Only 18-years-old, Fábio Silva likely didn’t expect to feature much for Wolves during his first season in England. Despite Wolves paying a big fee, considering how little senior football he’d played, he wasn’t bought to start yet. But after Raúl Jiménez ‘s injury, Silva found himself thrust into the starting eleven. At least until January.
In January, Wolves loaned Willian José from Real Sociedad. Silva was back on the bench. The Brazilian forward has since made ten appearances, with nine starts, but is yet to find the net for Wolves. The Midlands club only have nine games left. They’ve got little to play for and a somewhat kind run-in. It makes it worth asking: why don’t Wolves give Fábio Silva the minutes until the end of the season?
The data used for Raúl Jiménez is from 2019/20 to use a larger sample size
The Case for Willian José
If it was going to be tough for Fábio Silva to fill the boots of Jiménez, it was perhaps worse for Willian José. Silva has age on his side. If he wasn’t able to perform to the standard set by Wolves’ number nine, it wouldn’t be an immediate concern. Wolves signed him for the long-term. But that’s not true for Willian José. After a poor start and a faltering attack, Wolves brought in Willian José to help fire them up the table. Across three and a half seasons with La Real, he’d averaged 0.45 npxG + xA per 90. Not far behind the 0.50 per 90 that Jiménez has averaged with Wolves in the Premier League.
He offers more physicality up-front than Silva and, for lack of a better term, is ‘cleaner’ on the ball. He’s able to take the ball down or lay it off to teammates with more efficiency than the teenager. Though pass completion rates are void of context, not taking into account the difficulty of the pass, there is a sizable difference between Willian José and Silva. Even between Willian José and Jiménez. The difference becomes more apparent when looking at passes of varying lengths. For short passes, between five and fifteen yards, both Jiménez and Silva hover around an 82% completion. Not far behind the 87.3% of Willian José. But the difference grows as the passes get longer.
Willian José has completed medium-length passes, those between fifteen and thirty yards, 88.2% of the time. The other two forwards don’t break 80%, both with figures in the mid-to-high 70s. The difference between Willian José and Silva for long passes, over thirty yards, is huge. Granted there aren’t a huge number of attempts, but Willian José has completed long passes 86.4% of the time. Jiménez completed them 60.3% of the time and Silva 38.9% of the time.
It’s questionable how much to take from the above. After all, it’s not the striker’s role to play long passes. But it helps show how Willian José has done a better job of retaining the ball up-front. This ability is further evident when looking at miscontrols and dispossessions. Adding these figures together, Willian José has lost the ball 3.21 times per 90, less than both Jiménez and Silva. Jiménez lost it 4.59 times per 90 last season and Silva has lost it 5.13 times per 90.
There’s not much to criticise when it comes to Willian José hold-up and link-up play. He’s offered a more physical presence and has been efficient. He can find pockets of space or he can receive the ball with his back to goal, hold off the defender and either lay the ball back or spread it out wide. But, while Willian José has been more efficient, Silva has been more productive.
The Case For Fábio Silva
Where Silva can’t compete with Willian José’s efficiency on the ball, the Brazilian can’t compete with Silva’s production in front of goal. He’s only got two non-penalty goals (both in 3-2 home defeats), but he’s got into goalscoring positions more than anyone else. His expected goal figures are even better than Raúl Jiménez’s.
In the Premier League Silva has averaged 0.37 npxG per 90. It’s not a big sample size and, to make it worse, it’s a sample with lots of substitute appearances. If he came on and had a big chance as a substitute, like in the home match against Leicester for instance, it could skew the figures given the small sample size. But, looking only at the six games he started, his npxG in those games was 0.33 per 90. Both of these figures are strong for a teenager playing in a side without a strong attack.
For some reference Raúl Jiménez had an npxG of 0.33 per 90 in 2019/20. This took a dip to 0.26 per 90 in the early stages of 2020/21. Willian José hasn’t been able to compete with any of these figures. He’s managed only 0.17 npxG per 90. Silva has not only gotten better chances than Willian José, but also Jiménez. That’s no mean feat. If a common excuse for Willian José’s poor showing in front of goal is the lack of service, how is it Silva has been productive in front of goal?
Yes, he’s squandered some chances, the late chances against Leicester and Tottenham at home for instance, but he’s also the only player getting chances. He has strong movement and awareness but the execution may not always be there. But that’s to be expected from an 18-year-old.
It’s hard to find figures to support this, but his movement often feels more ‘urgent’ than Willian José’s. If the ball is wide, Silva will make a run across the near post to offer an option in the box. He’s had a couple of shots with this run, but it can also help move defenders in the box. Pedro Neto’s goal away at Arsenal came thanks to this movement. Silva ran to the near post and dragged David Luiz with him. This created a 2v1 with Leander Dendoncker and Pedro Neto against Héctor Bellerín. Dendoncker’s header rattled the bar and Neto converted the rebound.
There’s also an argument that a striker who runs the channels will benefit Wolves. Wolves had a direct runner in Diogo Jota who, both with and without the ball, would look to move towards goal and commit defences. Pedro Neto has been a standout performer but doesn’t offer that same quality. For the pace that both Neto and Adama have, they often look to receive the ball to feet and carry it, rather than looking to run in behind and stretch defences. Silva can drop deep and link play but seems to mix it up more than Willian José, running into the channels too. Willian José’s hold-up play would be more productive if he had players running in beyond him and offering a goal threat, but none of Wolves’ current attackers have displayed that.
Not only has Silva looked more active when his team is in possession, but he’s also been more active when Wolves don’t have the ball. Wolves don’t press a lot. Looking at opposition touches per pressure in the final third, they rank as one of the most passive teams in Europe. Despite this, in the past at least, they have been able to create chances after winning the ball back. They’ve picked opportunities to press and the likes of Raúl Jiménez and Diogo Jota have profited from it. With Wolves not pressing much, it’s not a problem in the short-term if Willian José isn’t active off the ball. But it’s nice to have the option and Silva supplies that more than Willian José. The Portuguese forward has made 15.4 pressures per 90. It’s less than Jiménez’s 16.3 but quite a bit more than Willian José’s 10.1.
The drawback for Wolves playing Silva would be the lack of physicality up-front. It’s a fair complaint. Like pass completion, this is without any context but, Willian José has won 41.5% of his aerial duels. Silva has won 26.0%. It not only leaves Wolves without a focal point to play long to from the back but without an aerial option in the box for the likes of Neto and Adama to pick out. Though Silva’s movement can earn him chances, like his late header against Tottenham, Wolves would need more support in the box from someone like Dendoncker should they want to play a crossing game. But, despite Silva offering less of a focal point, that hasn’t stopped him from receiving the same amount of progressive passes as Willian José.
Wolves haven’t had a season to remember. Their non-penalty expected goals conceded hasn’t moved much from the previous two seasons, but their attack has faltered. Not only did they lose Diogo Jota and Matt Doherty, who played a significant role in their expected goal production, they also lost Raúl Jiménez to injury. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. Wolves’ attack started to falter post-lockdown, not post-Raúl Jiménez’s injury. The graph below is both ugly and out of date (the 4-1 loss to Manchester City is the last game in there) but shows this trend. Wolves’ attack dipped post-lockdown and hasn’t recovered. The problem wasn’t as noticeable because the defence was great. But the defence has returned to being closer to their average since gaining promotion (which is still pretty good).
Wolves now find themselves with little to play for. They can’t challenge for Europe and likely won’t get relegated. Sure they might want to finish as high as possible, put in a late charge to at least get top half, but that’s unlikely to be a big motivation to anyone. It’d be tempting to say they could treat these games as a trial for the future. If Nuno wants to transition to four at the back, he’s got nine games to try it out with little consequence.
In the same vein, you can argue it’d be in their better long-term interest to give Fábio Silva the minutes from now until the end of the season. He hasn’t got many minutes of senior football. The opportunity to start nine games and get over 1500 Premier League minutes could be good for his development. But it’s not only the long-term benefits that should tempt Wolves to give him the minutes. No one has been as productive in front of goal as the teenager has for them. Despite playing for a faltering attack, he’s still managed to have chances. Sure, he may not be as tidy or physical as Willian José, but if the trade-off is Wolves manage to create more chances while helping a talented young player develop, it seems like something they should be doing.