“A hungry wolf is stronger than a satisfied dog.” ~ Ukrainian Proverb
(It’s been almost a year since I’ve really written anything on here. Arguing on the internet with Swimming Hippos and work has kept me occupied recently. Apologies.)
26 games, 19 wins, 50 goals scored, 20 conceded, 61 points. This is the current fate of Wolverhampton Wanderers as of January 3rd, 2018 within the 17-18 Sky Bet Championship sitting in 1st place on the table, 12 points ahead of closest rivals Derby County. The masterminds behind this? Well where do I begin?
First we have Fosun International. A Chinese conglomerate company owned by Guo Guangchang with a net worth of £4.8 billion who bought the West Midlands club in July 2016. Fosun made a promise to invest between £20 million and £30 million over the next two years to get the club promoted into the Premier League as soon as possible.
Money is one thing but not everything. Proof of this can be seen with Fosun overseeing two managers during the 16-17 season in Walter Zenga & Paul Lambert, resulting in a lowly 15th place finish. But having the right contacts in football also counts for something. Step forward Jorge Mendes. The super-agent of the sport who boasts the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Jose Mourinho & James Rodriguez as some of his clients has acted as an advisor to Wolves owners on player transfers.
He has been able to bring in a handful of names this season to the club through his own networks. Diogo Jota, Roderick Miranda & former FC Porto skipper Ruben Neves are all represented by Mendes’ Gestifute agency. Other signings such as Ivan Cavaleiro and Helder Costa, although not represented by Mendes himself, came from clubs that Mendes has a background influence in with Monaco & Benfica respectively.
The biggest Mendes signing this season undeniably however has been Nuno Espirito Santo, current manager of Wolves. Another Mendes client, his first ever to be exact back in 1996 during his playing days as a goalkeeper for Vitória Guimarães all the way till present day.
Common XI & Shape
Diagonal’s from the 1st third
Nuno set on employing a 3-4-3 shape before the season began with the player roles being very clear to see. With the squad boasting a good balance of ball-playing defenders such as Boly, Coady & Miranda along with more traditional style defenders such as Batth & Bennett, whom which are usually rotated, although Bennett being the slightly more technically gifted between the two.
The build-up will normally see the back three circulating the ball horizontally in order to open gaps in the opponents shape. Coady, naturally a defensive-midfielder, comfortably possesses the most range and quality in his passing within the back three, although Boly also shows good composure on the ball from left centre-back considering his towering size. The outside backs position with enough width to open out the pitch during the build-up phase.
Playing as a sweeper, Coady’s biggest strong-point in possession has been his ability to switch play diagonally to the flanks. Nuno has looked to exploit this using a common mechanism of switches of play from overloaded to under-loaded spaces with Coady looking to pull the trigger for diagonal passes to the ball-far wingback. It also must be noted that the weight of Coady’s diagonal passing tends to be correct, not playing the kind of cross-field pass that floats and potentially buys the opposition more time to shift their block. Once either wingback receives from the defenders, a run into depth will be commonly made by the nearest winger as opposed to receiving to feet with their back to goal. However should a winger receive, then an overlapping or underlapping run from the near wingback will be commonly made. Matt Doherty, not much of a dribbler, has shown his quality in making these runs into depth with great timing & intelligence in having a purpose with every run. Barry Douglas on the left side is the more astute wingback with the ball at his feet which enables him to show more comfort in the buildup phase.
The outside backs ensure for more stable circulation of the ball during the build up with their presence in the half-spaces. Along with this, it’s rare to see the back three being overloaded by opposition teams. With this in mind, Wolves can take the risk of progressing play more directly with the use of their outside backs. Boly and Miranda have both show that they are adept in being able to drive forwards with the ball in order create an overload within the central spaces of the field. Boly, being the more regular player of the two, has commonly shown his quality in playing line-breaking passes into Jota or Neves. Jota tends to anticipate this very well and his simple movement of dropping slightly deep from the channels creates a lot of possibilities for Boly such as a third man run or an opposite movement from Jota and Douglas.
A connected pivot
Nuno wants his team to have a vertical mindset with the ball once it gets into the mid-third, but playing out from the back when play starts from Ruddy is rarely compromised unless there is an opportunity to counter into open space. Wolves are willing to circulate the ball to play into spaces in the centre also. Saiss is positioned slightly deeper in the build up out of him and Neves. The Moroccan international was signed last season by Walter Zenga from Angers in Ligue 1, but saw his involvement limited throughout. Capable of playing in defence also, Nuno this season has integrated him into the XI in a midfield pivot to great success. Ruben Neves, probably the biggest signing in the clubs history comes with a impressive CV at the age of 20. From FC Porto’s famed academy, the midfielder has already written his name in the record books of the Portuguese giants. The youngest league goalscorer in the clubs history, youngest player to feature in the Champions League and the youngest player to wear the captains band. All accomplished all before reaching 20 years old.
As a pivot, these two players have shown great telepathy together so far. They both play relatively close to each other and act as outlets to connect from their respective halfspaces into the players on the flanks. Both pairing show great quality in hitting diagonal passes to switch play like Coady does which is heavily aided by Nuno’s deploying of an “opposite footed pivot” with Saiss (a left footer) on the right and Neves (a right footer) on the left. With Nuno wanting to take advantage of the natural passing triangles and diamonds that a 3-4-3 offers in it’s shape, the desired effect of this is deliberate with a number of positives. Firstly is being able to play more vertically with the wingbacks into space. Neves for example will find it more easier to receive in the left halfspace to then play a outside curled pass around the opposition right back for Douglas or Jota to latch onto using his right foot. If he were to achieve such on the right-side of midfield onto Costa/Cavaleiro or Doherty, he’d need to either use his weaker foot, or attempt to use the outside of his right foot to bend it around the left-back in this case, which is slightly more difficult to pull off.
If a pass directed towards the left went to Neves operating on the left-side of the pivot, the ball will arrive quicker to his stronger right foot. This instantly allows him to gain control of the ball or play a one touch out wide.
Now if Saiss was in Neves shoes here, he’d receive with stronger left foot. This would offer a few issues:
- A horizontal pass always has risk as you are much more open along with more exposed in case you lose the ball. Therefore the distance and time for Saiss to receive this pass with his left will be greater than Neves in this instance therefore adding more risk.
- If Saiss wanted to play a diagonal pass towards the right flank of the pitch using his left foot in the left halfspace, the distance to play it would be greater giving the opposition a few milliseconds extra to shift towards the ball while it’s in midair.
- Saiss receiving with his left foot would find himself being an easier target for opposition to press as the ball would be nearer to the sideline.
All of this would occur in the vice versa also.
The pairing also offer a heavy element of stability during possession. With a high level of positional intelligence and discipline, both players act as reliable routes to connect play with the wide players. As mentioned above, the natural shape is a huge aid however it is these basic but well timed movements from players that makes these connections more accessible to the wide players.
Creative Freedom of the Front Three
With the help of Jorge Mendes, Wolves have been able to pick up talent that many would deem too good for such a level as the Championship. This is most noticeably seen in the attacking positions, with the team being able to boast talents that have performed in stronger leagues or teams in Portugal, Spain & France. Wolves are blessed with a packet of players who are diverse and flexible within their skill-sets, enabling more capabilities for the collective output.
Leo Bonatini, Diogo Jota, Ivan Cavaleiro, Bright Enobakhare and Helder Costa make up the attacking options of the squad. Jota has featured in every match of the season so far, with the young Nigerian Enobakhre being his back-up option. On the right-flank, you have Helder Costa & last seasons Player of the Year, Ivan Cavaleiro. These two have been fairly rotated so far, although Costa has been able to slight gain an edge for starts over Ivan in recent games. That leaves Bonatini as the only central striker.
Bonatini plays a big involvement in the build-up phase for Wolves. His trait to drop deep in the middle in order to receive the ball at his feet while creating situations to overload the midfield in a 3v2 or 3v3 situation. This enables runs to be made ahead of Leo with more ease due to the space vacated by him. If his marker follows then that would leave a gap in the middle. If he receives unmarked in space, he can play on the half-turn then drive into the space. The latter does tend to happen commonly, creating situations where the front free are able to showcase their technical quality with a direct mindset.
Jota is blessed with great ability under pressure and works well in small pockets of space. Being one of the prime creators for the team, Jota looks to use this by working off of Bonatini’s movement in order to receive closer to him compared to Cavaleiro or Costa on the opposite flank. This creates space for Douglas to make runs and for Neves to have more space to drive into. With similarities in his play to Juventus’ Pablo Dybala, the Portuguese youngster is effectively playing a second-striker role from wide based off his common movements and being able to make runs into the channels, however possesses the ability to beat fullbacks 1v1 from the flank also. Most importantly, he can score goals too.
From the right, Cavaleiro operates as the most advanced player in his positioning on the right. He makes himself available as an outlet for players to hit direct balls behind the opposition defense, along with his wider positioning meaning that Doherty is able to make more underlapping runs with more comfort when appropriate, while Cavaleiro will make more diagonal runs.
Off the Ball
In their defensive phase, Wolves’ operate in a 5-2-3/5-2-2-1 shape. Doherty & Douglas drop deeper as full backs, while the wingers will sit more inside rather than in the flanks. This gives Wolves a good balance against the ball, being able to force opponents to play around their block rather than through it due to the high presence of players in the centre. Should the ball be played wide, then the ball near winger will look to press backwards, towards their own goal. Basically this is used against opponent’s blind side, being able to cut off immediate back pass options while having to deal with whats in ahead of your sight. Wolves use this very well to force the play from wide, back into the middle in hope of regaining the ball and starting counters. This pressing movement creates a situational 5-3-1-1 when the ball is wide, creating good coverage around the ball and width away from it along with showing the needed intensity in tracking movement to maintain access. The biggest advantage with Wolves utilizing a back five is the increased flexibility. A fullback can press high without there being as much risk as there would be four defenders at the back.
The Attacking Transitions
While Wolves is not what I would call the dedicated counter-attacking side, the team have shown that this is one of their strongest points. A team blessed with a mix of capable passers, strong crosses, speed and attacking quality, it makes sense to use these attributes to devastating use. Wolves will often play quick pass moves with good distances and movement without giving the opponents the time to regain their shape. Bonatini is often is the focal point of counter attacks. He has the ability to drag defenders out of position for his teammates along with having the hold up play to await incoming support. Neves and Saiss are not overly adventurous during these moments, but can quickly anticipate the game to use their passes to start counters with the pace of technical quality and space awareness of the attack.
Jota stands out most like a sore thumb during transitions. His diverse skill-set means he can carry the ball at length and space, and can the type of passes that can take opponents out of play. It’s not uncommon for him (similar to Bonatini) to use the opposition pressing as a way to progress. But Jota does this more with facing forwards than towards his own goal, delaying the pass for split second or two in order to attract the opponent towards the ball just as a teammate makes a run into depth.
Costa/Cavaleiro and the wingback are also quality outlets. The latter duo of Doherty and Douglas are both adept in making wide runs that can spread out the opposition regardless of if they receive the ball or not in the phase of play.
While writing this, Wolves had already signed young striker Rafa Mir from Valencia under noses of much bigger clubs such as Real Madrid & Tottenham. There are also whispers about a big money bid for recent AC Milan signing Andre Silva in hope of securing him in the Gold and Black jersey. I would not be shocked if Nuno looks for another defender to rival with Coady for the central defender spot.
It’s safe to say that any pre-season doubts about this Wolves side have been swept under the carpet thus far. Showing an aura of quality that has eluded even Premier League teams currently, many critics were quick to say that Nuno will not be able to handle the rigors of Championship football or that the Portuguese imports will lack passion for the club. Showing their prowess in defense and attack along with being able to tear teams apart or have the mental capacity to grind out the closer game, there is much to be optimistic about at the Molineux. With already one foot into the Premier League, reaching the promised land will only draw more eyes towards the club and with the trio of Fosun, Mendes and Nuno at the top of the food-chain, Wolved are a club that are far from ready to stay relaxed in their chase for European football in the future.