We expect promoted teams in the Premier League to be defensive. We anticipate a cautious approach from their managers, and eventually a lack of goals hits them hard as the season progresses. This has been the downfall of many sides in relegation fights.
However, there was one team that chose to have a clear footballing identity to their game, from the first whistle in their first top-flight season after six long years – Wolverhampton Wanderers. Right from their opening game against Everton at Molineux, there were patterns in their build ups, pressing structure off the ball and exquisite work-rate to help each other on the field.
We could vividly witness a football team operating together, and all 11 men are buying into what the manager is asking them to do. It’s working too; at present they have the fourth best underlying statistics in the division.
Credit goes to the gaffer, Nuno Espirito Santo, who arrived at the club in the summer of 2017 and got the Old Gold back into the Premier League in his first season in charge. The former Porto goalkeeper always has his own way of playing football, and he doesn’t back away from that if there is a situational change. Let’s take a closer look at how the 44-year-old sets up his side.
Wolverhampton Wanderers’ 3-4-2-1 system
The above image shows how Wolves have lined up this season for most games. The good thing about Nuno is that he doesn’t make drastic changes to his XI. Even after they lost three games in a row, the Portuguese had faith in his initial selection, and kept them on. As a positive consequence, he got a fantastic performance at Arsenal, in a game where Wolves were unlucky not to win.
Talking about how the 3-4-2-1 system works, we will define the roles of every player and see how they combine to make the team work.
The back three are all physically strong and defensively astute, but the main thing is that they are very comfortable with the ball at their feet. Captain Conor Coady possesses a tasty right foot, with which he dishes out sumptuous diagonals to wing-backs who are high and wide in possession to stretch the opposition defence. Ryan Bennett and Willy Boly are very adept in moving out from the back-line and stepping onto the midfield to play incisive forward passes.
Coady has a pass accuracy of 87.1%, while the other two defenders have 78.7% and 83.7% respectively. It just epitomises the confidence these players exude from the back, which helps the team to be strong and secured in possession.
Moving onto the midfield, they are the engine room of the team. The duo of Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho is a mixture of experience, exuberance, ball-playing capabilities of the highest order and top level game awareness. We generally see teams preferring to play with three midfielders being dominant in central areas of the pitch, but not at Wolves.
They have wing-backs who hug the touchline in possession, while the attacking midfielders (Diogo Jota/Ivan Cavaleiro and Helder Costa) tuck inside and play on the half-space. What this does is help the midfield to have extra options on the ball and also outnumber the opposition midfield in possession.
Wolves mostly attack through wings, when their wing-backs get the ball and put crosses in. The striker is in the box, well supported by other attackers, while the midfielders are in and around the box to pick up the second balls or unleash a strike from the clearance.
Every good team is brave and inventive with the ball, but their success depends on how they react when they lose it. Nuno’s men are hardworking players who seem happy to give it their all to win back possession as soon as possible. It is not always the high press, rather they allow the opposition centre-backs to have the ball.
The actual squeeze starts when the ball reaches the midfield area, then the central and attacking players combine to congest the space and the back-line pushes up to allow no room in between the lines. The pace of their wide attackers depicts they are always a threat on the counter, meaning the opposition always have to be careful. One mistake when they have the ball and the Old Gold are quickly at them.
Let’s take a look at the action points of some of the players and see how they have impacted the last few games.
The above image shows us the action points of Willy Boly. You can clearly see how the Frenchman is adept in moving into midfield and playing incisive forward passes. Some of his ball recovery actions are high up the pitch as well, when the press is on.
We talked about how wing-backs are high and wide in and out of possession, let’s take a look at how Matt Doherty operates.
The Irishman is a very adventurous wing-back, tuned in to how his team likes to play football on the front foot. We can see the ball recovery actions in wide areas, and some of his attacking play taking him to the opposition box. It shows the importance of wing-backs in this system. Most of the work near the touchline is done by them on and off the ball.
Next up, the engine room of the team. Let’s take a peek at how Neves and Moutinho function as a pair in the most important area of the football field.
We can see how much ground these two players cover, on and off the ball. Some of the ball recovery actions are high, some on the middle block, mirroring to the explanation that the pressing is not always on the higher side, rather it is controlled and moments are being picked to rob the opposition of the ball. Both of them are fantastic exponents of how to make use of it once they have it.
Moutinho has a key pass rate of two, while Neves creates one key moment per game. Hence, on average, the Wolves midfielders are fabricating three clear goal-scoring opportunities per match. Not bad at all.
We also touched upon how the wide attacking players cut inside to create space for the wing-backs on the outside, simultaneously helping the midfield to have more options on the ball and support them without it. By looking at Jota’s action points, the above explanation is vividly understandable.
The Portuguese has several ball recovery points in central areas of the pitch, while all of his attacking actions are done inside the box by tucking inside and playing on the half space. Something similar is exercised by another Portuguese on the other side of the pitch – Helder Costa.
Lastly, we should also understand the vital role striker Raul Jimenez is playing. He may not be an out-and-out goalscorer, but the job he does for the team is fantastic. The Mexican has three goals and four assists to his name in 12 games, and he is the perfect glue for the front line.
The 27-year-old is physically strong, helping to hold the ball on the counter and bring other runners into play. He can also win headers and provide the knock-downs for supporting players. His height allows him to be a real threat in both boxes from set pieces.
The loanee from Benfica works hard without the ball as well, becoming the first line of defence. All in all, Jimenez is an old-fashion number nine with several attributes appeasing to the team’s style of play.
One thing is common in this fantastic football team: the team work and togetherness they possess throughout a game. They are an incredibly well drilled side, with players of prodigious technical quality who can make a difference in a match.
In Nuno, they have a manager who will push them till the last second, a perfect example being their nearly come back from three goals down against Tottenham. They could have even salvaged that game if their correct shooting boots were on.
All in all, Wolves have arrived in the Premier League as a breath of fresh air. The longer they stay, the better it is for the league.