Since losing Raul Jimenez to a horrific head injury in November 2020, Wolves have picked up just 8 points in 11 matches. They’ve stumbled down the table to 14th, and they look a far cry from the side that finished 7th in previous back to back seasons. Without Raul Jimenez and a sudden abandonment of their back-three mantra, Nuno Espirito Santo’s side look like a team that lack a clear identity to win football matches. This comes as a surprise, given that Wolverhampton had one of the clearest identities in the league two seasons in a row before this one. After their toothless performance in the second half against West Bromwich Albion, leading to a 3-2 defeat, we take a look at what’s gone wrong for the Raul Jimenez-less Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2020-21.
system of play: 4-2-3-1 (?)
Wolves stuck by two trusted formations in the previous two seasons – 3-4-3 and 3-5-2. This season, they’ve changed formations more than any other team in the league. Why exactly Nuno Espirito Santo abandoned the back-three is a bit unclear. Perhaps it has something to do with the potential lack of trust he has in the fullback/wing-back area this season, compared to the stellar performances of Jonny Otto and Matt Doherty in seasons past. Jonny’s been out injured all season, while Doherty’s moved away from the club to play second-fiddle to Serge Aurier at Spurs. Their replacements in Nelson Semedo and Fernando Marcal haven’t exactly been up to par, although the young Frenchman Rayan Ait-Nouri looks promising for the future. The change in system also coincided with Conor Coady’s positive coronavirus test and Leander Dendoncker’s injury. Both issues have since been resolved, yet Nuno has stuck with the back-four. Whatever the reason, Nuno’s constant changing of the system has not helped Wolves’ cause to get back in form. This also makes them nearly impossible to peg down to one single system of play, as we often try to do in these tactical analyses. Recently they’ve shifted to more of a 4-3-3, but that might be more about Daniel Podence’s recent injury (to compound their problems). They might instead prefer a 4-2-3-1 when Podence comes back in, since none of Wolves’ three regular central midfielders are in particularly good form at the moment.Embed from Getty Images
In goal, Rui Patricio’s been hung out to dry in recent weeks, but he’s also suffered from a slight loss of form this season. At right-back, Nelson Semedo’s been one of Wolves’ most influential players for both the right and wrong reasons; while Ait-Nouri and Marcal have performed to pretty much equally average effect on the left. Conor Coady started the season exceptionally well, but hasn’t quite been the same since returning from his positive coronavirus test. Willy Boly and Romain Saiss have both had good and bad games this season, but Nuno can feel more confident that if he does decide to return to a back-three, the centre-back position is well covered. Ahead of the back-four, Ruben Neves, Joao Moutinho and Leander Dendoncker have all strugged to hit the same high notes this season as seasons past. Moutinho is potentially suffering from a lack of outlets to pass the ball to, now that Diogo Jota and Raul Jimenez are out of the side. Ruben Neves has struggled to get himself involved in games in which Wolves are not in control, while Leander Dendocker hasn’t quite had the same box-to-box non stop running energy as he’s demonstrated previously.Embed from Getty Images
Some positive signs for the future can be seen further up the pitch, with Portuguese play-makers Pedro Neto and Daniel Podence filling the Diogo Jota sized gap pretty well. They’ve been Wolves’ two best players this season, and remain the side’s two top scorers other than Jimenez. At the very top end of the pitch, Wolves haven’t had quite the same luck replacing Raul Jimenez, who started the season in fine form with 4 goals in 10 matches. The Mexican forward found himself isolated at times in the opening ten fixtures, and his lack of an assist and low number of chances created potentially suggests Wolves had a deeper-lying issue prior to the 29-year old’s concussion. Adama Traore is yet to register a goal or an assist in the league this season, although remains the top dribbler; while Fabio Silva doesn’t look Premier League ready. This is all to say that Wolves are suddenly in trouble this season, despite having the type of squad that you’d expect to finish well within the top ten. Something clearly isn’t right tactically, and that is exactly what we attempt to find out in this article.
over-reliance on dribbling + lack of a target manEmbed from Getty Images
One of the worst outcomes of Raul Jimenez’s injury has been that Wolves no longer have a target man up front, or anyone that can hold up play and bring others into the game. The Mexican forward is one of the best in the world at the art of linking up with those around him, from the very front of the attack. Jimenez is both good in the air and good with his feet, while simultaneously smart in front of goal and with his back to goal. This allows Wolves to have a constant outlet in central areas, particularly on counter-attacks, which they’ve lacked to extreme heights since he’s been out. Wolves have instead now had an over-reliance on dribbling to beat opposition defenders, attempting the most dribbles in the league. With Adama Traore and Nelson Semedo, Wolves attack down the right more than any other team in the league (42%). But both players have been pretty ineffectual in attack, compared to Pedro Neto and even Rayan Ait-Nouri, who have outperformed their opposite numbers in goals + assists. It’s fairly surprising then that Wolves attack down the left less than any other team in the league (34%), and down the right more than any other team in the league. Traore and Semedo have completed a combined 6.3 dribbles per game, the most of any fullback/winger duo in the league. Pondence and Neto also love a good dribble, and this approach has meant the quickness of Wolves’ attacks often slow down as they don’t have someone that they can spring forward with a pass.
Their lack of verticality in attacking transitions this season can be illustrated by several factors, including the fact that they’ve been caught offside fewer times per game this season than any other club. About half of the time that they’ve been caught offside, it’s been from set-pieces, not from attacking moves during open play. Wolves aren’t willing to make the risky pass or the risky run off-the-ball in attacking transitions, and this hasn’t helped their cause.
lack of goalsEmbed from Getty Images
Raul Jimenez’s omission has also meant that Wolves no longer have a natural goal-scorer on the pitch. Pedro Neto and Daniel Podence are more likely to create chances for themselves (and others) through individual skill, rather than being able to get on the end of crosses, set-pieces or counter attacks like Raul Jimenez. Wolves have scored the bulk of their goals from set-pieces this season, not from open play. Romain Saiss has scored 3 of these goals, Ruben Neves buried a free kick, and both Willy Boly and Fabio Silva scored from set-pieces against West Brom. Along with Jimenez’s threat in that regard before he got injured, Nuno’s side have scored the joint-most set-piece goals in the league, with 9. When combined with their 2 penalty goals, that’s more than they’ve scored in open play. The fact that they’ve attempted 12.7 shots per game and created 9.3 chances per game, but have only scored 21 goals in 19 matches, suggests that they aren’t taking the right types of shots. It also suggests a lack of a clinical goal-scoring centre-forward in their ranks, and their desperate need to change things up moving forward.
If Wolves are truly unwilling to delve into the transfer market this January, they may need to look at Adama Traore as an option up front, either as part of a 3-4-1-2 system, or as a lone striker. He can hold up play, he’s electric, and other than winning dribbles and winning corner kicks for his team, he’s been fairly ineffective on the right wing in 2020-21. Alongside Podence or Neto, this could be an effective partnership if Nuno wants to return to the 3-5-2 formation. Adama Traore, for a very short time, was excellent up front in a 3-5-2 formation last season, particularly when Diogo Jota was unavailable due to injury. Fabio Silva has worked very hard, but he hasn’t worked as a Raul Jimenez replacement. Even he could benefit from playing alongside a player like Traore in a front-two, giving him another outlet to combine with. When looking at Wolves’ best games over their recent resurgence to the Premier League, they’ve usually been against ‘top six’ sides, where they rely on a counter-attacking approach to scoring goals. But without Jimenez, Jota or Traore up front, they can’t play in this same regard. They don’t even have Helder Costa or Ivan Cavaleiro, two other players from their past who could be of great help to their current situation. Traore’s the only one left in that trio at the moment, and Nuno should not shy away from trying him out as a central striker again.
defensive issuesEmbed from Getty Images
Defensively, almost just as much as offensively, Wolves haven’t been as stable this season. The fact that they’ve scored 9 goals from set-pieces doesn’t mean that they’re particularly good in the air and well organized defending them at the other end. They’ve conceded 9 set-piece goals themselves, the second worst in the league. They’ve also conceded 6 goals from penalties, the joint-worst in the league. This suggests both a lack of detail to their defensive organization as a unit, and a lack of concentration by their defenders as individuals. But Nuno hasn’t helped in this regard, changing formations with the wind this season. Wolves have lacked the time to develop the same level of consistency as they achieved in other seasons, and Conor Coady hasn’t looked like the same player as the conductor of a back-four. They conceded 46 goals in 2018-19 (1.2 per game), followed by an excellent defensive record of only 40 goals conceded in 2019-20 (1.05 per game). This season looks set to be their worst since the days of Mick McCarthy, with 29 goals conceded in 19 games already (1.5 per game). The drop in the level of play at wing-back could be one reason, but Nuno has not helped his team by constantly changing the system around. When you look at the games in which they’ve conceded more than three goals, three out of four have come in a 4-3-3 formation, which doesn’t look suited to anything Wolves are trying to achieve. The increase in goals conceded from set-pieces could also be out of a result of taking away a big defender in the side, plus Raul Jimenez’s missing aerial presence. For all the talk about Wolves’ struggles in attack this season, not too many have pointed fingers at their struggling defense, where none of the central midfielders or defenders are performing to their potential right now.
concluding thoughtsEmbed from Getty Images
Raul Jimenez’s return to Wolverhampton Wanderers will be essential to their ability to finish in the top ten this year. The Mexican forward adds so much to Wolves’ ability to attack in central channels, their ability to get up the pitch in transition, and their capabilities both attacking and defending set-pieces. Adama Traore’s lack of creative influence has compounded the problem for Wolves, considering they’ve already lost Diogo Jota. But Wolves’ defensive struggles have been under-estimated this season and create an equally perplexing issue for Nuno Espirito Santo to solve. One such way that he may be able to fix some of the issues short-term could be switching to a 3-4-1-2, with Adama Traore one of the two centre-forwards, and Conor Coady back at the heart of what has normally been a steady defense. Until then, Nuno’s side struggle to perform in both the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, and look destined for their worst season in the Premier League since returning in 2018.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Wolves without Raul Jimenez in 2020-21. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Analyses and follow on Twitter @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!