There often come moments in games when you just know the result is already set in stone – and in Wolves’ win over Manchester United that came not when Diogo Jota put them 2-0 ahead but seconds before that, when he lay down Luke Shaw.
When Wolves were 2-0 down with 15 minutes remaining of their fourth-round tie against Shrewsbury, it’s fair to say few would have expected them to be going to Wembley in the FA Cup this season.
Few would have expected it when they trailed in the replay either or when they were hanging on for dear life in the next round at Bristol City…but Diogo Jota wasn’t playing in any of those games.
And his inclusion in the quarter-final tie against United on Saturday evening perhaps demonstrated how big an opportunity Nuno Espirito Santo had spotted for his side to potentially win the FA Cup for a fifth time this season.
All six of Jota’s previous goals this season had come since early December, and he has stood out the most among those in the supporting cast around Raúl Jiménez.
And it was the Portuguese forward who put the result beyond doubt, turning Shaw inside out on his way to doubling Wolves’ lead – and unlike Shrewsbury two months earlier, they were in no mood to give it up.
Shaw might have thought he had dodged a bullet on the twisted blood front when Adama Traoré was only named on the bench, but that relaxation vanished before he even knew it was happening.
As Rúben Neves touches the ball into his path, Jota has one thing on his mind, namely how to ruin Shaw’s day.
The Manchester United defender might be doing the right thing by setting himself up to be better positioned to deal with the next action from Jota, but the former Porto man puts all that planning to waste by skipping a couple of steps in the process.
He’s like a Jenga player nudging a couple of tiles loose as he ends his turn with a flourish, or a Monopoly banker stealing from his pot on the sly: it’s not that the playing field isn’t level but rather that Shaw believes it might be.
A different defender might have been harder to manipulate in such a way, but Shaw is someone who backs himself enough to win a one-on-one battle providing he has time to assess the situation and get a full view of what’s around him. Shaw’s mistake, if he makes one, is assuming he has time to blink.
By the time the defender has righted himself, beginning his turn to face his opponent, confronting Jota head-on has already ceased to be an option. With insufficient balance and an internal battle between pursuing and cutting off the path, Shaw has effectively turned to dust.
He’s not treading water as much as he’s slipping beneath the surface of an icy lake, scrambling to pull himself back above the surface. Your boots can’t help you here.
It feels like there’s almost an unwritten rule in football that rushing is frowned upon and you ought to take your time over chances rather than snatch at them.
It makes a bit of sense when you consider how important a single goal can be in a game, but Jota has shown on more than one occasion how rushing things has the benefit of catching out the opposition before they are mentally set for the situation.
We saw this with the second and third goals of his match-winning hat-trick against Leicester City in January: his second of the afternoon, a chest control and blistering finish at full pelt, letting fly in that sweet spot between Wes Morgan looking over his shoulder and Kasper Schmeichel preparing to face a shot.
The final goal, however, was the purest example of his speed of execution.
Left all alone in the centre of the box from Jiménez’s centre, he takes on the shot while Schmeichel is still figuring out exactly how he’ll try to distract the Wolves man after he takes a touch. When that touch is a shot, any preparation is rendered moot. Jota is a sprinter anticipating the starter’s gun, and Schmeichel is left in his blocks.
The worst thing about these changes of pace is that, as a defender, you’re left resorting to the same sort of guesswork a goalkeeper requires when facing a penalty. It’s not a case of flinging yourself to your right or left, it’s staring into the pupils of your rival and determining whether he’ll give you the time to inform your guess or whether that moment of consideration was itself a moment too long.
However, it turns out it’s not easy to stare down a moving target, even if they’re just spinning around on the spot.
By Tom Victor