The Season So Far
As expected, the Fosun-Mendes-backed soon-to-be juggernaut that is Wolverhampton Wanderers has made a lasting impression on the Premier League at the first attempt. If there is a glass ceiling between the top six and the rest, Wolves are surely on the verge of smashing through it and upsetting the established order. Destined to become just another detested billionaire-backed superclub, Wolves are currently riding the wave of positive PR that comes just before gluttonous trophy hauling turns affection to envy.
To be fair, the main reason Wolves have acquired so many admirers this season is that there really is much to like about this team. Manager Nuno Espírito Santo is as avuncular as he is astute and his team has played every game with nothing so much as a hint of cynicism or malice entering their minds. The on-pitch stars have been top scorer Raúl Jiménez, assist machine Matt ‘Cafu’ Doherty and genuine midfield maestro Rúben Neves, but it feels harsh to have left any name off this list. They’ve been well coached and organised all season, with memorable moments of quality and decisiveness provided by every member of the squad.
They’ve won away to Spurs and Everton, beaten Chelsea at home and held Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal. They’ve floored just about every midtable opponent they’ve come up against. If there has been an Achilles heel, it’s been their results against the Premier League’s strugglers: Huddersfield beat them twice and defeats have also come against Cardiff, Brighton and Crystal Palace.
That profligacy has arguably changed Chelsea history, albeit in a minor way: had Wolves taken advantage in those more winnable games, the gap between them and Chelsea would surely be minimal enough to have convinced Roman Abramovich to sack Maurizio Sarri when the opportunity arose.
The Season Ahead
Their fixture list for the rest of the season is brutal – after this trip to Stamford Bridge they have to face Manchester United twice (once in the FA Cup, once in the league), Arsenal and Liverpool – and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they dropped from their current position atop the Best Of The Rest mini-league. So good have they been, however, it wouldn’t be such a shock were they to take points off those teams and end up closer to the top six than they could have expected.
Going into the summer, another mega-splurge should be expected. So many players in this team would be unfortunate to lose their places off the back of such a heroic season, but there’s no room for sentimentality in football.
For most of the season Wolves played a Conte-inspired 3-4-2-1, sitting deep and absorbing pressure before haring forward into acres of space on the break. That’s how they beat Chelsea in December — well, that and Chelsea shooting into the stands all night (only 3-of-17 on target) — but, as Conte found, there’s only so long that way of playing works before teams get smart and sit deep, denying the space that makes the system so dangerous on the break while making spare men in deep and wide positions redundant.
For the last couple of months Wolves have been playing 3-1-4-2, utilising the same basic approach but with a different way up the pitch. Forwards Jiménez and Diogo Jota are extremely mobile and they pull the opposition defence all over the pitch with their movement, destabilising the backline and leaving the centre-forward space vacant for midfield runners to exploit. Leander Dendoncker, not a starter before the change of system, has become a key attacking weapon, Lamparding his way into goalscoring positions from deep, while the overlapping wing-backs create overloads on the flanks.
One thing to remember is that Wolves played 3-4-1-2 against Chelsea in December to man-mark Jorginho and disrupt Chelsea’s build-up. We shouldn’t be surprised if that system is used again here.
Their key weapon is their ability to create overloads on the counter-attack. Having already lost to them this way, Chelsea will be more than aware of the danger posed by their dead-eye finishers and their rampaging wide players. That said, Sarriball done wrong becomes the kind of rigid, high-line system which gives more flexible counter-attacking sides an inherent advantage – just think back to all the times that Chelsea made Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal look stupid.
Indeed, while they often play in a reactive manner, it would be wrong to suggest that Wolves are happy to let their opponents play: they lead the Premier League for tackles made, while only four teams have blocked more passes and made more interceptions this season. Sitting so many men so deep and working so hard means that the threat is usually snuffed out long before it can develop into real danger: only six teams have allowed fewer shots on goal than Wolves, while only three teams have allowed fewer Expected Goals Against.
Whether it’s in attack or in defence, they know exactly what they’re going to do and how, and they approach both phases with a shape and an intensity unique to the division. It’s no surprise they’ve hit the ground running.
As a side note, Rúben Neves and João Moutinho are really, really, really good.
Chelsea’s attackers are a lot better individually than Wolves’ defenders, so even though Eden Hazard and company will find their paths blocked at the start of play, they should be able to find their way through eventually. Apart from that, Wolves’ defending at set pieces isn’t as good as it could be, with ten goals conceded from dead balls this season, while no team has scored more own goals this season.
In the long-term, Fosun and Jorge Mendes should be aware that Wolverhampton isn’t going to be an easy sell to Neymar or Kylian Mbappé, so their ascent to Europe’s top table may have to wait a while until the city is made to look more like London, Paris, Madrid or Munich.
Ryan Bennett is suspended for Wolves so Romain Saïss will step in. Key players were rested last week to be fresh for this game and we should expect a full-strength XI.
Do you really need to be told the Chelsea team?
Chelsea have the home advantage and greater individual quality, but Wolves are so good against the big teams that an upset wouldn’t really be an upset. Let’s say a score draw of great drama and quality.