Sam Murphy takes a look at how Wolves set up and the impact it’s made on the team.
For all the expensive talent assembled at Wolves under Fosun, both on an off the pitch, there is one man that Wolves would not be top of the league without, Nuno Espirito Santo.
Nuno has been the singular most important factor in the outstanding start to the season that Wolves have experienced. His man management has seen the likes of Matt Doherty, and Connor Coady playing some of the best football of their Wolves careers, both playing in new positions.
Players like Ivan Cavaleiro and Romain Saiss are hungrier and have been more consistent this season than ever before. However the biggest difference and impact has come in the playing style, tactics and formation utilised by the former Porto keeper.
At the time of writing the only match that Nuno has even slightly changed is tactics is against the Premier League leaders Manchester City. That game, although the same formation on paper, was very much a defensive performance compared with the high possession, and quick movement that we have seen in the Championship.
Each game Wolves might win in a different way, through set-pieces or through counter-attack football but Wolves are set up always to keep possession, defend resolutely and attack with free-flowing one touch football.
In a matter of months Nuno has taken an influx of eleven new players combined these with some Kenny Jackett era players to produce Championship contenders. Several players brought in had played under Nuno before at other clubs in similar formations.
But to produce the levels of performance that has seen this team been described as the best Championship team ever (somewhat prematurely), Nuno has shown a masterclass in coaching a team into a playing style.
The formation has been drilled into the squad to such an extent that even a change in players does not alter how the formation works, or the style of football. The only exception to this is probably Neves, Doherty and Bonatini where there is no direct replacement to come into the side that would offer the same level of quality. Something Wolves will look to address in the January transfer market.
Jonathan Wilson quotes in his book Inverted Pyramid, Marcelo Bielsa the Newell’s Old Boys manager in the early 1990’s. He explained that ‘Football rests on four fundamentals… 1) Defence, 2) Attack, 3) how you move from defence to attack 4) how you move from attack to defence. The issue is trying to make those passages as smooth as possible.’
This formation has allowed Wolves to address those four passages of the game. It offers a strong base for which to play high-tempo, possession football. It gives Wolves the ability to both defend in numbers and transition into an attacking threat quickly. Bielsa also utilised the same formation, with Mauricio Pochettino playing the Connor Coady role in centre of a back three.
In contrast to previous seasons Wolves have a distinctive game plan and style. Key to this is the ability of wing-backs to be both attacking threats, and defensively sound. This takes an extremely high level of stamina, which the double sessions in pre-season must have helped to achieve.
When moving forward they can be both out and out wingers hugging the touchline but also providing an overlap for the likes of Jota, like a traditional full-back. Defensively they are able to form a back four or five when Wolves don’t have the ball providing a sound base for the team to not concede.
Between the three wing backs that have played this season, Vinagre, Doherty and Douglas, they have contributed fourteen goals and assists between them this season showing their importance to this system.
Wolves however defend in numbers and defend deep. The high pressing of Paul Lambert has been long discarded to the waste paper bin with Wolves first choice strategy to defend is to keep the ball.
Wing backs have contributed many of the assists for Wolves but the goals have come from the front three. The most important position for Wolves in the front three is the central striker. The position, with which Leo Bonatini has made his own since his arrival from Saudi Arabia, is fundamental to how Nuno’s system works.
That role relies on a striker who is at the same time unselfish and hungry to get into the six yard box to score. This striker allows the likes of Jota, and Cavaleiro to run off him at defenders with pace coming onto his one touch passes, and flicks on.
He act’s like an anchor for the other creative players to build from with an excellent first touch, and superb hold up play. His lack of pace is disguised by his ability to be in the right areas at the right time which has seen him score twelve goals this season.
The engine of the formation is the two midfielders at the heart of this team. The majority of the time they both sit deep with one of the two protecting the defence (Roman Saiss) allowing the other (Ruben Neves) a more pivotal, quarterback role. Ruben Neves arrived at Wolves with a big price tag but has shown his quality in his range of passing like a conductor with an orchestra.
When Neves plays well, Wolves play well. Neves ability to shift play quickly from one side of the pitch to the other allows Wolves to overload one area of the pitch. This frees up space in areas of the pitch where it is hard for opponents to recover defensively.
The change of formation for this season has been executed better than any fan could have hoped for. It is testament to allowing a manager with a vision, the right time in pre-season and the right recruitment strategy off the field to deliver on the pitch.
External onlookers will look to the large amounts of money spent with new owners and the well documented Jorge Mendes connections, as reasons for Wolves success. However this ignores the rapid, and successful transition Wolves have made into this formation under Nuno. Wolves are top of the Championship and it has as more to do with Nuno’s leadership and coaching than it does to the millions spent on wages and transfer deals.