From Everton to Southampton to West Ham United, many Premier League teams have found it extraordinarily difficult to balance the demand of playing in both league and European football simultaneously after making the surprise jump up to the Europa League. But the same cannot be said for Wolves, who other than a slow start to the 2019-20 campaign, have had another incredible season. Wolves finished last season in 7th place, an admirable finish for a team who had just come up from the EFL Championship. This season they’ve fared even better and as things stand have a real shot at securing European football for another year. Portuguese manager Nuno Espirito Santo has been absolutely essential to their success since taking over and deserves an immense amount of credit for everything that he has brought to this team since 2017. Despite being in the Premier League for over a season and a half now, Santo has won over 50% of his games as Wolverhampton Wanderers’ manager. This is a Tactical Analysis of the wonders of Wolverhampton Wanderers and their manager Nuno Espirito Santo.
* To read about how Wolves have struggled in 2020-21, see How Wolves Have Struggled Without Raul Jimenez – Tactical Analysis.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 3-4-3
Wolverhampton spent most of last season playing in a 3-5-2 formation, due largely to the arrivals of Raul Jimenez and Leander Dendoncker, who forced a shuffle of Nuno’s 3-4-3 formation that he had used the season before to win the EFL Championship. But after a slow start to the 2019-20 campaign and an injury to a key defender in Willy Boly, Nuno shifted back into what might be his now favoured 3-4-3 formation again. The system of play has allowed Adama Traore to showcase his best work on the right-hand-side for Wolves, without pushing Matt Doherty out of the lineup, which the 3-5-2 had done at the start of the season. The system has also meant that Leander Dendoncker has lost his place as a third central midfielder, but not in the side, having come in as a centre-back in 14 games now. Romain Saiss, who is also capable of playing in central midfielder, has been another mainstay in the back-line due to Willy Boly’s injury; as Conor Coady continues to captain the side as the libero in the lineup. In behind the trio is the illustrious Euro 2016 winner Rui Patricio and in front of him he has another Euro 2016 winner in Joao Moutinho, who partners his Portuguese compatriot Ruben Neves. Neves and Moutinho form what is possibly the best midfield duo in the league, continuing to make everything tick for the Wanderers and playing a massive role at both ends of the pitch.Embed from Getty Images
At the front end of the pitch, Raul Jimenez and Adama Traore have formed an incredible understanding and have been Wolves’ two best players this season without a shadow of a doubt. Although Pedro Neto has performed well when he’s been in the side, it appears his role in the side will be back to second-fiddle once Diogo Jota has fully recovered from injury. Jota and Jimenez were massively impressive last season as a duo, but Adama Traore’s stellar form this season and improved contribution of goals and assists has meant that Jota has shifted back out to the left wing.
The versatility of all Wolves players has been something remarkable this season, as many players have featured in multiple roles and have been asked to fulfill positions they might never have dreamed of. Whether that’s a testament to Nuno and his tactics or the players themselves is certainly up for debate. But the organization of the system as a whole has certainly lend itself to the ease at which players like Dendoncker and Traore have been able to easily transcend positions and completely understand their role wherever they end up on the pitch. The players always seem to have a clear understanding of their role out on the field and Nuno’s inspiration to play Leander Dendoncker as a centre-half has been perhaps the underrated revelation of the season.
INDUSTRIOUS FULLBACKSEmbed from Getty Images
Much has often been made of the success of players like Raul Jimenez and Adama Traore, but Wolves’ attacking flair would simply not be as potent without their industrious wing-backs Matt Doherty and Jonny Otto. Doherty is one of the most progressive, forward-thinking fullbacks in world football at the moment and has become such an understated member of this incredible Wolves team. Jonny meanwhile is an experienced fullback who had previously played in the Europa League with Celta Vigo. Both have been so industrious and defensively sound for Wolverhampton in the Premier League that they’ve both earned call-ups to their national sides post-2018.
What is remarkable about Wolves’ use of their wing-backs is that you will frequently see both of them popping up in the eighteen yard box…at the same time! It’s not infrequent to see Jonny whipping in a cross for Doherty or vice versa. Now surely with both wing-backs getting so high up the field this could leave Wolves exposed. But the central midfielders in Neves and Moutinho have been so positionally aware that it has never become a terrible issue for Santo’s men. That said, when Wolves have lost games this season, their ability to defend in the wide areas has been a major issue. But it is still difficult to blame Doherty and Jonny for that, who are both very capable defenders and who make a very strong defensive contribution when Wolves are able to get settled into their back-five. It is when they the counter-attacking kings, get caught on a counter-attack themselves that they seem to struggle to defend.
It is probably unsurprising for anyone to hear that defensively, Wolves’ shape changes to something closer to a 5-4-1 or 5-3-2 when they are playing their other regular formation (3-5-2). What is impressive about this, is just how industrious Jonny and Doherty have been at quickly adapting to their defensive role after making lung-bursting runs forward. Jonny has won over 3 tackles per game this season, while Doherty has won nearly 4 duels in the air, highlighting the different strengths to their defensive game. Despite what they can offer in attack, Doherty and Jonny are actually extremely positionally disciplined and you’d rarely see them jumping into tackles that they aren’t going to win or making key defensive errors. Their role as part of the back-five is immense in helping Wolves remain as defensively resilient as they are. Without the two of them in their lineup, it is very likely that Wolves would not be able to frustrate so many of the top teams in Europe to the extent that they are able to. So the role of the wing-backs in Doherty and Jonny isn’t just to create and get forward, it’s also a massively important defensive role as part of a shifting back-five in which they have to be more positionally disciplined than their eagerness to get forward should in theory allow.
NEVES & MOUTINHO’S CONTROLEmbed from Getty Images
Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho just might be one of the very best central midfield duos in all of European football at the moment, let alone the Premier League. The understanding that the two players have with one another is immense, and it is further extended to heightened levels of impressiveness when they play in a trio alongside Leander Dendoncker. Unlike most players in Wolves’ lineup, Neves and Moutinho aren’t the type of players to be running all over the place up and down the field. They are so positionally aware of where they have to be on the pitch, that they simply don’t have to. Further, with their incredible distribution, both Portuguese central midfielders are key distributors and creators in possession and they are frequently used as a key mechanism for switching play. Most of Wolves’ possession comes in the middle third, but it is probably a bit shocking to find out that only 21% of their possession this season has come in the middle of the pitch compared to 42% on the right side (double) and 37% on the left (nearly double). This is in large part due to the desire of Wolves to get their rising star Adama Traore on the ball at every opportunity. Whether it’s Moutinho or Neves, they will often be looking to play in Traore and Doherty, favouring two of Wolves’ most industrious and bright attacking players. So although Neves and Moutinho are frequently in possession of the ball and are virtually the two players to complete the most passes for their team this season, they are hardly ever on the ball for that long before delivering it. Neither player is afraid to play the long-ball as well and this is actually a frequently used tactic by Wolves as the two Portuguese midfielders get on the ball deeper down the field and utilize a long-ball approach to engage their rampaging wide players further forward. Conor Coady plays a similar role in the side and is one of Wolves’ most essential figureheads when playing out from the back and picking out longer passes. Sometimes in this sense, Wolves’ shape in possession will almost look like a 3-2-5, with the wingers inverted and the wing-backs high and wide.Embed from Getty Images
One interesting difference between Wolves’ two favourite formations is that the freedom of Doherty and Jonny to get forward should be greater in the 3-5-2, with more central midfield cover available as opposed to the 3-4-3. Leander Dendoncker is a box to box beast and having him alongside Neves and Moutinho should mean that Wolves are rarely ever exploitable in a wide area, due to their ability to cover. However, the ability of Neves and Moutinho to cover does not seem to differ terribly much from one formation to the other as Doherty and Jonny continue to go forward at the right moments. Doherty is the more frequent of forward travellers, convenient because Neves, who also plays on the right, is the more defensively minded of the two, and also the one who is more likely to cover in wide areas. But you would never catch Neves and Moutinho too far apart. They always seem to be practically within touching distance of one another, which obviously has benefits from a defensive perspective that go without saying. They are simply always there in the middle of the pitch to cut out danger, without even needing to do that much pressing themselves as the pressing is often done higher up the pitch by wide players like Traore, Jota, Doherty and Jonny. Instead, Neves and Moutinho remain compact and shift with the play. You will rarely ever see Joao Moutinho or Ruben Neves making a darting run into the box, and that is because they have a massively important role in the side to sit deep and defend, whether it is reactively in response to losing the ball, or proactively in response to the movement of the wing-backs.
CHEMISTRY OF THE FRONT THREEEmbed from Getty Images
Everyone who watched Wolves in 2018-19 will know just how stellar of a partnership Diogo Jota and Raul Jimenez have. Even Nuno Espirito Santo has spoken at length about the fantastic understanding that the two players have between each other. It’s even been a bit of a throwback to the 4-4-2 with a big-man alongside a smaller, speedy runner. In Raul Jimenez, Wolves have one of the best strikers around. Not only is the Mexican capable of scoring goals for fun, he is also one of the very best with his back-to-goal, constantly linking up with others. This is wonderfully demonstrated by the 13 goals and 6 assists the 28-year old has accumulated in his 29 Premier League appearances so far this season. Jimenez’s role is essentially that of a Roberto Firmino, dropping in between the lines and coming deep to pick up the ball, while simultaneously fulfilling the role of a target man to get on the end of crosses and hold play up for other players. He is also a nightmare for opposition defenders given his astuteness at timing his runs into the box. Jimenez frequently arrives very late to the box, ghosting in when the defender least expects it.Embed from Getty Images
Jota meanwhile is the speed demon that bounces off of him so fantastically well, particularly in counter-attacking situations where he is able to exploit space to his advantage. But what has been a stunning revelation this season is just how fantastic Adama Traore has been for this Wolves team, going from a peripheral showcase player in 2018-19 to arguably their player of the season in 2019-20. The strength, the agility, the ball mastery that Adama Traore has is truly something special. And once again, it is absolutely no surprise that they attack so frequently down the right. Wolves seem to want to get Traore on the ball at every opportunity, whether it’s a counter attack or one of their impressive spells of possession. This season Jimenez has scored 5 goals which have been assisted by Traore, to which only Aguero’s goal record thanks to Kevin de Bruyne has been bettered by. Three of Traore’s goals meanwhile have been assisted by Raul Jimenez, showcasing just how great of an understanding those two players have with one another as well.
Traore is a truly unique player. Very rarely do you see players so willing to take players on 1v1 time after time after time in the same game. It’s no surprise that teams like Tottenham Hotspur have had to resort to tactical fouling of the man in order to gain the upper-hand, when at times he’s been absolutely unplayable this season.
CONCLUDING THOUGHTSEmbed from Getty Images
Wolverhampton Wanderers play one of the most tactically interesting 3-4-3/3-5-2 formations in the world of football and it has been a major factor to their success in the past few years. They’ve gone from an EFL Championship side to genuine contenders for a spot in the UEFA Champions League in the blink of an eye and that is surprising to no one given how tactically astute their players and manager are at the beautiful game. Although they are without a genuine superstar in their team, Wolves have proven to be one of the most frustrating teams for big six sides to play in the Premier League and they are only going to get better from here as they continue to grow in reputation.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of one of the most prominent counter attacking teams in Europe – Wolverhampton Wanderers. Want more of these Tactical Analyses? Be sure to share on Twitter @mastermindsite or comment below which team or player you’d like to hear about next. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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