The Bruno Lage era at Wolves got underway on Saturday, as the West Midlands club lost 1-0 to Leicester. The result may not have gone in Wolves’ favour, but to wheel out the overused saying, there were positives to take from the performance.
Wolves lined up in what’s become their typical 3-4-3 formation. José Sá started his first game in goal, while Francisco Trincão was the only new outfield player in the starting line-up. If you had better things to do over the summer than follow the latest Wolves news, you might not think they had changed their manager. There wasn’t a dramatic shift in formation, with Lage not opting for the 4-4-2 shape that he used at Benfica and experimented with in pre-season, and not enough of a stylistic change to make you sit up and pay attention.
But, mainly because I’m trying to write more consistently this season (again), there were still talking points from Lage’s first game.
A regular criticism of Nuno Espírito Santo, at least towards the end of his reign, was how passive his Wolves side were in looking to win the ball back. When looking at metrics like PPDA or percentage of touches pressured outside the defensive third, Wolves were usually towards the bottom end of the table. From more of a mid-block approach in their debut Premier League season, Wolves seemed to retreat a bit more as each season passed.
In lots of ways, it’s understandable. Wolves had pacy attackers and not so pacy centre-backs. A high-line could leave the likes of Conor Coady or Romain Saïss exposed, but playing deeper gives players like Adama Traoré, Pedro Neto and Diogo Jota space to thrive. Nuno essentially building the team means his decision had more choice, but with Lage inheriting the team, he may have his hands tied in how he chooses to defend with the personnel available.
Against Leicester, Wolves didn’t look active in winning the ball back, especially in advanced areas, but instead found themselves in more of a mid-block. The Foxes were untroubled passing the ball around the centre circle, but Wolves tried to pounce when they moved it forward, with Marçal and Saïss on the left being the players more likely to leave the defensive line to pressure should the ball break through the midfield line.
An outlet for Leicester was the ball to Ricardo Pereira on the right, as Traoré stayed narrow when out of possession. When this happened, Marçal would push up the line to stop Ricardo from bringing the ball forward. Saïss would also push up to mark Ayoze Pérez, who often drifted inside from the right and roamed between the lines.
Seconds before the six-minute mark, Saïss pinched the ball back from Ayoze Pérez, following Ricardo’s pass infield and set Traoré on the counter. Nothing came of it, but it may have shown Wolves’ intention in defence and wish to keep Traoré further forward and closer to Raúl Jiménez. On the opposite flank, Trincão tended to keep a closer eye on Luke Thomas than Traoré did with Ricardo.
In the fifteenth minute, this aggression from Wolves’ left-side helped produce a scare, as Jamie Vardy scored a disallowed goal. Youri Tielemans carried the ball past Jiménez and dragged João Moutinho enough for Pérez to receive the ball in a bit of space. Saïss left the defensive line to pressure the Spaniard but was too late. Pérez slid the ball back to Tielemans, who could move in on an exposed Wolves backline. The Belgian midfielder had both Jamie Vardy and James Maddison making runs in behind and played the ball through for the former. It was a clear offside for Vardy, but perhaps a warning for the away side.
In the second half, as they chased an equaliser, Wolves pushed further forward. The PPDA figures from WyScout reflect this shift. In the first half, Wolves had a PPDA of 31.8, compared to 8.8 in the second half. Leicester also went from having 6.62 passes per possession in the first half to 4.14 in the second.
In the first half, Moutinho would often be higher than Rúben Neves when out of possession. It created space behind Moutinho, which Saïss would cover by leaving the defensive line. In the second half, though, Neves was more in line with Moutinho. There’s risk involved, as it can leave the midfield open, but the trade-off is that it makes it harder for Leicester to move the ball into the space created. For the most part, Wolves coped well. There were a few occasions when Leicester bypassed the midfield, but Wolves still had three centre-backs and a covering wing-back who could slow the attack down.
Whether Leicester being a goal up affected these numbers is also worth considering. Wolves looked to win the ball back higher, but Leicester may have also been happier to protect what they had and look to hit Wolves on the break.
Looking at some figures, which may not be advisable after just one game, there are positives to take from Wolves’ ability to keep Leicester out of dangerous areas.
Using data from FBRef, the first measure isn’t great. It conflates two things. To gauge how a team moves the ball forward, it looks at how many touches they take in the first two-thirds of the pitch per successful final third entry. The trouble is it measures both directness and efficiency. It’s an extreme example, but two sides could average 20 touches in the first two-thirds per final third entry and be completely different. One could take ten touches each attempt but only succeed half the time, while the other could take one touch and succeed once every twenty times. Last season Leicester averaged 12.2 touches per final third entry, Wolves’ opponents averaged 11.0. Against Wolves, Leicester took 20.1 touches per final third entry, a significant difference to both averages from last season.
FiveThirtyEight’s non-shot expected goals model supports the above figures. Last season Leicester averaged 1.18 non-shot xG per match, while Wolves’ opponents averaged 1.30. On the opening day, the home side managed just 0.9 non-shot xG. It’s likely not good practice to use a single game value in such a manner, but supporting these figures with a less fancy measure, Leicester had just 14 touches in the box. Last season Wolves allowed their opponents 24.4 touches in the box per match, while Leicester took 22.1. For some reference, Manchester City allowed 14.6 touches in the box per game last season. In a tough away game against one of the better sides in the league, you can’t ask for much more defensively. But Wolves’ issues have never been with the defensive side of their game.
Where are the goals going to come from?
Since returning to the Premier League in 2019, Wolves haven’t been known for their attack. They excelled by having a pretty average attack, but a defensive record to rival the top clubs. In fact, in 2019/20, it was the top clubs that rivalled them. Wolves’ 0.85 non-penalty xG conceded per 90 was the best in the league. 2020/21 saw them regress at both ends of the pitch. Their npxG conceded rose to a still-strong 1.05 per 90, but their npxG for dropped from 1.16 to 0.97, dealing them a double blow. Only Newcastle, West Brom, Crystal Palace and Sheffield United amassed fewer expected goals.
If there’s reason to be more optimistic about the new season, it’s the return of Jiménez. After selling Diogo Jota and Matt Doherty in 2020, the injury to Jiménez meant Wolves were without their top three expected goals contributors from the previous season. Molineux faithful will be glad to have the Mexican forward back, but he alone is unlikely to prove enough to turn Wolves’ fortunes around.
Besides Jiménez, it’s hard to see which of Wolves’ players are going to step up to become a regular goal threat. After he recorded six shots and a big miss against Leicester, there’s been some talk online that Traoré could be the man to step up and add a new dimension to his game. It’s not to say he can’t, but this seems a big overreaction to his performance against Leicester. His one-on-one came from Moutinho nicking the ball in midfield and playing him through, while a long ball over the top gave him probably not even a half-chance in the second half. His other four shots were the kind of shots that would earn him criticism in the past, a hopeful potshot at the end of a run.
On the other flank, Trincão looks as though he could be the player tasked with adding some goals to the Wolves attack. In the StatsBomb season preview for Wolves, @chewingthecocoa says the following about Trincão:
At Braga, Trincão ranked fourth in the Portuguese league in terms of longer carries that led to direct entries or passes into the penalty area and also produced 0.73 shots per 90 from longer carries — a higher figure that either Traoré or Neto managed last season. If he can get somewhere close to the overall figure of ~2.5 shots per 90 he posted at both Braga and Barcelona, he could prove an astute addition.
Those ~2.5 shots per 90 at Barcelona led to an npxG of 0.40 per 90, albeit from just 706 minutes, three starts and playing for a more dominant side. But, it makes him the only player in Wolves’ wide options with some history of being a goal threat. While at Wolves, Jota averaged 0.34 npxG per 90 in the Premier League, so the hope would be for Trincão to fill that void. He showed some nice flashes in his debut, especially when getting the ball to feet and combining with Ki-Jana Hoever, but only had one real effort on goal.
How Bruno Lage uses Fábio Silva will be worth watching throughout the season. Silva was thrust into the starting eleven after the injury to Jiménez, and though he looked raw and with some improvement needed in his hold-up play, he offered more movement up-front and more of a goal threat than anyone else. His 0.35 npxG per 90 puts him at an almost identical level to Jiménez and Jota for npxG contribution.
Silva played with Jiménez in pre-season as Lage experimented with a 4-4-2 shape, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll be wheeling that out in the league at the moment. There is a possibility Silva could work with Jiménez in a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2, as Silva’s movement could complement Jiménez’s. If that were to happen, though, only one of Traoré, Trincão, Daniel Podence and Pedro Neto (when he returns from injury) will be in the starting eleven — unless Traoré is given another run at wing-back.
Whether Lage can get the required uptick in Wolves’ attacking production will likely determine if he’s a success or not. The Leicester match may have helped quell fears that the defensive solidity Wolves have been built on won’t disappear overnight but, it likely did little to create optimism about the attacking prospects. They had 28 touches in the box, an impressive figure compared to the 20.0 of last season and 19.2 that Leicester’s opponents averaged, but struggled to turn those touches into good chances. If Wolves want to improve, Lage needs to find a way to get players with little history of being consistent goal threats to start contributing.
EDIT: Thinking over this post for the past couple of days, I may have been too downbeat on Wolves’ attacking performance. The touches in the box, non-shot xG and shot numbers were all quite strong, it was just the shot quality that was lacking. But with a few nearly moments (like when Traoré could have squared it to Jiménez) that could all have been different. Game state makes a difference for both sides, but there were definitely positive aspects in the attacking display. It’s disappointing Wolves had to go a goal down before being more positive, but with some nice interplay between the wing-backs and wingers to move up the pitch, plus there looking like a greater emphasis on getting the ball into the forwards and having them closer together, I probably shouldn’t be as gloomy as I sounded in the last paragraph.
Also, I originally posted this on Substack but copied it over to here. I’m debating trying something different this season where I regularly write about a couple of teams to try and keep a consistent output. Substack feels like a better platform for that and how streamlined it is helps, but the lack of HTML tables and video/GIF embedding also makes it feel limited. I might put everything on both while I decide which I prefer.