Wolves 21/22 #2

It’s hard to write about the Tottenham game without rehashing points from the Leicester match. Not only was the scoreline the same, it was another game with positives to draw from the performance, but Wolves still need to find a way to improve in the final third and engineer better quality shots.

It was also another game where there was much to like about how Wolves defended. The move from a passive defensive style to a more active one can have significant teething problems. Images of André Villas-Boas’ Chelsea losing 5-3 to Arsenal come to mind, with John Terry and Branislav Ivanović running back to their own goal having been left exposed. Despite facing two sides that have pace to threaten on the counter, Wolves’ centre-backs haven’t been under much duress.

Anytime I use a number, imagine it’s followed by: ‘but it’s only two games, plus the game state can play a big part in these figures’. But, using numbers from The Analyst, Wolves have recorded 21 high turnovers in their opening two matches — the most in the league. It’s almost double the 5.4 per match from last season, which was the 2nd lowest in the division. Using data from FBRef, Wolves have pressured 19.3% of touches outside their defensive third. It’s not a huge increase on last season’s 16.5%, but the passivity in the first half against Leicester drags it down. Against Tottenham, with Wolves more positive from the beginning, they pressured 23.3% of touches. For some reference, Leeds’ figure for this measure last season was 27.9%. Though I wouldn’t expect Wolves to match the intensity of Bielsa’s side, Lage already looks to have gotten Wolves to be more active without the ball.

Against Tottenham, Wolves didn’t look too interested in pressing the centre-backs but focused on hunting the ball when Tottenham broke the midfield line. It wasn’t unusual to see João Moutinho up alongside Raúl Jiménez, marking the Spurs midfield duo Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Oliver Skipp. It opened up some space in the midfield, but the defenders were aggressive in leaving their line and stopping Spurs players from receiving the ball comfortably. Wolves looked to get onto loose balls from these situations and attack Spurs in transition.

Perhaps the biggest benefactor from the approach was Rúben Neves. Neves made 11 progressive passes, with 3 of those going into the box. It’s a steep increase from the ~4 per 90 before now. Not a great omen, but the only time he’s managed more than that in a Premier League match was the 4-0 loss to West Ham last season.

Neves has proved to be an interesting case since Wolves won promotion. Much of the talk around him in the Championship revolved around how he wouldn’t post great passing completion rates because he often tries risky passes. Since then, Wolves have become known for having a midfield that doesn’t get the ball forward often.

@DoublePivotPod have discussed Neves a couple of times in recent months. They mentioned that his progressive passing figures had a slight uptick, perhaps because he’s taking the mantle from Moutinho as the one to move the ball up the pitch, with Moutinho getting on a bit. It’s almost suggesting Neves has switched roles from his first season in Old Gold.

In the Championship, Romain Saïss was Neves’ midfield partner. The Moroccan international could be the ball-winner of the two, freeing Neves to play riskier passes and get a bit further forward. Both Neves and Moutinho tend to post similar figures for defensive activity and progressive passes, but Moutinho is more likely to combine with the attackers. He rarely ventured into the box but would hang around in the left half-space. Except for some games last season, when Neves made some runs into the box from deep, Neves was often the one that was deeper and more defensive-minded.

With Wolves having less possession in the Premier League and his new partner being Moutinho, perhaps Neves sacrificed aspects of his game to help Wolves be more defensively resolute? There’s no way of knowing, but it seems odd for someone with little-to-no restraint in his shooting to have concerns about a risky pass, even more so when there’s previous evidence of him being more adventurous in possession.

There’s another argument that Wolves didn’t rely on the likes of Adama and Pedro Neto to progress the ball, but it was a choice. In his opening two matches with Tottenham, Nuno’s side have looked more progressive through the carries of Steven Bergwijn than the passing of the midfield. There’s also an argument about the suitability of Tottenham’s (starting) midfield to be progressors, but maybe that’s what Nuno wants? Rather than having the midfield push the ball forward, they only have to hand it off to the attackers, who get on their bike and go.

Returning to Neves, the risk-taking didn’t get off to a great start. Not only did he get caught high a couple of times and help Tottenham run in on the defence, his wayward pass led to Tottenham’s penalty. But the 24-year-old grew throughout the game and displayed both a strong passing range and defensive tenacity. With Spurs fielding a narrow midfield and a front three who stayed forward, the switch was on for Neves to play in Marçal down the left a few times. Unfortunately, the Brazilian offered little going forward other than his presence, but it felt closer to the Neves we saw in the Championship. Even the misplaced risky passes felt like an improvement on many games from the past couple of seasons.

It’s not to say there isn’t a middle ground; you don’t want Neves to start firing off long balls every other pass, but giving him some freedom to try and progress the ball can benefit Wolves. With Lage, there feels a greater emphasis on the attackers running in behind. With Nuno, as it has been for Tottenham in their first two matches, it often feels the danger on the counter comes from players receiving the ball deeper and running at an unsettled defence — not having them run in behind, stretching the defence. A lack of running in behind was even more commonplace after Wolves sold Diogo Jota, who was the one attacker who would try and get in behind more often. Lage’s opening two matches have been a bit different. There looks to be a greater emphasis on having the forwards, particularly Adama, make runs in behind on transitions. If Wolves nick the ball in midfield, the wide players have made runs, and players like Neves have had opportunities to try and hit the ball in behind a disorganised defence.

Crossing the data streams, Neves made eight recoveries against Tottenham, according to WyScout, the fourth most for Wolves. More interesting is the fact all were in the opposition half. On FBRef, he’s made a similar number of defensive actions to last season, but with more coming in advanced areas. He’s still averaged ~20 pressures per 90, but four have moved from the defensive third to the middle third. He’s attempted one more tackle per 90 in his opening two games, but now the majority are in the middle third rather than the defensive third.

Unless there’s truth in the links to Manchester United, it’ll be interesting to see how Neves’ game changes under Lage and how much of his safe style was down to the previous system. Without possession, it’ll be worth following how he copes with being a more front-footed defender and whether it creates further opportunities for his passing.

Elsewhere for Wolves, many of the same problems persist. They moved the ball into dangerous areas but failed to engineer chances from those situations. Forty touches in the box is huge for Wolves, having bettered it just three times in three seasons, making it no surprise they posted strong non-shot xG figures again. But their attacking game looked to consist of hitting hopeful crosses into a box with few Wolves bodies. The wing-backs got forward but often hit early, deep crosses with only Jiménez as a target. They took a good quantity of shots, but the quality was lacking. You get the impression Spurs weren’t worried about suppressing shots but only suppressing good ones.

It doesn’t get any easier for Wolves with Manchester United around the corner, but it might not be all doom and gloom either. United have similar problems to Tottenham when it comes to progression from midfield, perhaps leaving them vulnerable to being pressed. Wolves have had a rough start, but the fixtures become more favourable after the third match. Lage looks to have done a lot of work increasing the intensity out of possession, and Wolves have threatened in transition, but he still has to try and find a way of creating better chances from sustained possession.

A few quick thoughts that I didn’t have enough on to write about above:

  • Marçal has done well defensively. It looks like he often has a lot of ground to cover, with Adama staying a bit higher for counters, but he doesn’t look to offer much going forward. You worry whether this could be a problem the more possession Wolves have.
  • Speaking of Marçal, it was bold of Wolves to leave him as the only player back for a couple of corners in the first half. One kick over the top from Lloris almost sent Bergwijn in. There was also a repeat later on, though Neves not being alert to Bergwijn’s run and Coady misjudging the flight of the ball didn’t help.
  • Wolves did a good job of being aggressive when Tottenham played into their attackers’ feet, but you wonder how this approach would cope with a more physical forward who had runners in support. Wolves have looked susceptible to physical forwards in the past. The space in midfield, plus lack of pace at the back, could be more exposed playing direct into a physical forward, who can hold the ball up and drag the centre-backs around, rather than having players running at the defence. Harry Kane starting or coming on earlier could have helped answer this, but I guess we’ll have to wait a bit longer to find out.

Data from StatsBomb via FBRef