Wolves arent very popular in terms of TV coverage or YouTube highlights packages but their reputation for boring, defensive football is unwarranted
Nobody seems to be talking about Wolverhampton Wanderers, so much so you could be forgiven for failing to notice they have won four of their last five Premier League matches.
You might not even know they are only six points off the Champions League places with two games in hand.
Not even a 2-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur in north London – a result that saw them leapfrog Antonio Conte’s side – was enough to spark much talk about Bruno Lage and the season they are having.
This may partly be explained by how Covid-19 disruptions have made the league table hard to follow, but more likely it is because so few people are actually watching Wolves play and, when they do, it is easy to be lulled into a sense that nothing is really happening.
There have been just 38 goals in their 23 league games so far. They have kept 11 clean sheets and failed to score on nine occasions.
Wolves, inevitably, are often last on Match of the Day and are often skipped when YouTube recommends their highlights.
They are also only on TV when up against the ‘Big Six’, which means we only see them at their most defensively cautious.
All of that adds up to an idea of Wolves as dull and unknown – fostering a sense that their run at the top four is unserious.
But they have changed a lot since the Nuno Espirito Santo era, pushing higher up and committing to a more aesthetic brand of football despite their inability to score goals.
In short, they deserve our attention and, as genuine contenders to represent England in the Champions League next season, they deserve closer tactical analysis.
For the first few games of the season, Lage played an aggressive possession game while keeping Nuno’s 3-4-3, but after some poor results and porous defending in the transition, he quickly dropped the line a little and changed approach.
Wolves are still more progressive than last season – notably sitting 20 yards higher up the pitch and working the ball through the lines with greater frequency (more on that later) – but, by and large, they are still among the league’s most conservative in their defensive model.
Per FBRef, Wolves’ rank second in the Premier League for pressures in their own third, 13th for pressures in the middle third, and 20th for pressures in the attacking third – this is a clear indication of Lage’s intention to sit off teams.
His team will press briefly after losing the ball, but then will drop into a compressed midblock and patiently wait for the opponent to attempt to break them down.
Interestingly, their pressure stats are consistent with last season in the middle and attacking third (13th and 20th respectively) but Wolves are pressuring a lot more in their own third in 2021-22.
One of the biggest differences, then, is greater organisation and commitment; Lage’s team are significantly less open and passive, showing excellent coordination in remaining compact at all times – hence why only Manchester City have conceded fewer than their 17 goals.
This is reflected in the fact their PPDA – while still the 4th highest in the league, thanks to this stand-offish approach – has dropped from 19.93 last season to 14.34, with Wolves ranking second for interceptions (11 per game).
However, it should be noted that, according to understat.com, Wolves are over-performing their xGA by a remarkable 12.07, which is twice as many as the next biggest over-performer.
In other words, judging by average concessions from shooting positions, Wolves ‘should’ have conceded 12 more times.
Either they have simply been lucky that opponents are finishing badly or, more likely, this is a reflection on Jose Sa’s excellent goalkeeping.
Under Nuno, Wolves were far more direct than under Lage.
This season, they are looking to play one-touch football through the central midfielders, as opposed to those sweeping diagonals, and that is contributing somewhat to their lack of creativity.
Often Wolves can be too slow in possession, preferring to recycle the ball rather than counterattack in order to stay in their diligent, compact, positionally-specific defensive shape at all times.
This makes it very hard to break against Wolves because they are rarely disordered, but it can also heap too much on a central midfield duo to weave things together.
Watch Wolves for long enough and it’s clear these neat passing patterns are pre-determined, with the same set of moves repeated.
The most common is arguably using the inside forward and wing-back to create a triangle with a central midfielder on one side, before quickly switching play to the opposite wing-back.
Lage also regularly expects his centre-backs to cut a direct ground ball into the inside forwards, who are tasked with dominating the half-spaces, or Raul Jimenez – statistically their most creative player (1.3 key passes per game).
Jimenez is the fulcrum of the side, with Daniel Podence and Trincao expected to make runs ahead of him.
Put together, a lack of speed on the ball coupled with pre-set moves that can be studied and predicted saps Wolves of creativity.
It is notable that they rank 19th for crosses per game (they were second last year) and top the charts for dribbles by a considerable distance.
Too often they look to play on the ground and through the lines, creating stodginess, and too often they rely on individual dribbling to pierce the gelatinous blob of bodies.
However, Adama Traore’s alien dribbling stats distort this figure somewhat, and indeed a challenge for Wolves over the next three months is how to adapt without him.
Wolves attack down the right more than any other team in the division (42 per cent), and without Traore linking with Nelson Semedo, things could become even flatter.
But a lack of creativity (only Norwich have taken fewer shots) is hardly a criticism.
Wolves are having a magnificent season and Lage’s choice to prioritise safety over adventurous attacking is a perfectly valid one, while the higher line and neat passing interchanges make Wolves considerably more expansive –and interesting – than they were under Nuno.
And they are also far more reactive to the opposition threat.
Lage is unusually candid in post-match interviews regarding his tactical choices.
After playing Manchester United, he spoke at length about discovering the free man and using patient possession to poke holes in United’s press.
After the 2-0 win over Spurs, he explained his decision to add a third central midfielder in order to overwhelm Antonio Conte’s two.
Wolves certainly pressed harder and higher than usual last weekend, overwhelming Spurs for the first half an hour, while Leandro Dendoncker played in a hybrid midfield/inside forward role as the formation slipped between 3-4-2-1 and 3-5-2.
What it showed is that Lage is adaptable and that his well-drilled team is flexible to the unique challenges of each opponent.
This might not be entertaining for neutrals, and it might not lead to goals, but it makes Wolves into a savvy team that are very difficult to beat.