Bleacher Report’s Sam Tighe assesses Wolves’ tricky start to the Premier League season, and how Southampton’s next opponents bounced back in style with a spectacular win at the home of the champions…
Thanks to one of the finest weeks in the club’s history, the feeling surrounding Wolverhampton Wanderers’ start to the season has transformed for the better.
A poor start to the Premier League season saw them go winless in six, Europa League duties perhaps blurring match preparation and stretching the squad, but they’ve recovered, booking brilliant back-to-back victories against Besiktas and Manchester City to get the ball rolling for 2019/20.
This has come about after manager Nuno Espírito Santo adapted his tactical approach for the first time in close to a year; while hardly inflexible when it comes to Xs and Os, he does drain every drop out of his systems before moving on.
It means this weekend Southampton will face a new-look Wolves, a team who are far less predictable than versions past, presenting a fresh problem for Ralph Hasenhüttl to solve.
NEWLY VERSATILE: 3-5-2 or 3-4-3?
From December 2018 through to September 2019, Wolves only really used one formation: the 3-5-2.
It featured a physical yet technically sound midfield trio of João Moutinho, Rúben Neves and Leander Dendoncker behind a free-roaming Diogo Jota and a target striker in Raúl Jiménez.
It gave them a platform to control the flow of games – either on or off the ball – be defensively very sound and create space for their attackers to utilise. All at once.
But the early stages of this season saw the system struggle. Predictable teams are easy to prepare for and Wolves fell foul of that, so Nuno switched it up.
He deployed a 3-4-3 against Reading in the Carabao Cup with success; it’s a formation the team used in the Championship and in the very early stages of last season, but had been left with dust gathering on it since 2018. That sparked a mini run of wins.
He then switched back to the 3-5-2 for the trip to Manchester City, a rapier-like counter-attacking showing dealing damage as the eight defenders held on at the other end.
Particularly impressive here was Adama Traoré – not just for his cool late finishing, but for his defensive work rate too.
Reading probably expected a 3-5-2 look. Manchester City probably expected a 3-4-3.
Wolves have reaped the rewards of being both unpredictable in the build-up to games, then malleable during them, able to read and react tactically.
It gives opponents more things to consider and makes them harder to prepare for.
STILL A PROBLEM: Crosses into the box
There’s an argument that shifting from 3-5-2 to 3-4-3 was an effort to make Wolves a more potent attacking force, a way to increase the role played by Traoré, a way to kick the likes of Jota and Jiménez into gear.
There’s an even stronger argument that the shift in shape was intended to address the leaking defence.
Last season they conceded just 46 goals in 38 Premier League games (1.2 per game); this season, through the first six games, they’d conceded 11, averaging out at an alarming 1.8 per game.
Two clean sheets have followed the change in shape, signalling success, but they’re still susceptible in ways Southampton can take advantage of, most notably – and perhaps surprisingly – by crossing balls into the box.
Despite fielding three at the back (which forms a five when deep), Nuno’s men have consistently struggled when their opponents go wide of them and cross.
Firstly in failing to stop the cross, then secondly by losing duels and headers, we’ve seen Reading, Chelsea, Everton, Torino and more teams find ways past Rui Patrício as a result.
Southampton’s average of 17 crosses per game is higher than you might expect given the side’s smaller stature, but Danny Ings is surprisingly efficient in the air and Ché Adams offers a more physical presence in the box.
Hasenhüttl may well opt to field his best crossers on Saturday, hoping to take advantage of a noted weak point in Wolves’ rearguard.