Sam Tighe analyses a new-look Wolves side, who have revolutionised their style of play under Bruno Lage. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
On Sunday Southampton face a very different-looking Wolverhampton Wanderers to the one we’ve become accustomed to.
For years they’ve been a relatively cautious, solid, structured team with a clear preference for counter-attacking football. But in swapping Nuno Espírito Santo for compatriot Bruno Lage in the managerial dugout, winds of change have blown through Molineux.
Lage has set about installing a more attacking blueprint from both an on- and off-the-ball perspective. He encourages more bodies forward in attack and more risks to be taken, while he also coaches a more proactive pressing game than Nuno did.
It’s completely changed the feel of Wolves: they fly forward and attack with greater numbers, they engage and try to win the ball back higher up the pitch and there’s an underlying flair to some of their play too – though perhaps it has come at the expense of some solidity.
The numbers paint a pretty clear picture of all of this: Wolves’ PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action) – a metric used to measure how actively or passively teams defend – has gone from 15.9 last season (17th in the league) to 11.3 this term (7th).
They’ve also taken the third-most shots in the division through five games (82), bettered only by Liverpool and Manchester City, while they’ve attempted (130) and completed (93) the most take-ons in the division.
Much of that take-on work is courtesy of Adama Traoré, who continues to torch defenders on a weekly basis, driving forward into space, taking big touches in order to utilise his incredible explosiveness and strength. He’s embarked on some thrilling runs, blasting past markers and creating chaos as he drifts infield and out, stretching teams to the limit.
The shots have come from all over. Four players have hit double figures on that front, while three defenders have mustered at least five each. The problem is they’re struggling to hit the target: 82 shots shows great intent, but 36 have flown off-target (the second-most in the league). Traoré, Raúl Jiménez, Rúben Neves and Francisco Trincão have no goals to show for a combined 50 attempts.
That helps explain why there’s such a disconnect between Wolves’ performance levels and their position in the Premier League table. A lack of clinical edge in front of goal has soured some good showings, and the frustrations are being felt by the players; the way Jiménez removed and tossed his protective head gear to the ground against Brentford last weekend was telling.
Lage cycled through a series of different shapes and formations during pre-season but has consistently stuck to a 3-4-3 so far in the Premier League. A quiet summer means the back three, the wing-backs and the battle-hardened central midfield duo remain the same as last season.
The difference is up top. Jiménez’s return to the pitch after a horror head injury has been a feel-good story but patience is needed for him to return to his best; Traoré now plays as an inverted winger, meaning he hits the byline less and impacts the centre of the pitch more; and new addition Trincão is providing guile while Pedro Neto is injured.
It hasn’t quite clicked yet, but the underlying performance levels suggest it will soon enough. Southampton’s task is to delay that by at least another week.