The Season Just Gone
Much fancied after steamrollering the Championship and with lavish Chinese investment powering them, Wolverhampton Wanderers took to the Premier League like a duck to water. Never in the history of the top division has a promoted side possessed such spending power, and pre-season talk of an immediate push for European football was not far-fetched. Wolves started the campaign with a squad full of pedigree and finished it having taken the most points from the top six sides, beating Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester United and Arsenal, and drawing with Manchester City. But for a shocking collapse in the FA Cup semi-final against Watford, they would also have contested the FA Cup Final.
Manager Nuno Espírito Santo began the system using a 3-4-3 system not dissimilar to the way Antonio Conte’s Chelsea used before switching to 3-1-4-2 halfway through the season, allowing for an extra counter-attacking runner from central midfield and partnering breakout stars Raúl Jiménez and Diogo Jota in attack. Both systems established the three central defenders as the team’s foundation, allowing Wolves to absorb amounts of pressure that other teams simply couldn’t, before countering in behind.
That approach was perfect for playing against stronger opposition too proud to sit back, and in all competitions Jiménez and Jota finished the season with 17 and 10 goals respectively, as well as unforgettable memories of winning goals scored against world-famous sides. Wolves’ problem came against the Premier League’s relegated sides and also-rans – their system proved too defensive against sides willing to concede space and allow them to dominate possession. They failed to beat Huddersfield and Brighton home and away, and lost to Cardiff, Southampton and Burnley. Nuno will have to come up with a better Plan B this time around.
Tactical issues against lesser opposition aside, Wolves’ season was an undeniable triumph. Their “reward” for such an accomplished debut campaign was participation in the Europa League, meaning this season will arguably be even harder.
The Transfer Window
With so much of their most important business done years ago — Rui Patricio, Rúben Neves, João Moutinho — Wolves’ squad required minimal surgery over the summer. They made the loan signings of Raúl Jiménez and Leander Dendoncker permanent for a combined outlay of £42m, and promoted a host of youngsters from the academy, and that was that. No key players left, and thus Wolves’ started their Europa League campaign with no need to integrate new signings or replace key components.
The Season Ahead
Wolves’ campaign will arguably be determined by how they handle the impact of the Europa League schedule. As many managers before Nuno have found, juggling the demands of a Thursday-Sunday schedule can be very difficult, especially with so many of the arduous midweek journeys being to unexciting and inconvenient destinations. There’s little doubt that the fans will lap up European nights at Molineux — they’ve waited long enough for them to return, after all — but it’s equally certain that their league form will suffer as a consequence.
Their start to the season has been a case in point: Wolves have six wins from six games and nineteen goals scored in the Europa League, but they are winless in the Premier League, having drawn with Leicester, Man Utd and Burnley and lost to Everton. Where last season they looked explosive, this season they look lethargic; where last season they showed certainty, this season they show hesitation; where last season there was solidity, this season they look porous. It’s true that their league fixtures haven’t been the kindest, but even taking that into account, Wolves have been well below their usual standards. It could be a long old season.
Nuno has stuck with the 3-1-4-2 system from the second half of last season, establishing a strong spine with a back three and a compact midfield three in front of them. In defence, they become a 5-3-2, while in attack their wing-backs and box-to-box midfielder spring forward in unison and they can become something like a 3-2-5.
Their unusual defensive shape is effective, meaning Wolves block the passing lanes typically favoured by 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 attacks. The lack of space in midfield, as well as obvious forward passing options, is what allowed Wolves to frustrate stronger teams last season, while the pace of Jota and the all-round excellence of Jiménez meant they packed a hard punch when the ball was turned over. Also key to their success was the power and directness of Matt Doherty on the right flank, whose overloads and predatory instincts made him a cult hero.
Wolves’ most important strength remains their ability to absorb pressure and yet so quickly create overloads on the counter-attack. Having such a strong, technically accomplished spine means they can turn obdurate defence into lethal attack in the blink of an eye. Chelsea fans will certainly remember all too well how fast Wolves cut the Blues to ribbons last time at Molineux.
Last season, Wolves showed tremendous effort off the ball, being among the Premier League’s leading sides for tackles, blocks and interceptions, and they’re already right up there again this time around. The effect of such a deep defence and such an active midfield is that Rui Patricio, himself one of Europe’s leading goalkeepers, is well-protected and left without much to do. At last season’s end, only Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea had better Expected Goals Against figures.
When they win the ball back, they have the vision and passing ability of Rúben Neves and João Moutinho to call on, while the energy of Doherty or Adama Traoré on the right and Leander Dendoncker from central midfield mean the formidable duo of Raúl Jiménez and Diogo Jota will be ably supplied and supported.
While Chelsea will find Wolves far less obliging than Norwich and Sheffield United, the fact remains that they’ve been noticeably off the pace in every game so far this season. Burnley found it unbelievably easy to frustrate their attack at Molineux having taken an early lead, while Wolves’ defence, usually so dependable, played like schoolboys in the last game against Everton, making the type of mistakes we simply haven’t seen from them before.
Meanwhile, they’re finding it very hard to score goals, at least in the Premier League. They needed a penalty against Burnley, a long range wondergoal against Manchester United and two instances of horrific defending from crosses against Everton. They’re simply not creating good opportunities from open play or looking like doing so. That said, Frank Lampard’s Chelsea have been so open that this may be the moment when the tide turns.
Defender Willy Boly is suspended so Romain Saïss or Real Madrid loanee Jesús Vallejo will come in. Matt Doherty is coming back from surgery and could feature, but Adama Traoré could be so important on the break that he keeps that right-wing-back berth for now. Raúl Jiménez’s obligations with Mexico mean he has done a lot of travelling during the break, and he may be rested.
Frank Lampard would surely love to be able to pick N’Golo Kanté, Pedro, Emerson, Mateo Kovačić and Antonio Rüdiger, but none are certain to feature due to a variety of niggles and fitness concerns.
One would hope that Frank Lampard won’t be so naïve to play right into Nuno’s hands, sending his team out to play in Wolves’ half and letting the home side play their favoured counter-attacking game. All the evidence suggests he will, however, so this could be bad. Another stressful 2-2 draw wouldn’t be a surprise, but it could go either way.