Anybody who loves watching football will have loved watching Wolverhampton Wanderers this season. They are on course for a Top 7 finish and are through to the semi-finals of the FA Cup after a comprehensive victory against a resurgent Manchester United. They excite and entertain us whilst delivering the sort of steely, resilient performances we’d usually expect from Premier League stalwarts. They do all of this with an air of exuberance and quality that we’re frankly not used to seeing from newly promoted sides.
You’d have to go as far back as Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United who finished 3rd in 1993/94 for the last team we witnessed a team cause as much of a stir in their maiden season in the Premier League. More recently, we had the Reading FC in 2006/07 who finished a very impressive 8th. The difference is that Reading were spearheaded by players like Dave Kitson and Stephen Hunt…Their success was noteworthy but it wasn’t sustainable and there was certainly an element of fluke behind it.
Wolves on the other hand boast a remarkable array of talent – their midfield trio of Moutinho, Neves and Dendoncker wouldn’t look out of place in a Champions League final. In Raul Jimenez they have a two-time Portuguese Primeira Liga winner, and Rui Patricio is a Euro 2016 winning goalkeeper.
The principal difference between this season’s Wolves side and the aforementioned Reading 06/07 is not only that their squad oozes with genuine talent, but the fact that they are willing and able to go toe-to-toe with the league’s elite teams. Reading managed to take just 2 points off of the ‘Big Four’ (as they were then), whereas Wolves have already picked up 10 points against this season’s ‘Big Six’ with 3 fixtures remaining against them.
So how are they doing it? An evident willingness to make every game a contest may seem like naivety to a side who was playing Championship football last year, but the fact remains that Wolves appear to have adopted a system that enables them to consistently challenge against the top teams in the division. The recent tweak to that system, moving from a 3-4-3 to a 3-5-2 seems to be bringing the best out of Wolves as a team and as individuals.
Every so often, there is a new (or regenerated) system introduced into the Premier League which catches teams by surprise as they’re forced to figure out how to break it down. Leicester’s compact yet enterprising 4-4-2 took the entire league by storm in 15/16. Just a year later it was Conte and Chelsea’s 3-4-3 which had teams scratching their heads. This season it appears to be Wolves’ 3-5-2 which has foiled many a manager. A fantastic balance of discipline, guile and chaos.
If we look at their recent draw away at Chelsea, we are able to see some obvious examples of Wolves’ character traits this season.
Image A displays the rigidity and togetherness that is Wolves without the ball. Their back 3 has been mightily impressive all season, marshalled by club captain Conor Coady (who must now be on Southgate’s radar). Wide fullbacks Jonny and Doherty quickly retreat into a back 5, and the midfield 3 sits in deep to form an imposing wall of gold. If Hazard pulls out wide to occupy Doherty, then Dendoncker can approach Emerson in possession, safe in the knowledge that he has Saiss and Neves behind him picking up any runners. The front 2 of Jota and Jimenez work tirelessly all game. One of the two will go out to press the player on the ball, while the other makes sure that Jorginho is cut off as a passing option. This forces teams to conjure up moments of magic in order to really test Wolves. The tight back 5 and deep lying midfield 3 means that the fabled ‘half-spaces’ are minimised, and the onus is on the attacking team to provide real flashes of quality – something which Eden Hazard unsurprisingly managed to do; something which Manchester United laboriously failed to do.
In a physically demanding league, Wolves currently rank 1st in ‘tackles made’ – underlining the hunger and desire of the individuals, as well as the pack-like mentality of the team.
In stark contrast to the regimented discipline of their defense, Image B highlights the benefits of their 3-5-2 formation. What was a 5-3-2 immediately becomes a 3-5-2, with the wide players racing to join the attack. They can do so with relative freedom, knowing that one of the midfield 3 can and will cover for them should they get caught in possession. Jimenez and Jota are excellent with ball at feet and appear to be developing a telepathic connection. This is largely built on trust and belief in their own quality and has directly led to recent breakaway goals against Chelsea and Manchester United.
Images C and D are perfect examples of the two core successes Wolves have had going forward this season. When you have ball-players like Neves and Moutinho and willing runners like Jonny and Doherty, a ball into the channels is always on. As soon as they win possession back, the immediate thought is how can we exploit spaces in the most efficient and quickest way possible?
Teams are used to being counterattacked, but being counterattacked with this much precision, quality and heart? It’s a system that has rocked everyone bar Liverpool and, remarkably, Huddersfield (funny old game, football) and it’s a testament to the work that Nuno Espírito Santo has put in all season to announce his team as one of European football’s most intriguing prospects. He has shown tactical nous and managed to execute his game plans with precision whilst at the same time demonstrating his flexibility and openness to change, unlike his much maligned counterpart in the Chelsea dugout.
It may be difficult for Wolves to keep hold of their best players in the summer, such has been their impact on this season, but with a few shrewd additions to a thriving squad, we could be looking at serious and welcome challengers to English football’s long-standing ‘Big Six’.