Wolverhampton Wanderers Closeup: Tactics, Stats and Nuno
Ahead of Liverpool’s visit to the Molineux, we’re going to take an in-depth look at Nuno Espírito Santo’s in-form Wolves, who host the Reds off the back of three consecutive wins (including an impressive home victory against Chelsea).
Where are Wolves now?
Having propelled Wolves back to the top tier of English football last term, in his first season in at the helm, Nuno has delivered a similarly encouraging start to life in the Premier League after a six-year absence.
He has delivered quick, counter-attacking football to the West Midlands through a powerful brew of principles collected over his short time in management so far, tweaked and moulded to suit the club’s needs.
Wolves currently reside close to the top of the mid-table pile in 7th place, a point away from a hapless United side above them.
They’ve enjoyed a remarkable rise of late, inspired by the efforts of former Valencia favourite, Nuno, bankrolled by Chinese conglomerates in Fosun International, who mounted a successful takeover bid in July 2016.
Seventeen games into the 2018/19 season, Wolves sit comfortably in the top-half of the Premier League table on twenty-five points.
This compares considerably well to their tally of fifteen points (adrift of the relegation zone) the last time Wolves graced the Premier League, under then manager, Mick McCarthy.
Nuno Espírito Santo – Frustrating the Top Six
Since their promotion to the Premier League, ambitions have been running high, with Fosun International determined to bring Champions League football to the West Midlands within five years.
Manager Nuno appears potentially capable of delivering the owners’ goals, having built on from his success in the Championship exceedingly well.
Indeed, the Portuguese has nurtured a 58.73% win rate from 63 league games (accrued across Championship and Premier League) during his time at the Molineux.
When questioned about his goals at the helm of Wolves, Nuno comes across as patient, yet determined to build something special at the club:
“Wolves is a big club, through history, this is the first step to becoming a big club. I’ll have good times and bad times, it’s not about my expectations. What brought me here was not money, it was other things, the chance to create something.
“We do not create or look at our future. We try to control our present day by day, game by game, but with only one idea: To be better every day to create our identity, improve the quality of the players, that they feel increasingly able to compete at this level. Build a team.”
Nuno’s short time in management so far is particularly worthy of attention. Whilst having incorporated general principles from his time at other clubs into his tactics at Wolves, Nuno has been generally quite flexible in his approach with various squads.
At Rio Ave, the Portuguese steered the club to its first Europa League campaign by utilising a counter-attacking style that focused on the club’s pacy wingers.
At Valencia the focus changed. Nuno often lined up in either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 but was tactically flexible when it came to the bigger games. He chose a 3-5-2, for instance, against Madrid, which led to a 2-1 victory at the Mestalla in Valencia.
Likewise in Spain, width remained just as important for Nuno, with offensive full-backs playing an important part in opposition penetration and chance creation.
A return to his homeland of Portugal, and to Porto, brought on new challenges and a different way of playing.
At one of the ‘Big Three,’ Nuno was forced to think outside the box in order to break down teams inevitably playing a low block against a superior side. Although not quite as attractive as the football being played in Valencia, Nuno took a more direct approach to achieve results, making Porto one of the deadliest sides from crosses in the opposition box.
Nuno’s record against the top six of England certainly speaks for itself and the Portuguese’s ambitions with Wolves, having earned the most points against the Premier League’s top clubs (six points – one win, three draws, one loss).
Only Southampton (four points – one win, one draw, three losses) and West Ham come close (four points – one win, one draw, three losses).
So far, Wolves are one of only five clubs (outside of the top six) to have earned a win against any of the top six clubs – Wolves, Watford, West Ham, Brighton, and Southampton – a highly impressive feat for a newly promoted side.
“Their results have been unlucky there, lucky there. They did really well and I respect that a lot the way. The way they try to stay to in the league is really special. They do it in a football way.”
– Jurgen Klopp
What has underlined Wolves’ success in the Premier League is the use of a consistent formation and clever transitions.
At the Molineux, Nuno has adopted, for the most part, a more nuanced 3-4-3, to great effect against reigning champions, Manchester City, for example.
The current set-up at Wolves is comparable to that used in Spain, with some tactical tweaks.
Against City, Wolves lined up with three central defenders, two deep central midfielders with two wing-backs either side, and two inside-forwards operating alongside the forward.
One of the centre-backs – generally former Liverpool man Conor Coady – is tasked with fulfilling the role of bringing the ball out to distribute to the wide areas in counter-attacks.
In the City game, Wolves used Willy Boly in this role, which encouraged City players to close them down further in their half and helped create space behind City on the flanks that Wolves could exploit.
The two deep-lying central midfielders play a particularly important role in this Wolves side, allowing the team to transition quickly from a 3-4-3 into a low midfield block of 5-4-1, with the two wing-backs dropping alongside the defence and two inside forwards beside the midfield.
This transition when defending funnels opposition attacks towards the middle of the pitch and gives Wolves deep midfielders an opportunity to regain the ball in their half.
Upon regaining possession, the wing-backs tend to spring away from the back three to launch a quick counter attack using the available width.
I’d expect Wolves to set up the same way come Friday aiming to frustrate whilst patiently carving out the opportunities as they arise.
Expect a tough fixture.