After the departure of Nuno Espirito Santo at the end of last season, Wolverhampton Wanderers hoped their next manager would have the gusto to turn the club back into a Europa League challenging team. While Bruno Lage wasn’t the flashiest of appointments, the Portuguese manager has surpassed fan expectations, turning Wolves into one of the best defensive units in the league. Despite scoring just 14 goals in 19 league games, Wolves sit 8th place in the table, on 28 points. That in large part is due to the excellent tactical balance of Bruno Lage’s team, their sound defensive structure, and the fact that every single player has completely bought into his ideologies. Here is a tactical analysis all about Bruno Lage’s Wolves.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 3-4-3
In many ways, Bruno Lage has carried off where Nuno Espirito Santo left off. Not only do the team deploy the same 3-4-3-esque system that they used throughout Santo’s time in charge, but Lage has also used a small squad this season, a squad of just 18 players. In a COVID world that may seem like a dangerous thing, but it’s worked brilliantly for Wolves in establishing consistency and chemistry, with every line having a clear understanding of how to best support one another.Embed from Getty Images
In goal, Wolves have replaced one of the underperforming goalkeepers of last season in Rui Patricio with one of the shall we say, overperforming goalkeepers of this season. Jose Sa has been remarkable, with a stunning save percentage of 85.3%, and 8 clean sheets along the way. Wolves as a whole have conceded just 14 goals all season long, the second lowest in the league behind only Manchester City. Sa’s been a massive part of that, helped massively by a calm and composed defensive trio of captain Conor Coady, bulldog Romain Saiss, and former futsal man Max Kilman. Interestingly enough, Kilman and Saiss are both left-footed, and the vast majority of long-passes Kilman makes from the right side are with his strong foot. Third-captain Willy Boly has not been in the squad all season, and Wolves will be hoping to have the Ivorian back as soon as possible. If Wolves were to have an injury to their back-three, they might have a major issue. Leander Dendoncker is the only other player with tangible experience playing the position in the eighteen-man set-up, and the back-three are the only outfielders to have started every single game thus far.Embed from Getty Images
In the wide areas, Lage has had more rotation. Nelson Semedo and Marcal appear to be first choice wing-backs, but Ki-Jana Hoever and Rayan Ait-Nouri can also play their part when deployed. Wolves have the luxury of having three solid midfield options as well, with Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho making it very hard for Dendoncker to enter the frame. Having the Belgian as a great alternative gives Wolves the freedom to play a three-man midfield against the very best, as they excellently managed against City and Chelsea. New Portuguese winger Trincao has made himself useful in the absence of Pedro Neto, the team’s top scorer last season. But Daniel Podence has perhaps been more effective when he’s been deployed instead. The same can probably be said about wing wizard Adama Traore, and Wolves’ other new signing – Hee-Chan Hwang, who’s scored 4 goals since arriving from Leipzig. Above all else, Raul Jimenez has made a successful recovery from a horrible skull fracture last season, helping restore Wolves to their best in 2021-22.Embed from Getty Images
While the consistency in shape and personnel has contributed massively to Wolves’ success, Lage’s men would be in desperate trouble if they were to lose someone like Raul Jimenez or Conor Coady. They were dreadful last season without Jimenez, and could easily lose form if any of the other key men to their spine were to succumb to illness or injury. For now, Wolves have been incredibly functional in their 3-4-3 formation, with one of the best defensive records in the league. So let’s jump into an over-arching discussion of how Wolves have achieved so much success under Bruno Lage this season.
ATTACKING PRINCIPLESEmbed from Getty Images
Sometimes criticized for playing boring, defensive football, Wolves have enjoyed decent moments in attack this season, and a higher rate of possession than most. While 47.6% is low, it’s also the 11th highest in the league. The worrying thing from an attacking perspective is just how few goals they’ve scored, with their tally of 14 the second lowest in the league (Norwich sit on 8). Their xG of 18.5 suggests they should have scored more at the halfway point, but even that would have been less than a goal per game.Embed from Getty Images
Nevertheless, Wolves deploy a clearly defined set of principles in possession, with noticeable passing patterns of play. One of their most frequent patters involves a pass forward from a central midfielder into an attacking one, who will then bounce the ball back on a one-touch. The central midfielder will then play in a different player with a forward pass, keeping the game ticking.
What this allows is third man runs from out from underneath the nose of the opposition, as they get attracted to the first, pointless pass, and neglect the more fruitful second one. Another common pattern involves a wing-back passing the ball inside to one of the two central midfielders, who then immediately power a switch over to the other side, where the far-sided wing-back will then inject some pace as they carry the ball up the field. Nelson Semedo in particular loves to advance into the opposition half and carry the ball, which links up nicely with Traore down that side. The team use both of these sequences everywhere on the pitch, from their build-up all the way to the final third.Embed from Getty Images
Throughout their possession, Wolves work the ball around through one and two-touch based possession, relying on their centre-backs and central midfielders to find avenues forward. They love to hit long diagonal passes when the time is right, particularly from Conor Coady, but also from Neves and Moutinho and their exceptional range. Wolves have completed more long passes than any team outside the Premier League’s top three in the table, and Manchester United are the only other team with a higher completion percentage. Coady stands out a the most superb in picking out long passes from deep as the quintessential libero in the team. Saiss on the other hand likes to play low-driven passes along the grass into players in advanced positions. The Moroccan is Wolves’ top progressive passer, even over Neves and Moutinho, who often make lateral passes on their switches of play.
So with many capable progressors and passers, Lage’s men use diamonds and triangles in close proximity to combine, drawing the opposition over before switching to the other side or spraying one long. It’s a positive mix of poise and direct passing, understanding when to be patient in their build-up, and when to go full throttle into their striker.Embed from Getty Images
As the likes of Neves and Moutinho look to get on the ball and switch play, Wolves usually then look to work the wide areas and deliver crosses into the box from their wing-backs. They utilize the right side more than any other team in the league, which is the side Adama Traore is most likely to roam when deployed. With 5.3 dribbles per 90 (the most in the league of players with 5+ appearances), Traore adds a different dynamism to the team. The way he takes players on down the line and strikes fear into the opposition gives Wolves a different, more direct style of play that they can use to their advantage. It also means a right wing-back on that side, like Nelson Semedo, can venture forward into more advantageous positions, as Traore stretches the opposition back and gives his team a greater chance of playing on the front foot.
While we’ve spent most of this time making Wolves’ possession sound like a dream, they still love to play on the break into their big man up top. Raul Jimenez has been the target of 868 passes this season, the most for Lage’s team. After winning the ball, their first thought is always to see where the Mexican is, and if they can find him on either a knock down, or allow him to chase loose odds and ends in the half-spaces. The 30-year-old possesses an underrated element of pace and composure, and he’s particularly excellent with his back to goal. As Jimenez brings the ball down or comes in deep to pick up possession, he often wins his team fouls, which is something a player like Joao Moutinho can then thrive off of as he delivers. Daniel Podence (and of course Adama Traore) can also dribble for great lengths and get the team up the field in transition, providing an additional weapon for Lage’s men to use.
But for the most part, Wolves are a fairly patient team in attack, often overloading one side and holding very rigid positions that rarely fluctuate. And while they stretch the field well, they rarely leave themselves open. They’re a difficult team to counter attack against, particularly with the back-three always excellently corralled by Conor Coady.
DEFENSIVE PRINCIPLESEmbed from Getty Images
Wolves haven’t been utterly abysmal in attack, but it pales in comparison to the wonders they’ve accomplished in defense this season. Excellently organized by Coady communicating his way to a sore throat, Wolves’ shape is incredibly difficult to break down. We recently discussed Lage’s defensive masterclass against Chelsea in a 3-5-2, with Tuchel’s Blues given just one shot on target the entire match. That is a frequent occurrence for Wolves this season, allowing just 11.8 shots total and only 3.6 on target per game, the best ratio outside the top three in the table. With Jose Sa’s brilliance to back them up in those 3-4 shots, which tend to be very low quality chances, they’ve walked toward eight clean sheets in nineteen matches.
When defending in their own third, Wolves deploy a mix of zonal and man-marking, leaving little room between the lines. The wingers will join the midfield line in narrowing the field, usually in a 5-4-1 formation. Through this sound shape, Lage’s team have made more tackles and pressures in their defensive third than any other team, both showcasing a sense of resilience, and a sense of comfortability sitting in their low-block. They completely cut off all central avenues, with Neves and Moutinho buzzing around like bees to stop the opposition playing into their dangerous attackers. Coady meanwhile usually man-marks the opposition’s number nine, following him as he drifts deep to pick up possession. If the opposition find themselves at the edge of the eighteen, the Wanderers will then swarm the ball in numbers, stopping any shots from taking place. That means space is only available out wide. But unfortunately for the opposition, Wolves deal with crosses magnificently well, thanks in part to a top quality goalkeeper who knows how and when to claim crosses, and the sheer number of bodies they have in the box to defend. In the recent 1-0 win over Manchester United, there were several times when United would cross the ball into just 1 player in the box, who found themselves surrounded by 4 Wolves defenders. It can be very difficult to score from a cross when it’s 1 against 4.Embed from Getty Images
In the middle third, Wolves show no real desire to press. They hold their compact shape and limit central progressions, allowing the opposition to pass the ball around aimlessly between their centre-backs. Part of that central blocking comes right from the very front, with Jimenez’s main goal to stop the opposition from playing into their central midfielders. Podence performed the same function brilliantly against Chelsea, making Trevoh Chalobah look like a terrible choice at central midfield that day.
The wide areas are again the only real area of concern, but Lage’s men usually stop any confusion before its too late. Confusion can take place with a diffusion of responsibility against certain sides, and the overall lack of willingness from Wolves’ wingers to press. The wing-backs are usually tasked with stepping out of the 5-4-1 to press when the ball enters their wide zone. That process is more seamless against sides who also deploy wing-backs, as it’s very clear who they have to lay eyes on. But against sides in a back-four, a fullback, winger and striker can all come to one side to overload Wolves’ wide area. Neves and Moutinho have to do solid shuffling in these moments to help, potentially limiting that central compactness we spoke about. Wingers like Podence and Trincao therefore should step up the defensive side of their game in the wide areas, in helping their wing-backs avoid become terribly exposed.Embed from Getty Images
In the final third, where Wolves spend only 25% of time in their matches (the third lowest in the league), Raul Jimenez will often lead the team’s high-block in a 3-4-3 shape. They don’t have any real desire to press on goal kicks, but the high starting positions they deploy may force their opposition long, where they trust their aerial ability at the back. If the opposition break their high-block, or in moments where Wolves have exposed themselves following a swift counter attack, their defensive shape will then take on more of a 5-2-3, as players race back into position.Embed from Getty Images
As if that all of that solidity isn’t enough to keep their insane record in-tact, Lage’s team also excel when defending set-pieces. They don’t give away many fouls, but when they do, they always shepherd the ball away from danger. Coady is again key in organizing the line at which they deploy, always giving Sa enough breathing room to come out and claim, while aiming to keep players off-side. Wolves are the only team yet to concede from a set-piece this season, an incredibly commendable signal of improvement from their days under Nuno. Wolverhampton conceded 52 goals last season, to which 13 came from set-pieces. Above all else, the 28 points they’ve accumulated from just 14 goals scored suggests two things. First, goals are incredibly hard to come by, but when they do find the back of the net, those goals contribute about 2 points each. Insanity. But more importantly, it showcases immense defensive stability, in which the low amount of goals they score doesn’t detract from their position in the table. So while they need to sort out their attacking concerns, for now, they don’t have to approach the problem with a great degree of stress.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
Bruno Lage’s men have been absolutely brilliant this season, with Wolves looking like the Europa League team of two-three years ago rather than the stagnant one of Nuno’s final season. With 2 points won per goal scored, their defensive record speaks for itself. But Wolves are much more than just a defensive team. They showcase brilliant moments of poise in possession, and have the makings of a team that can soon start to score more goals. For now, Bruno Lage can be extremely happy with how his team have played halfway through the season, with Wolves sitting comfortably in eighth place.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Bruno Lage’s Wolves and how they’ve surprised their way to just 14 goals conceded at the halfway point. Be sure to check out more Premier League analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite using the links below. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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