Just as it seemed Wolverhampton had run out of puff, they mustered the strength to launch a spirited second-half fightback to earn an extraordinary comeback victory. Adama Traoré proved the catalyst but Raúl Jiménez was the talisman again, impeccably steering home the winner having earlier rolled in the equaliser from the penalty spot.
Pedro Neto kickstarted a stirring retort eight minutes after the interval, at which point Southampton were two goals to the good. This was Wolves’ 39th game in a marathon season but they had no intention of making excuses and Nuno Espírito Santo, too, preserved some energy to toast victory with supporters at full-time.
The manner in which the hosts capitulated was worrying but the Southampton manager, Ralph Hasenhüttl, bemoaned the interjections of the video assistant referee, Craig Pawson, instead of criticising his players for seemingly getting giddy, with goals from unlikely sources, Jan Bednarek and Shane Long, earning them a healthy two-goal cushion at the interval.
But Wolves proved a different beast after the break, with Traoré tying the Southampton defence in knots after being shifted into a central position behind Jiménez.
‘‘When you adjust during the game and immediately produces, it is a big, big step,” said Espírito Santo. “We do not have time in the training ground so these solutions we have to react and give them to the players. We didn’t abandon our tasks and the boys did amazing. I am very, very proud of them.”
Jiménez applied a cute finish after brilliant work by Traoré, having levelled things up from 12 yards after Jack Stephens and Cédric Soares sandwiched Jonny in the box. Jiménez dispatched the spot-kick with minimum fuss, sending Alex McCarthy the wrong way but the decision irked Hasenhüttl because the referee, Darren England, taking charge of his first top-flight game, initially awarded a corner before the VAR intervened.
“It’s dangerous if the final decision is not taken in the ground, but somewhere else,” Hasenhüttl said. “If they [the referees] are not 100% clear then he should look at the screen. I am a big fan of VAR, it makes the game fairer but the referee should take the final decision in such a moment.”
Until their superb second-half riposte, Wolves were off-colour, lifeless other than the odd touch of class and staring at a fourth defeat in six matches. The skeleton squad have been running on empty for some time given their season started in the last week of July and such is the dearth of options at his disposal, the Wolves head coach named the same team that lost at Old Trafford in the FA Cup on Wednesday, but for Rui Patrício returning in place of John Ruddy.
Wolves have the prospect of a knockout stage tie against Espanyol to look forward to next month having reached the last 32 in the Europa League, a remarkable occasion given they were playing Barnsley away this time two years ago, but just as those exertions in Braga, Bratislava and beyond began to tell, they retaliated with gusto, and no sign of fatigue.
“We are aware it has been very demanding on the players but the challenge we are embracing because we enjoy competing,” Espírito Santo said.
“We are trying to improve, to manage the [amount of] games better. But it doesn’t change – we still need players, we still have to bring in players that can help and improve us.”
Replays showed Traoré appeared to handle in the buildup to Jiménez’s winner, leaving Southampton stumped but Hasenhüttl was reluctant to be too downcast. Long scored his first goal of the season and almost doubled his tally after heading against a post before Nathan Redmond clipped the crossbar from distance, but Wolves had already stolen the initiative.
Southampton came into this game with a spring in their step following an extraordinary turnaround of their own and a first defeat in seven matches does little to blemish the strides they have made in recent weeks.
“We know we are still far away from being perfect,” Hasenhüttl said. “Such games like this are important for us and we have to take the positive things and go on Tuesday to face the next opponent [Crystal Palace] and do it better.”