Wolves 0-0 Chelsea – Tactical Analysis – Bruno Lage’s Defensive Masterclass

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A little over a year ago, Thomas Tuchel made his managerial debut for Chelsea, dominating 80% of the possession in a stale 0-0 draw. Sunday’s encounter between the two teams saw many parallels, especially in Wolves’ defensive appetite and Chelsea’s failure to convert. However, it was a vastly different affair, with Wolves putting on a defensive masterclass, completely stunting Chelsea’s progress and limiting them to just 1 shot on target. So with that, here is our tactical analysis of how Bruno Lage’s team stopped Chelsea in their tracks, and secured another important 0-0 draw.

SYSTEM OF PLAY: 3-5-2 / 5-3-2

Wolverhampton set up in a 5-3-2 formation over the weekend, which floated into a 3-5-2 or 3-5-1-1 in attack. We will examine the permutations of their defensive organization within this shape in the next section, but for now it’s important to recognize just how few times Wolves have deployed this shape under Lage. While all players will have been familiar with the concepts from their time under Nuno, this is only the second time that Wolves have played a 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 in the Premier League this season. The other was the narrow 1-0 loss to Manchester City, in which Wolves implemented an almost identical game-plan. On that day, Raul Jimenez’s foolish red card and a woeful handball decision ruined their plan, but the signs of a resilient defense were still abundantly clear. This time, it completely worked, and worked to a tee.

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Jose Sa started in goal and performed admirably, claiming three crosses and putting out a strong left hand to stop Christian Pulisic on Chelsea’s only big chance of the game. Conor Coady, Max Kilman and Romain Saiss all put in mammoth performances in front of him to ensure Sa would only have one shot to contend with, and the wing-backs in Fernando Marçal and Ki-Jana Hoever limited Chelsea’s progress out wide. Wolves’ midfield three of Ruben Neves, Leander Dendoncker and Joao Moutinho also put on a masterclass, completely dominating a midfield that incorporated N’Golo Kante and later Saul Niguez and Mateo Kovacic. Wolves’ midfield men were so effective in stopping vertical passes and runs from deep that Thomas Tuchel switched shapes around the 70th minute, deploying a midfield three of his own. Up front, Lage deployed a target man in Raul Jimenez that could help free the team up quickly in attacking transitions, and a silky smooth creator in Daniel Podence, who danced his way around the pitch in all of Wolves’ moments of possession.

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For a side that has been so reliant on their 3-4-2-1 throughout the season, Bruno Lage may want to take a serious look at their success in the 3-5-2 here, and consider deploying the formation more often, particularly against the big sides in the league. After all, had it not been for a narrow offside, they would have won this game.

DEFENSIVE ORGANZIATION – mID-BLOCK

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While Wolves showed a few bright moments in their attack, this match really was all about their rock-solid defense. Wolves were incredibly compact both in terms of depth and width, defending resiliently in their 5-3-2 shape. The midfield three were particularly key in shuffling with the play and limiting Chelsea’s possession, as the Blues’ inverted wingers could never find room to breathe in between the lines. Ziyech and Mount were screened magnificently well by Moutinho and Dendoncker, with Neves also doing a massive job to screen Pulisic and Mount’s occasional movement inside.

With that sound foundation already in place, Wolves’ midfield three were then able to also step up and press the likes of Kante and the two outside centre-backs, knowing they could angle their pressure to stop the same vertical passes they were covering. In fact, whenever Rudiger received the ball, Dendoncker would apply pressure. Whenever Azpilicueta took a touch, Moutinho did the same. Normally, this might take a player out of position and only allow for those vertical passes into Ziyech and Mount. But Moutinho and Dendoncker were incredibly adept at accomplishing both simultaneously. They defended their zone and territory excellently well as Chelsea’s playmakers encroached, and then went man-to-man on the outside centre-backs when they received, angling their bodies in such a way that Chelsea were forced out wide instead.

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With Hoever and Marçal marking Alonso and James out of the game, Chelsea had no choice but to continue passing the ball aimlessly around between their centre-backs and Kante. Bruno Lage’s men were perfectly happy to allow these passes, prioritizing further penetration up the centre of the pitch. They looked to force Chelsea into the wide areas, where Tuchel’s players were incredibly reluctant to go. If and when the ball then found its way to a wing-back, Marçal and Hoever would instantly step out of the defensive line, getting onto their mark in a flash. Any further progress was minimal, and Saiss shepherd Mount expertly well whenever the Englishman found the ball at his feet.

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But it wasn’t just about Chelsea’s back-five and midfield three. The front two were also brilliant, both from an attacking perspective, and of course, a defensive one. Jimenez played the part of the terrier, Wolves’ most active pressure provider, hungry to win the ball on a tackle more than any other member of his team. Daniel Podence on the other hand was tasked with screening Trevoh Chalobah, which was undoubtedly meant as a tactic to stop Jorginho from getting on the ball. Jorginho missed the match entirely, and thanks to Podence, so did Chalobah. Podence was so successful at stopping Chalobah from receiving, that (bit of an overstatement coming) the 22-year-old may never play central midfield again. Tuchel substituted him at the first opportunity, and Saul Niguez had more success getting on the ball in the second half as Podence tired.

At times, with Podence dropping in and Neves dropping back to stop Mount, their mid-block looked more like a 5-1-3-1. This ability to stagger their block and adapt in the moment based on what was primarily a zonal marking system, meant that Chelsea couldn’t find a way to adapt even when they tried. At times Thomas Tuchel would push Kante further forward or swap players around, but it never paid off. Wolves always knew exactly how to adapt, and Thomas Tuchel couldn’t come up with a response.

HIGH BLOCK

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While most of the match was spent in the middle third, allowing Wolves to adopt a mid-block throughout, Bruno Lage’s team adapted smartly when defending in the attacking third and defensive third. Their high block occasionally became more of a high-press in a 3-5-2, with pressing triggers used on back-passes, slow passes, loose touches and passes into the wing-backs. Other than those wide area passes, Podence and Jimenez were always key in leading that trigger, as the rest of the team followed suit in stepping up and keeping their compactness. There was one brilliant moment toward the end of the game where Chelsea passed the ball backwards to the keeper and you could see Podence looking over his shoulder and thrusting his arm forward to urge his team to join as he then chased the keeper down. Their high block and high press were equally effective at stopping Chelsea from playing, allowing Wolves to keep more of the ball than they did in the match last January.

LOW BLOCK

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In the team’s low-block, which also only had to be used in rare moments, Wolves’ defenders timed their tackles expertly well to clear the ball out of danger. Their 5-3-2 shape became suffocating in this area of the pitch, with midfielders practically on top of defenders and strikers on top of midfielders, as Jimenez and Podence rummaged about and stopped Chelsea’s centre-backs from passing forward. Chelsea’s desire to compact their own proximity only limited their attacking intent, and the blue front three showed very little variety in making runs from deep to pick up possession. On the few occasions they did, Conor Coady would follow Christian Pulisic into midfield areas, and Saiss would do the same on Mount. Had they been school children, you’d have thought they had a crush on their marker, following them everywhere they went. Luckily this was a football match, and one which now sets the tone for every other team in the league attempting to stop Chelsea from now on.

ATTACKING ORGANIZATION

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Wolves only had 37% of the possession in this match, so this section won’t be quite as long. But Bruno Lage’s men were still vastly impressive when they had the ball, doing much more than just kicking and running. Besides, when you compare this to the 21% possession they had in Tuchel’s first game back in January, you can see the immense improvements Bruno Lage has made to his team beyond just the defense.

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Wolves won the midfield battle in defense, and arguably, they also won it in attack. Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho dictated the tempo of Wolves’ possession through a mix of short passes and long diagonals, injecting variety into the team at every turn. Leander Dendoncker was more reserved with his passes and often went backwards, but his bounce passes into Neves were often the ones that ended up freeing the Portuguese midfielder to spray longer balls over the top for Podence or Jimenez to chase. Other times he and Moutinho would switch play over to the wing-backs, specifically targeting Alonso’s lack of pace against Ki-Jana Hoever. The wing-backs also played a high role in initial build-ups, as the centre-backs and midfielders passed the ball around with a mix of one-touch class and patient poise. Let’s not forget that their offside goal was also brilliantly created by a wing-back, when Fernando Marcal made a darting run forward in behind Reece James.

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Despite their occasional elegance, Wolves also displayed many elements of what can be described as ‘route one’ football. Wolves’ best moment came from a lofted ball over the top into Dendoncker, who headed it straight down into Edouard Mendy’s arms, and they frequently targeted passes into Raul Jimenez, for him to either knock down or chase. The Mexican forward’s hold-up play was exceptional, and as he received with his back to goal, he often lured Chelsea’s defenders with him. Chelsea saw Jimenez with his back to goal as a pressing trigger, but the Mexican’s hold-up strength was so vast that all Chelsea could do was foul the forward. He won several free kicks for his team, some of which ended up in relatively dangerous areas of the field. Given Moutinho’s quality from a dead ball, this will also be a useful tactic to harness in future weeks.

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In other moments where Jimenez could hold it up for longer or Podence could work his magic and dribble the ball, the wing-backs and Dendoncker would quickly gallop forward to join, and the team would step up as a whole to keep their compactness. This aided Wolves in their one-touch mentality, with Neves and Moutinho pulling the strings in close proximity to the front two. They could never convert a goal out of this approach, but looked the likelier side to do so throughout the game, even despite their minimal possession.

CONCLUSION

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Bruno Lage’s Wolverhampton Wanderers put on an absolute masterclass against Chelsea on Sunday, securing an important 0-0 draw that keeps them in good standing in the table. While Lage learned a lot of valuable lessons from Nuno’s 0-0 draw in Thomas Tuchel’s first match last season, this was a completely different Wolves team, a completely different mentality, and a much more dangerous attacking intent that could have won the game. Bruno Lage’s team now sit eighth in the table, just three points off a 5th place Europa League position. Whether or not they can continue to climb up the table may be difficult, but the signs from this match are incredibly promising.


So there it is! A tactical analysis on how Bruno Lage’s Wolves played Chelsea out of the park in a 0-0 stalemate. Be sure to check out more of our analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite or the links below! Thanks for reading and see you soon.

You might also enjoy….
-> Thomas Tuchel – Chelsea – Tactical Analysis
-> Chelsea 0-0 Wolves – Tactical Analysis – Tuchel’s 3-2-5
-> How Wolves Struggled Without Raul Jimenez – Tactical Analysis (2020-21)

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