The dust had not settled on an afternoon full of drama and rancour at Molineux. The international break could not have come at a better time. The head coach and his backroom staff need this time to take stock, reorganise the players on the training pitches and prepare for those finals.
Lopetegui has publicly suggested the battle for survival will go down to the wire, but he will privately be concerned if Wolves still need points after seven of the remaining 10 fixtures. The new year began with three wins from five games which appeared to have lifted Wolves clear of trouble. But only one victory in the last six has put them back in bother.
Fundamentally, the head coach must succeed with a three-point plan. This two-week break has given him time to settle on his best team, work on eliminating defensive mistakes, and address the touchline behaviour of the management that has started to influence the players on the pitch.
The first of those tasks is the hardest. Wolves still lack balance, due to a combination of injuries and recruitment. The squad is hugely talented. The bench against Leeds would not have looked out of place at the top end of the league: Matheus Cunha, Joao Moutinho, Adama Traore and Pablo Sarabia all found their way onto the pitch while Matheus Nunes managed a red card – later rescinded – without needing to set foot on the turf.
Pedro Neto and Daniel Podence were amongst those withdrawn as Lopetegui searched for the right formula. Perhaps that is part of the problem. There are too many options but not enough variety. Lopetegui has not settled on either a formation or the personnel who he can trust to bring consistency to performances. That is often the problem for a head coach coming into the role mid-season but there have been occasions when Lopetegui has found himself replacing like for like and been unable to change the course of games.
Injuries have also played a significant part. All the aforementioned players alongside forwards Raul Jimenez, Hwang Hee-Chan and Diego Costa have been out for parts of this season. In some cases those injuries have been serious and none of these players has consistently found top form, arguably as a result of those setbacks.
One criticism has been that Lopetegui’s starting line-up does not always work, forcing the head coach into early changes to wrestle control of the game. The most positive impact of such substitutions came in the home win over Spurs, which saw a switch in formation to five at the back after half-time. But, against Leeds, Lopetegui was reduced to fighting fires, taking Craig Dawson off for his own good once the defender was booked, before further changes were required at 3-0 down. There is a sense that the management team do not know their best XI, which is reflected in similar views from the stands.
“We suffered a stupid goal”, admitted Lopetegui in the aftermath of that damaging defeat. In truth, it was four stupid goals that were conceded. Defensive frailties existed before the Spaniard arrived at the club but they have remained far longer than he would have liked. Would a change of formation help or is it simply a case of individuals switching off at key moments?
Willy Gnonto found it all too easy to drift past Nelson Semedo to set up the opener. Luke Ayling’s back post header involved the sort of marking you see at corners on Sunday League pitches every
week. Jonny was pickpocketed in plain sight for the third by a player who had barely been on the pitch for a minute.
And what about the fourth? Traore, unquestionably, had his shirt tugged by Marc Roca but to stand still and appeal in response - as Moutinho also did – was unforgivable. Five-year-olds are told to play to the whistle, professionals should not have to hear the same message.
But would the pair have stopped had the previous 90 minutes not happened? The sense of injustice had been building up all afternoon in the Wolves dugout. It began with the failure to award a penalty for Junior Firpo’s clip on Semedo and, as the game wore on, Lopetegui became increasingly frustrated and vented his fury at the officials. The head coach, assistants Edu Rubio and Pablo Sanz, and captain Ruben Neves remonstrated with referee Michael Salisbury in the centre circle at full-time and it was not an edifying spectacle.
Rubio and general manager of football administration Matt Wild later sought out the officials for an explanation of their decision-making, which is fair enough given how the day transpired and the inconsistencies, particularly concerning VAR, that have plagued Lopetegui’s early days here.
But the management team may soon become marked men, if they are not already. On Monday the Football Association released its findings into the brawl which ensued at the conclusion of the Carabao Cup quarter-final against Nottingham Forest at the City Ground in January. Wolves were fined £45,000 and were held to bear “significantly higher responsibility” for the incident that unfolded after the penalty shoot-out defeat. Lopetegui was labelled “unprofessional” by the panel for approaching Morgan Gibbs-White on the pitch.
Later in the week the FA charged the club with failing to control their players. “It’s alleged that the club failed to ensure its players and/or technical area occupants do not behave in a way which is improper towards an assistant referee and the fourth official,” read the FA’s statement.
Supporters love to see passion on the touchline but there are lines that should not be crossed. Are the players now following the lead of their coaching staff and being distracted by the perceived injustices of several big decisions?
During his four years at the club, Nuno Espirito Santo and his assistants earned a reputation within the game for winding up the opposition dugout, but they trod the line carefully and would not let the players become involved in any disputes. Nuno was once fined for comments made about referee Lee Mason during a post-match interview but he let his coaches do the dirty work on the touchline and made sure they stayed on the right side of the FA’s authority.
“They’re the worst backroom staff I’ve ever come up across, they take it in turns having a go at him [the fourth official],” said Neil Warnock, when he appeared on Soccer Saturday a few months after that infamous Championship encounter with Cardiff City. “Nuno’s a good man, it’s his staff I can’t stand!”
Which goes a little way to explaining the nuances of what goes on at the side of the pitch during the heat of the battle. Nuno’s staff were well-known for being difficult to deal with but the head coach’s reputation remained largely unscathed and rarely did he lose his temper with the officials. The current coaching team would be well advised to reassess their strategy when it comes to dealing with match officials, for the sake of their own players as well as their reputation amongst the PGMOL.
To end on a positive note, there were 23 shots on the Leeds goal last Saturday and some passages of inspiring football in amongst the self-destructive moments.
Lopetegui and his staff have brought authority to the training ground and they certainly have the respect of the squad. Forest manager Steve Cooper was in the stands at Molineux last weekend and may be thinking that Wolves can be easily rattled when the team’s meet on the first day of April. But if the inherent quality is allowed to prevail, then Lopetegui's men will pull clear soon enough.