in the second half, with some fairly ambitious efforts, but Jamie O’Hara and Stephen Hunt in particular have added a goal threat from midfield. The twenty shots attempted against Fulham were more than Wolves had managed in any home game last season.

More shot attempts than any home game in 2010-11

Left is Right for Jarvis… not Hunt

Inverted wingers have been de rigueur for several seasons now and Mick McCarthy seems to finally be embracing the trend. Although Matt Jarvis provided the assist for Steven Fletcher against Blackburn with an orthodox cross from the right byline, McCarthy saw enough at Ewood Park to decide to utilise Jarvis and Stephen Hunt on the opposite flanks from the outset against Fulham. He got his reward as both wingers cut inside onto their stronger foot to help set up the goals – with Jarvis even coming inside to fire home for the second. While Jarvis has long enjoyed more success on the left-wing, there had been some debate as to Hunt’s preferred flank but playing from the right appears to allow the busy Irishman greater options with the ball at his feet. Lacking Jarvis’ electric pace, Hunt is less focussed on getting to the byline and more keen to drift around in search of space. This is borne out by the heatmaps that indicate Hunt enjoyed 25% of his possession in central areas compared to Jarvis’s 12%. As with the full-backs, McCarthy appears less concerned with symmetry – instead keen to allow the players to play to their strengths.

Matt Jarvis hugs the touchline while Stephen Hunt roams

Wolves – Statistical Review

27 05 2011

This is a chronological look at Wolves’ season, exploring the tactical issues and themes that came up along the way:

Summer Plans

Mick McCarthy’s summer spending appeared to be designed to re-establish a 4-4-2 formation. The decision to spend £7m on Steven Fletcher would not have been made if he was intended to be Kevin Doyle’s deputy – this was a clear statement that a return to two up front was planned.
McCarthy also signed Stephen Hunt, a player he had long admired having named him as one of the best players in the Championship back in 2008-09. Given that Wolves had used Kevin Foley, Adlene Guedioura and David Edwards all out of position on the wing during their first season in the Premier League this could also be regarded as a positive step.
Curiously, Wolves’ defence had been regarded by the national media as a strength in 2009-10, with many citing a lack of ability to score goals as the club’s chief concern. This overlooked the fact that McCarthy had regularly used a 4-5-1 with Karl Henry, Michael Mancienne and Foley in midfield. Put bluntly, Wolves were often attacking with just Doyle and Matt Jarvis and the defensive solidity was due to the protection afforded the back-line rather than the ability of it.
As such, the signings of Steven Mouyokolo and Jelle Van Damme – even without the benefit of hindsight – felt a slightly half-hearted attempt to address the club’s defensive weaknesses.

Ambitions Scaled Back

Wolves finished a respectable 11th in 'short passing' table

A positive start against Stoke City at home seemed to vindicate McCarthy’s decision to revert back to 4-4-2. But the fragility of this more expansive approach was soon exposed. Wolves scored in the first eight games of the season – but conceded in all of them. By the middle of October, the Stoke win remained a one-off and failure to beat West Ham at Molineux left Wolves in 19th place and in need of a change of approach.
The result was a switch to 4-5-1 as McCarthy identified the need to keep the ball. It saw the return of Nenad Milijas to the midfield and the Serbian achieved the desired effect as Wolves outpassed Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Incredibly, there followed a run of games in which McCarthy’s men outpassed a number of the biggest clubs in the country. McCarthy is perceived to be a coach who favours a direct approach and so this increased emphasis on short passing appeared to be something of an epiphany for the manager. It didn’t last. The results were not really improving and late goals were starting to undermine Wolves’ season.


Late Goals

Wolves would have been 11th if games finished after 45 mins

By this point, late goals were becoming a theme of the season – and not in a good way. Fulham, Spurs, Villa and Man Utd (twice) had grabbed late winners against Wolves and it was happening too often to be a coincidence. At the end of the season, Wolves finished 11th in the half-time league table – six places above where they ended up after 90 minutes.
There are various reasons for this. The players themselves have admitted they have struggled to keep up the intense play of the first half. Karl Henry said: “We usually run so hard in the first half that you can’t do that for 90 minutes, especially against the top-quality sides. Sometimes you might be drawing 1-1 away from home and you say, ‘OK we’re not getting as close to them anymore, we’ve run out of steam, let’s sit back and soak it up a bit and approach it in a different way.”  
McCarthy himself has also contributed with negative substitutions at key points. For example, against Newcastle at Molineux, he elected to withdraw Van Damme from the right-wing and bring on Ronald Zubar, pushing Foley forward into midfield. Zubar promptly conceded the free-kick from which Andy Carroll equalised. Against Fulham at the opposite end of the season, McCarthy removed Milijas and brought on Mancienne to shore things up – instead he barely got a kick and the visitors soon got a deserved equaliser. They are minor examples but indicative of a negative approach and a desire to merely ‘hang on’ to a lead.

Return to 4-4-2

As the poor results continued, it was Sylvan Ebanks-Blake’s dramatic late winner off the bench against Sunderland in late November that seemed to once again convince McCarthy that 4-4-2 was the way to go.

Wolves worked on winning the ball high up the field and using the wings - playing as much of the game as possible in the opponent's half

Gone were the ambitions to outpass sides and it instead became a typical Mick McCarthy approach. The plan was to win the ball high up the pitch and play from there. With Doyle and now Stephen Ward as attacking options, they certainly had the players willing to battle for the ball and run after lost causes down in the channels.
There were 1-0 wins against Birmingham and Liverpool with Ward and Ebanks-Blake up front and in January this became three 1-0 wins from five games when champions Chelsea were beaten at Molineux. This time it was Fletcher and Doyle as the front two and McCarthy was now revelling in 4-4-2 a la Mike Bassett. Such was his commitment to the system he even asked Milijas to play up front for the last seven minutes against Chelsea when fellow substitute Ebanks-Blake was injured. As McCarthy said: “To go 4-4-2 I asked a lot of the players because it was against the favoured 4-3-3 everybody plays, but they just bought into it.”

Indicative of defensive weakness

The statistics above probably give a good indication of how weak Wolves were defensively this season. They were high on the passing table and had the ball in the opposition half more than every team other than Everton. They also had overall possession stats of 50% – placing them 10th in the table. And yet, they still conceded more than every team except West Brom, Blackpool and West Ham. This is surely a damning indictment of the side’s defensive capabilities. In truth, one only has to look back at the plethora of howlers that marred the season – Zubar at Bolton; Mancienne at Birmingham; Richard Stearman and Ward at Tottenham; Berra at Wigan; Foley against West Ham; Elokobi versus Everton. The list is long and less than distinguished and none of the defenders are exempt from criticism.

Back to 4-5-1

Wolves played through the centre less than any other side - with an extraordinary 40% of their play coming down the left-flank

Despite some successes, a 3-0 home defeat to Liverpool proved the final straw for McCarthy. He’d taken enough blows and decided it was time to ‘cover up’ and switch to the 4-5-1 with Doyle ploughing a lone furrow up top once again. This was the tactic that served him so well the previous season. It encouraged Jarvis to get up in support of Doyle as Wolves relied on their width to get behind the opposition – usually utilising the left-flank for their attacks. The return to this tactic brought victory over Manchester United and earned Jarvis his England debut.

Fletcher and Ebanks-Blake

Of course, this 4-5-1 meant that both Fletcher and Ebanks-Blake could not be accommodated in the side. Fletcher’s late run of goals meant that he finished the season with 10 Premier League goals and just 15 starts. Ebanks-Blake’s record was nearly as good with 7 goals and 11 starts. It says much for the imbalance in the squad that these two strikers could finish the season with such impressive goal returns and still remain out the side – while some of the defenders could retain their place despite numerous errors.

Over-reliant on Doyle & Jarvis

No team relied on crosses as much as Wolves - with Matt Jarvis usually the supplier

Meanwhile, the problem with Wolves’ 4-5-1 was perhaps that they became something of a one-trick pony. After his England debut, teams identified Jarvis as the key threat and he struggled to deal with the increased attention. You could almost sense the mantra of opposition coaches – stop Jarvis and you stop Wolves. When this was coupled with the loss of Doyle, the two most important cogs in the 4-5-1 were loose and McCarthy lost faith in the system – abandoning it when 1-0 down at St James Park just 30 minutes into the game. He perhaps felt pressured by the fact that Fletcher and Ebanks-Blake had both been scoring goals but not getting a chance and eventually felt compelled to play them both. A disastrous run of results followed as Wolves picked up just two points from five winnable games.

Last throw of the dice – Hunt and Fletcher

It was ironic that after chopping and changing his line-up and formation so many times in the campaign, McCarthy eventually found salvation in turning to the two men he had identified to improve his side the previous summer. In an incredibly gutsy move, the manager bit the bullet against West Bromwich Albion and dropped Jarvis for Hunt. In recalling the shaggy haired winger, McCarthy was pairing him and Fletcher in the starting XI for only the fourth time all season. They were both pivotal at the death – producing goals and assists galore in the final three matches to see Wolves over the line. It was vindication of sorts for the club’s summer transfer policy.


This was a season in which Wolves never really settled upon a favoured system and were constantly fighting to cope with the defensive problems that were not addressed in the summer. Many of the statistics suggest that Wolves’ playing style befits that of a midtable side and McCarthy will feel he has the attacking threats at the club to achieve this goal. Ultimately, it was these attacking strengths that proved to be just about enough for survival.

Formations Shaping Talent The World Over

31 03 2011

You could hear it in every pub, in every town, on every weekend of the football season: “The formation doesn’t matter – it’s the players that are important.” As Jonathan Wilson jokes in his prologue to Inverting the Pyramid, such a comment may lead you to consider that these people shouldn’t be allowed to watch football let alone talk about it. Of course, this is overstating but such chatter does overlook, among other things, the fundamental fact that the players you are watching have been shaped by the formations they play in.
Formations are a key driver to how talent develops.
Back in 1982, Brazil’s 4-2-2-2 captured the imagination with Zico and Socrates operating as trequartistas while Falcao and Toninho Cerezo provided the inspiration from deep. Over time, this manifested itself as an increasingly negative formation as the deep-lying playmakers became functional stoppers sitting in front of the centre-backs. The sound defensive base, coupled with the fact that the trequartistas did not function as conventional wingers, put an onus on Brazil’s full-backs to give their side attacking width. Cafu and Roberto Carlos remain the most famous exponents but today Maicon and Dani Alves continue that rich tradition.
In Argentina there is a different tactical tale to tell but the story is still one of the formation shaping the player. Argentina’s devotion to the cult of the playmaker – the enganche – is one of the enduring features of football in the country. Ever since Juan Carlos Lorenzo’s side got the world’s attention at the 1966 World Cup, the enganche has remained central to the nation’s footballing identity. It usually functions within Lorenzo’s 4-3-1-2 formation and, as Wilson points out, “today romantics demand his formation be preserved.”
The consequence of this is that the creative hub of an Argentinian football side is embodied in one man. As a result, the nation has produced an extraordinary number of creative number 10s – everyone from Pablo Aimar to Juan Roman Riquelme via Andres D’Alessandro is a product of that unique environment.
In Europe there is a relative paucity of these types of players. Britain’s lengthy devotion to 4-4-2 encouraged a plethora of box-to-box midfielders, while the recent continent-wide shift towards 4-3-3 has even seen the tradition of Rui Costas and Gheorghe Hagis dry up. Michael Cox highlights the implications of this trend over the past decade:
“Today, the past two World Players of the Year – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – have been primarily wide players who cut inside. Messi and Wayne Rooney would surely have been deployed as trequartistas (or enganches, if you prefer) had they started their career a decade earlier. Indeed, almost every player that would have expected to spend their career behind the front two has had to redefine their game, generally being stationed out wide.”
– Michael Cox, How the 2000s Changed Tactics – Classic No.10s Struggle
The 4-3-3 family, along with its variants 4-1-2-3 and 4-2-3-1, is now the vogue formation at the highest level all over Europe and this is clearly shaping the development of some of the world’s most famous players. But the signs are there that the formation is spreading beyond Europe. The last bastions of romantic tradition are being challenged. Tor-Kristian Karlsen saw the changes first hand when he attended this year’s South American Under 17s Championships in Ecuador:
“South American youth national teams have now embraced the contemporary football formation. Even conservative Brazil – not to mention Bolivia and Paraguay – are playing with a central playmaker flanked by two wide attackers. Argentina varies from 4-2-3-1 to 4-1-3-2, while Ecuador are one of the few countries playing a classic ‘Latin American’ 4-4-2 (or 4-2-2-2) formation.” 
– Tor-Kristian Karlsen, Notater fra Quito
With the modern 4-3-3 now seemingly ubiquitous, there is a temptation to lament the possible demise of the old-style Argentinian enganche or even the marauding Brazilian full-back. Nobody would want to see gifted players marginalised by the modern game, but new formations open up new opportunities:
“The result of the discovery of the fashionable 4-3-3 formation is the emergence of rapid wingers and a return to the classic “mezzapunta” (behind the striker) type roaming in the final third. In summary, this is good news for entertaining football and the cult of wonderful attacking players.”
– Tor-Kristian Karlsen, Notater fra Quito
Feel free to shed a tear if this heralds the beginning of the end for Brazil’s 4-2-2-2 or Argentina’s 4-3-1-2. But that’s the cyclical nature of the game. Perhaps the next decade will provide football with a flood of pacey wide-men from South America. And surely that’s something we can all look forward to.

Wolves 2-1 Man City – Chalkboards

2 11 2010

It’s one of the first rules of blogging really – don’t just regurgitate the opinions and analysis of the mainstream.

I’m going to break it here. Mainly because I cannot resist. But also because who could possibly have known Match of the Day would get this one spot on! It probably helped that (a) Lee Dixon was on the panel, (b) Dixon is a City fan so may have actually watched the game, and (c) .. it was blindingly obvious:

City’s Lack of Width

Manchester City lined up in a 4-3-1-2 formation with David Silva behind a front two of Emanuele Adebayor and Mario Balotelli. Both Balotelli and Silva pulled wide to receive the ball but the lack of natural width was remarkable with James Milner and Gareth Barry tucked inside to support Yaya Toure. 
The problem was exarcebated by the fact that Wolves were playing a 4-5-1 with attacking wingers in Matt Jarvis and Stephen Hunt. The City full-backs Micah Richards and Jerome Boateng therefore faced a twofold problem. Firstly, they were obliged to get forward, out of their comfort zone, to provide the width in City’s formation. Secondly, they had two wingers to mark playing high up the field and pinning them back. 

City Dominate Cente – But Give Up the Wings

You see some interesting chalkboards on the Guardian site. However, you rarely see the Opta stats illustrate such a stark contrast between two sides that, in terms of passes completed in this match, were pretty evenly matched. Michael Cox of Zonal Marking illustrated Wolves’ wingplay through the use of heatmaps. Lee Dixon used images from the game to show how Wolves bypassed the tight midfield three of City. Here I’ve gone for the pass completion data:

Guardian Chalkboards powered by Opta data

Stephen Ward hugs the touchline

As the chalkboard shows, Man City had a stranglehold on the centre of the park and, as you may expect, Yaya Toure completed more passes than any other City player. In contrast, Wolves barely completed a pass within the centre circle, but that this did not prevent them having the majority of the ball (53% of possession). They were helped by the fact that two of the best passers on their side are the full-backs Stephen Ward and Kevin Foley. Given City’s formation it is little surprise that the two men played more passes than anyone else on the field – clearly playing into Wolves’ hands. Ward, in particularly, held the width to an extraordinary degree – as illustrated on the chalkboard opposite – where he completed most of his passes without venturing more than a few yards from the touchline to do so. On the other flank, it was Foley who advanced to hook over the cross for the winning goal. Both Wolves full-backs, therefore, were able to take advantage of the fact that they had no direct opponent for large parts of the game.

Mancini: Reactive not Proactive

Of course, while Foley and Ward are extremely comfortable on the ball, their weakness this season has been in a defensive capacity. Each player has conceded a penalty in recent weeks when an opponent has ran at them – Foley on West Ham’s Victor Obinna; Ward against Spurs’ Alan Hutton.
The obvious change that Robert Mancini needed to make was to bring on Adam Johnson to have a run at one or both of the full-backs – with the dual bonus of exposing their weakness and cutting off a key supply line to the Wolves wingers. Remarkably, Mancini only turned to Johnson half-way through the second half when City were a goal down and, crucially, just seconds after Mick McCarthy had brought on George Elokobi for Stephen Hunt. Elokobi is a limited footballer but a far more resilient defensive opponent and with Ward now covering ahead of him the Wolves left flank had effectively been reinforced. As a result, Johnson arrived on the pitch at the very moment that the window of opportunity to expose this weakness had been closed shut.


This was an important win for Wolves and, on the face of it, a shock victory against their highly paid opponents. However, it is hard to imagine that a side will turn up at Molineux more determined to play into the home side’s hands. Wolves’ ball-playing full-backs were given the time and space to pick out key man Matt Jarvis, while City clogged up the midfield to no avail.
Mancini identified the problem too late to save the game. He’ll need to think quicker in future if he is to save City’s season .. and his own job.

Welcome Back Nenad

25 10 2010

Our latest piece for WolvesBlog.

When Nenad Milijas signed for Wolves in the early summer of 2009, he was arguably the club’s most exciting Premiership signing. Yes it’s true; Kevin Doyle was the club’s record purchase. But it was Milijas that had that hint of the exotic. After all, it was the captain of Red Star Belgrade no less – conjuring images of Dejan Savicevic, Robert Prosinecki and the club that had been champions of Europe as recently as 1991.

However, concerns about the player were there from the outset. The esteemed European scout turned pundit Tor-Kristian Karlsen listed the purchase as one of the worst buys of the summer, describing Milijas as follows: 

“Great set pieces but if you want to have a prototype of a player who does not fit English football, you can take out a patent on Nenad Milijas. Classic Balkan playmaker, gifted but about as mobile as a refrigerator.”

There were moments of magic in that first season but, in truth, Karlsen’s assessment proved spot on. The set pieces were there for all to see, never more dramatically than in his appearance off the bench to provide two assists and a valuable point at Stoke City. The gifts were displayed fleetingly but memorably: a thunderbolt against Bolton, a delicious back heel to help win the late penalty versus Aston Villa.  And the lack of mobility was evident in abundance – written through every performance he nearly delivered.

And yet the nagging suspicion remained – if the platform for success is in place, Nenad Milijas could still prove an asset. For all the false dawns, the axing and recalls, the bald statistics of Milijas’ Wolves career to date read:

1,532 minutes, 4 goals, 7 assists. 

1,532 minutes. The equivalent of 17 games. Extrapolated over a league season it equates to something like 9 goals and 16 assists – a contribution that compares favourably with almost any midfielder in the game.

Nonetheless, it seemed likely that the mercurial playmaker’s days in the Premiership were numbered. Indeed, it was something of a surprise that Milijas was not offloaded in the summer – to France, to Turkey, to Russia … frankly anywhere but England.

And then a funny thing happened. Milijas became useful again. Injury to Adlene Guedioura was followed by the suspension of Karl Henry. Even then, the Serbian man would most likely have been ignored for the visit to Chelsea but for the ineligibility of Michael Mancienne to play against his parent club. As a result, Mick McCarthy was forced to make use of his £2.6m signing – and so he began to talk up the player’s ball retention skills:

“We can’t chase the ball for 90 minutes – we have to keep it. And if we do that, it certainly stops the wave after wave of attacks. Nenad’s a very talented player who can keep the ball and pass it to a shirt the same colour as his. We’ll have to do that because if you just keep giving it back to them by booting it up the pitch, it will keep coming back.”

On the face of it, Stamford Bridge seems the unlikeliest of venues for the Serb to prove his worth. However, he performed admirably and it can hardly have been lost on McCarthy that the player did exactly what was requested of him: 

Guardian Chalkboards powered by Opta data

As the Opta data shows, not only did Milijas keep the ball with remarkable ease, he also managed five shots on target as Petr Cech faced what was statistically the busiest afternoon of his Chelsea career. For a team like Wolves, a player who can keep the ball and provide a goal threat is one the club ignores at its peril. It perhaps also requires a re-evaluation of the way Milijas has been used by his employer thus far.

It was always one of the curiosities of Milijas’ 2009-10 season that he was dropped from the side just one game after McCarthy elected to switch to a 4-5-1 formation. The new system proved a success, with fellow left-footed playmaker David Jones to the fore. But after its initial appearance in the home draw against Liverpool, Milijas himself saw just an hour of league action in the remaining four months of the season.

This seems an anomaly for the simple reason that Milijas would appear to be a player made for a 4-5-1 system. The extra man in midfield ensures simple passing options are regularly available and would allow others to do his running. After battling gamely in a 4-4-2, Milijas was discarded just as Wolves began to operate with a formation that may have allowed him to flourish.

Stamford Bridge may have been a false dawn. Nenad Milijas may be out the team again by next week when Henry and Mancienne return. But the weekend was a welcome reminder of the talents of Wolves’ gifted Balkan playmaker with the mobility of a refrigerator.