Sam Tighe previews Southampton's Premier League trip to Wolves in his latest Tactical Watch column, in association with Sportsbet.io.
Southampton return from the final international break of 2020 to find Wolves waiting for them at Molineux.
This trip to the west Midlands is one of the toughest on the Premier League schedule; they lost just four times at home last season and have only been beaten once this term – by Manchester City.
The pedigree of this side is illustrated by their deep run in the 2019/20 Europa League, reaching the quarter-finals before losing to eventual winners Sevilla.
Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men will need to summon the same excellence that saw them play Newcastle United off the park ahead of the break if they’re to record a result and make it seven unbeaten on the spin. Here are the three keys to victory to doing so…
The value of scoring first
Wolves are among the very finest in the art of protecting leads and managing games. That’s not to suggest they’re negative, no, more street smart enough to bide their time, keep things close and then strike at the right moment.
For them, the right moment quite often appears to be in the second half. Nine of their last 18 league games have been 0-0 at the break, Wolves often playing cagily and cautiously early on.
After the half-time team talk they snap into gear, though, upping the attacking ante, pushing more players forward and gunning for a lead they know they can protect – helped by the expiring game clock.
Last season they scored the first goal in 13 fixtures, winning 11 of those and drawing two. This season it’s been more of the same: scored first in four, won three, drawn one. That’s an unbeaten record stretching more than 15 months.
So somewhat obviously, scoring first against Wolves gives you a substantially better chance of beating them. That’s the case in most matches against most opponents, but it feels particularly important against Nuno Espírito Santo’s charges.
Two very different threats
Wolves clearly open up in an attacking sense in the second half as a team, but perhaps their uplift in threat can be directly attributed to one particular player: Adama Traoré.
Used off the bench this season more often than not (three starts, five substitute appearances), Adama’s electric speed and physical dribbling style is a nightmare for fresh defenders to deal with – let alone those being introduced to him after 60 or 70 gruelling minutes.
Raul Jiménez, one of the Premier League’s best all-round forwards, loves the Spaniard’s sprint-and-cross dynamic as it gives him deliveries to feed off that don’t often come until he steps onto the pitch. Adama can also simply go the distance himself, taking shots and drawing free-kicks or penalties as he’s chopped down.
For all of Wolves’ solidity, smartness and athleticism, they don’t tend to start games with too many clear goal threats on the pitch. This season it’s been Jiménez, Pedro Neto and Daniel Podence ahead of seven more workmanlike figures.
Adama gives them that fourth, fresh difference-maker. His introduction leads to a lot of Wolves’ play funnelling through him on their right flank—and it signals Nuno’s intent to turn a tight game into a win.
Wolves have conceded just nine goals this season – a record tied for the best defence in the league along with four other teams.
A look back at each one reveals a theme continued from last season: they’re tough to break down, with most goals either impressive set-piece strikes (like Jacob Murphy’s free-kick for Newcastle United) or crafty, incisive moves that would take anyone apart (like Phil Foden’s goal in Manchester City’s 3-1 win).
There was one game, though, in which a typically composed and confident Wolves defence split at the seams – in the eye-popping 4-0 loss to West Ham in September.
The catalyst for that was the direct, powerful running of Michail Antonio. His combination of speed and strength, plus his willingness to run straight down the throat of the defence – and even clamber over the centre-backs as he fought for the ball at times – rattled Conor Coady and co. to an extent we rarely see.
Not every club can claim to have a player in Antonio’s mould, but Saints can in Ché Adams. Similarly robust, direct and willing to battle, he will play a crucial role in unsettling Wolves’ defence and cause them to back off, rather than step forward.
Of course, Saints are also well capable of producing the slick, quick combinations Man City used to break through them too – as goals against Newcastle, Aston Villa, Everton and Chelsea lately have shown.