• Wolves face Birmingham for important Midlands derby
• McCarthy worried by sudden loss of form in past month
It was, by Mick McCarthy's own admission, Wolverhampton Wanderers' worst performance of the season. Stoke City out-thought, outfought and outplayed Wolves on Tuesday night at the Britannia Stadium, inflicting a defeat that brutally exposed their shortcomings and left McCarthy searching for answers to a wider problem. "Why we've come from where we were at Aston Villa to what we've had in the last four games, I don't know," the Wolves manager said.
Since winning 1-0 at Villa last month, Wolves have collected one point against Newcastle United, Everton, Fulham and Stoke, leaving them second bottom ahead of Sunday's crucial West Midlands derby against fellow strugglers Birmingham City at St Andrew's. It is a dismal run that has come at the worst possible time and has prompted many Wolves supporters to point to the knee injury Kevin Doyle suffered while playing for the Republic of Ireland last month as the turning point.
Doyle has not played for Wolves since the Villa game and, although the headline statistics – five Premier League goals this season – suggest his absence should not be critical, anyone who has seen the striker play will know his contribution far exceeds putting the ball in the net. His intelligent, selfless running and ability to hold the ball up help to bring others into the game and makes McCarthy's 4-5-1 system work.
"I doubt very much I can put [the bad run] down to one player," McCarthy said. "But we had a team who had a formula that worked particularly well against Villa and against the teams prior to that game, and to lose the target man, it has had an effect. So of course Doyle has been a loss to us. Go and talk to every club around and ask their centre-backs what they think of him. I think you'd find he'd get glowing references from them all."
With Doyle unlikely to return until the penultimate match of the season, Wolves are going to have to manage as best they can without him at Birmingham and against West Bromwich Albion, in another vital derby, the following Sunday. There is, however, a sense that some of the players are missing him as much as the fans, in particular Jamie O'Hara, who was linking up well with Doyle but has struggled in recent weeks. "They had a good partnership together," said McCarthy.
Wolves have also looked vulnerable at the other end of the pitch, conceding 11 goals in their last four matches, including three at Stoke that prompted some of the travelling supporters to turn on McCarthy at the final whistle. "I went to applaud the fans as I always do. I'm not so sure it was reciprocated or appreciated at the time," said McCarthy. "But the supporters have been fantastic. We didn't even really compete in that game so I expect to get a bit of grief."
McCarthy admitted he has been low after the Stoke result but takes encouragement from other occasions this season when Wolves have thrived in adversity. "I get positives out of the fact that whenever we've hit rock bottom, whether in terms of a performance or actually hitting rock bottom of the league, I have always had a good response and that's because of the players that are here," he said. "That's what I love about them."
Whether they can collect enough points to get over the line remains to be seen. "Everyone keeps saying 'two wins'," McCarthy said. "But where do you win two games from if you play like that on Tuesday night? But then how do you beat Manchester United when you concede a 93rd-minute goal against Bolton Wanderers and lose 1-0? If you have got the answers to all those questions, please write to me at Mick McCarthy, Compton, Wolverhampton Wanderers training ground."