Our Wessi. A creative inspiration, with a left foot like a paintbrush and the vision of a sat-nav. Nimble. A playmaker full of attacking instinct, but small and fragile. Out muscled. A luxury player.
Except he isn’t.
Hoolahan’s demotion to the bench on Sunday came as a massive surprise to almost everyone as Lambert picked a side that was perhaps more steel than fluid. In Lambert We Trust, say we, and Lambert’s decision was more or less vindicated. The 11 players on the pitch performed admirably and were two minutes away from a hugely creditable win before Jones struck. The draw was a result that the vast majority of fans accepted and credit goes to Lambert for picking a team that hung in with an established Premier League team for 94 minutes, 30 of those with 10 men.
But it does not alter the fact that Norwich are a better side with Hoolahan in the team than without, and as I believe and tried to demonstrate with yesterday’s analysis, we were crying out for him in the latter stages of yesterday. We were much poorer at holding onto the ball than in previous games, and Stoke were (as has been noted by pundits and papers across the country) able to have the majority of possession for the first time in three years. But the possession wasn’t an issue so much when we had 11 men. The players picked did their job and we were 1-0 up through merit. This changed when Barnett got sent off, as Norwich continued to back off, failed to press, failed to keep hold of the ball and attempted to soak up waves of Stoke attacks. Surman was introduced, seemingly to try and provide some stability, but his impact was minimal. And we only have to look at the highlights to see that the Stoke goal came from a period of possession where Surman, Crofts et all backed off onto the edge of the area and allowed the ball to come in. There was an acceptance of playing on Stoke’s terms.
Whether or not Wes would have changed this is irrelevant, but the argument against his inclusion by some fans online was predictable. The argument that he would have been ‘broken’ by the Stoke players, that he’s too small and lightweight to hold onto the ball, that he’s too attacking for the situation or too much of a luxury player. The prevailing opinion on Wes is that he is a free spirted creative genius behind the front two, but that’s all.
That is, frankly, wrong. The side to Hoolahan’s game that gets nowhere near enough credit is that of a straightforward, all round central midfielder. A player who repeatedly tracks back, who can tackle, hold onto the ball and spread it around. Against Wigan, Hoolahan made the middle third his own, spreading the ball from back to front and to both wings. He is one of the players in the Norwich side, along with David Fox, who is able to retain possession. His radar for a pass is among the best in the side and he keeps possession. For a player with his frame, his strength is understated; just look at the video at the number of times he holds players off or darts past. He is able to put his foot on the ball and do more than hoof it – he finds another yellow shirt or he keeps the ball himself. Long gone are the days he dithered on the ball and was tackled, coached out of him by Lambert and co.
Against Wigan he completed more tackles than Holt, Morison, Surman and Fox, and that’s on top of his outstanding passing. In short, he’s a player that can both win the ball and then retain it. He’s not just a luxury attacking midfielder, he is an all round centre midfielder, and the sort of player we were desperate for in the dying minutes against Stoke. A player who can press and tackle, who can then keep hold of the ball and slow the game down, who can find another yellow shirt and stop so many waves of Stoke attacks. He is no luxury, he’s an essential in the current Norwich side, a player with an all round game.
To suggest this is not to lack faith in Lambert. Norwich can be hugely proud of the performance and the result we got on Sunday, and many better sides will lose to Stoke this year. But to suggest there were no other options, or that Wes was not suited to the game, isn’t fair on a player who has worked so hard to become the all round player we all love. We’re better with him in the team, and dropping him against a physical Stoke side merely reinforces the boring narrative that he’s a fragile player who can’t hack the tough games. He’s been kicked off the park by worse cloggers in League One and the Championship – he should be doing it in the Premier League too.