Tactical Watch: Resurgent Wolves bring flexibility


Sam Tighe highlights the reasons behind Wolves' recent upturn under Julen Lopetegui ahead of their visit to Southampton this weekend.

Wolves have looked like a team transformed of late. With a new manager, Julen Lopetegui, and a host of new signings through the door in January, things are feeling very different at Molineux when compared to the early months of the season.

They arrive at St Mary’s on the back of a 3-0 win over Liverpool. It was a game that was pretty much decided in the first 15 minutes, with Wolves starting fast and racing into a two-goal lead, and the first lesson to heed from that is that their opening intensity will need to be matched.

In Pablo Sarabia, Matheus Cunha, Craig Dawson and ex-Saint Mario Lemina, they have fresh faces breathing energy into the team; all are eager to make an impact from the first whistle.

It’s difficult to think of a time where Wolves felt more tactically flexible than this. Their strong Premier League sides built by Nuno Espírito Santo and then Bruno Lage were easily identifiable by their steady formation (3-4-3 under Nuno, 4-3-3 under Lage) but Lopetegui has switched things up regularly.

He’s used 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 and back three shapes already, changed the full-backs, pushed central midfielder Matheus Nunes wide to the left and even unleashed Rúben Neves in a more attacking role at times.

It’s the Neves role change that’s most notable: he’s been one of the league’s finest deep-lying playmakers for some time now, but he’s now combining those possession skills with attacking runs and, against Liverpool, goals. Adding Lemina to the midfield has provided the balance to allow that to happen.

Cunha’s an unorthodox No. 9 who will look to drop and drift, receive the ball and then dribble. He hasn’t tended to be a striker who anchors the team in goalscoring – more one that brings the best out of an attacking midfield corps and helps them all contribute.

Set-pieces are always key, but when you’re up against Craig Dawson, you have to be particularly wary. The towering centre-back scored his 19th Premier League goal on his debut for Wolves last week against Liverpool.

Pressing Wolves is quite difficult, as Nunes and Neves in particular are extremely good at shimmying away from pressure and challenges. Nathan Jones has hinted that we’ll see a more aggressive Southampton side here, but a balance will have to be struck.

Sarabia’s off-the-ball movements will prove a challenge for Southampton’s defenders, who must be constantly switched on not only to track him, but to watch for Neves’s runs too. Traoré’s brute-force dribbling style offers another, very different thing to think about too – particularly when the game breaks down into transition.

Sá; Semedo, Dawson, Kilman, Aït-Nouri; Traoré, Neves, Lemina, Nunes; Sarabia, Cunha.

-Julen Lopetegui may be tempted to switch shapes again, but the 4-4-2 worked well against Liverpool

-Hwang Hee-Chan has injured his hamstring; Adama Traoré will probably step in for him

-Hugo Bueno, João Moutinho and Raul Jiménez are all pushing for a spot in the XI

-Craig Dawson looks to have taken Nathan Collins’s place in defence for now