Tactical Watch: Wolves

By SFC Media time Thu 27 Sep Wolves v Saints
Photo by Getty Images | Ruben Neves

Newly-promoted Wolves have been widely praised for how well they've adapted to life in the Premier League. Tactics writer Sam Tighe digs a little deeper to discover the reasons behind their success...

So far, Wolverhampton Wanderers have conformed to very few of the typical “newly promoted” stereotypes you usually see in a new Premier League side.

Rather than make the step up and proceed to struggle from the off, defending for their lives at times and piecing things together on the fly, it’s they who are making other sides do those very things.

However fortuitously earned, their point against Manchester City highlights their stubbornness in their own third; the draw secured against Manchester United shone the spotlight on their cohesive midfield play; and 1-0 wins over Burnley and West Ham could easily have been by more.

Their adaptation has been borderline seamless. What are the factors behind it?

A great head-start

Wolves finished just a point shy of triple figures in the Championship last season, steamrolling almost every team in their path. A brief wobble in February aside they gave no quarter, no chance for any of the chasing pack to really place them under any pressure.

The seeds that led to this success were cast very early in the summer of 2017. Former Valencia and FC Porto manager Nuno Espírito Santo was appointed as head coach in May, then through a game-changing connection with superagent Jorge Mendes, ushered a series of impressive recruits through the door.

By mid-July – a full three weeks before the Championship season began – they had almost every key element for a title-winning side in place. Since then they’ve just rolled onward, rarely skipping a beat and never chasing the level they seek to achieve.

WOLVERHAMPTON, ENGLAND - APRIL 28: Wolverhampton Wanderers celebrate winning the Sky Bet Championship after the Sky Bet Championship match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield Wednesday at Molineux on April 28, 2018 in Wolverhampton, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Wolves wrapped up the Championship title in convincing style last season

Premier League-ready – even when they were in the Championship

Some of the players Mendes directed to Molineux during that Championship season were, to be frank, clearly Premier League standard, if not Champions League standard.

Ruben Neves’ remarkable £16million transfer from FC Porto stole the headlines, but the loan signings of Willy Boly and Diogo Jota – the former a teammate of Neves’ in Portugal, the latter not needed at Atletico Madrid – proved just as important.

This summer they’ve continued to strengthen, making Boly and Jota’s moves permanent, bringing in Joao Moutinho and Rui Patricio (who both played at the World Cup), breaking their transfer record for Adama Traore and using Mendes’ connections to secure striker Raul Jimenez from Benfica.

The right response

In conjunction with new headline signings, existing players who spent time with the club in the lower leagues have stepped up their performance levels considerably. Everyone points to the Portuguese contingent doing so well at Wolves, but they’re flanked by an impressive sidecast.

Matt Doherty’s been creative and physical on the right, while Conor Coady and Ryan Bennett – the former a converted holding midfielder, the latter an offcast picked up from Norwich City – have arguably exceeded Boly’s level in the defensive line.

WOLVERHAMPTON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 25:  Wolves captain Conor Coady (l) challenges Sergio Aguero of City during the Premier League match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester City at Molineux on August 25, 2018 in Wolverhampton, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Former midfielder Conor Coady has been moulded into Wolves' defensive leader

Tactically content

Wolves are using the same 3-4-3 formation as they did in the Championship. The approach is naturally more defensive due to the step up in competition faced, but it means the six players who have retained their spots in the XI from last season to this one have no adjustments to make, no growing pains to endure.

The five new ones have slotted in nicely; the clear chemistry between Moutinho and Neves powering them in midfield, Jimenez linking well with his wingers, and Rui Patricio performing heroics between the sticks. Nuno has tied it all together just as quickly as he did the summer before, paving the way for another good start. 

Areas to exploit?

Profligacy hasn’t yet cost Wolves this season but has threatened to. The win against Burnley, in particular, should have been by more and a string of missed chances was nearly punished by Jack Cork. A team of Saints’ quality can take advantage of this.

Pressuring Wolves in their build-up phase has proved effective on occasion, with Boly (the left-sided centre-back) looking quite skittish on the ball at times. A persistent approach from the Saints frontline could bring out the defender’s jittery side. 

Nuno’s team attack predominantly via the wings, Neves and Moutinho largely used to funnel the ball wide and into either Helder Costa or Jota’s path. If Ryan Bertrand and Cédric can bottle them up and win their one-on-ones, Wolves can be stymied in the final third.


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