Some of Wolverhampton Wanderers’ football this season has left commentators asking when the Championship last housed a team on their level. There is muttering within the league about the way in which the squad at Molineux was built but no-one disputes that the influence of Jorge Mendes has paid off handsomely for the division’s leaders.
The feeling on the outside is that last summer the Portuguese agent served Fosun International, the Chinese owner of Wolves, by opening doors to players who sold their talent short by coming to England’s second tier. Leeds United are one of several clubs who want the EFL to look more closely at the tie-up with Mendes and any governance issues it raises but in the context of football, Paul Heckingbottom sees only a Championship side as good as any he has come across.
It seemed rather hopeful on Heckingbottom’s part to react to Leeds’ 3-0 defeat to Middlesbrough last Friday by describing tonight’s meeting with Wolves at Elland Road as “the perfect fixture” but the club’s head coach knows that the game will demonstrate something about his players. Wolves have the tendency to be a nightmare at their best, but Heckingbottom’s most basic expectation is that his squad shakes off the lethargy of a feeble display at The Riverside.
He has made it clear several times that, with qualification for the play-offs becoming a slimmer possibility, he is turning his thoughts to the work needed when he reaches his first transfer window this summer.
“For me it’s the perfect fixture because I want to see a response,” he said. “If there’s not that response then there’s lots of questions answered. That’s the way I look at it.
“I want to learn as much as I can as quickly as I can because in terms of long-term decisions, I’ll know more and I’ll be able to make better decisions.
“It’s the perfect fixture without a doubt. I want three points, I want the roof to come off Elland Road, I want goals and a clean sheet. But it’s going to take a really big performance to achieve that. Sometimes a result hides the performance so I want both. Long term you want to perform well every week, to get results week in week out.
“Three points are what it’s all about, but if you’re neglecting to put things right and relying on luck, you’re not going to keep picking points up.”
Leeds’ performance at Middlesbrough, on a night which could have provided the club with some traction in the play-off race, was as toothless as Heckingbottom had seen during his five games in charge.
United’s players were shut in the dressing room for an inquest afterwards as Heckingbottom talked of them being “second best”.
In contract, Tony Pulis, his Boro counterpart, rated his team’s display as the most convincing they had produced under him. A Patrick Bamford hat-trick, scored with some assistance from Heckingbottom’s goalkeeper and defence, put Leeds away as Boro climbed into sixth place. Asked to explain the performance, Heckingbottom said: “It’s a mentality thing. We’ve definitely got talented players here but that’s something we have to try and address.
“The most important thing you can change in a player is the ability to make the best of themselves. It’s not technical or tactical. It’s about getting them to understand how they can maximise everything.”
The nature of the loss at The Riverside has given Heckingbottom carte blanche to change every area of his line-up this evening. The United boss fielded an unchanged team on Friday, leaving out Adam Forshaw on the basis that Leeds had won their previous game against Brentford, but a shake-up is inevitable after an undeniably bad evening. Goalkeeper Felix Wiedwald is one of the players under threat, although second-choice Andy Lonergan has been struggling with a neck injury.
“When you win, sometimes the easy thing to do is to keep the same team, but it’s not always the right thing,” Heckingbottom said.
“Sometimes the easy thing to do is make a lot of changes because you’d be justified in doing that, but that won’t be the reason. It’ll be about how we see players react (to Friday’s result) and how they bounce back.”
Leeds, with Thomas Christiansen as head coach, made an attempt to contain Wolves early on at Molineux in November but conceded twice in the first 26 minutes and suffered a 4-1 defeat after Ronaldo Vieira was shown a red card in the second half. Wolves are clear at the top of the Championship and will not fail to claim automatic promotion, but they have wobbled slightly since the turn of the year. Nuno, their Portuguese manager, spoke this week about his players needing to “work harder” and show “total togetherness” during the run-in.
They have had ample time to prepare for tonight’s match following the postponement of their meeting with Reading last Saturday.
“They’ve been the best team in the league so far,” Heckingbottom said. “They’ve got talented players but they’re up there because they’re the best team without the ball, they’re the best team on the counter attack in my eyes and they’re a threat from set-plays as well.
“Add into the mix the quality they’ve got on the ball, especially when they go in front, and that’s why they’re such a good side. They’ve got a bit of everything.
“I’ve been watching the Championship for a lot of years and involved in it on and off. They’re one of the best teams I’ve seen in this league.”