As the resident Portuguese writer, I was summoned to provide you with a Wolverhampton preview – one of two international teams in the Premier League this season, alongside Welsh side Cardiff City. And with that obvious joke out of the way we should get down to business. Especially since Wolves aren’t playing around: they might just be the team to watch out for in the Premier League this season. They are the most powerful side to come out of the Championship in recent memory. It’s not only their current player and managerial quality but also their project for the future – this is a side looking to get into Europe sooner rather than later and it’ll be fascinating to watch how they adapt to the top tier.
Ex-Porto and Valencia manager Nuno Espirito Santo set up his side in a 3-4-3, shifting from a 5-4-1 without the ball all the way to a 3-2-5 when creating offensively. Conor Coady was the key piece in the tactical set-up since Nuno converted the English midfielder to a ball-playing central center back role. All three defenders need ability on the ball, as Wolves try to consistently control matches, but Coady’s ability to act as almost a third midfielder was important. The midfield duo was primarily tasked with defensive work, making up for two very attacking wing-backs. They made the team difficult to break down through the center, constantly ready to win the ball back and verticalize with their passing – often towards space out wide.
The wing-backs provided width in a very offensive role – often turning the side into a 3-2-5 on the opposition half. The front-trio always maintained a lot of mobility, with either two inside forwards – freely moving between the half-spaces and getting into finishing positions in the box – alongside a central striker acting as the focal point of the team, or just three mobile forwards. The former version is what we’re likely going to see more often in the Premier League since they added an extra striker in the summer. Their usage of a striker with good hold-up play, who can win duels and provide for his teammates ends up benefiting the rest of the attackers.
Nuno is adamant in his quest against sterile possession so despite Wolves being a team who dominated most games on the ball, they’re always striving for verticality (having a great passer like Ruben Neves in midfield helps) and aren’t against overcoming opposition lines by going longer: either for the striker to hold on to or for the space in the channels. This makes them a pretty strong counter-attacking side as well, seeing as they’re very organized when dropping down to a 5-4-1 shape and have the wide personnel to quickly threaten space in behind the opposition. This ability to shape-shift is the most exciting thing about their Premier League prospects, since from a tactical stand-point they’ll be relatively comfortable both sitting deeper against stronger sides and controlling against a good portion of teams as well.
Starting with the outs, Benik Afobe was moved on to Stoke for a tiny profit after six goals last season, while center back Roderick Miranda went to Olympiakos on loan after being a rotational option in his position in the last campaign. But the big, unexpected, outgoing transfer was Barry Douglas’s move to Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds back down in the Championship. He led the team in assists with 14 and in accurate crosses per 90 with two, and was a key part of Wolves’ offensive set-up both from open play as well as from set-pieces, where he excels. They ended up making a small profit on the Scottish 28-year-old, but I’m not sure his replacement has helped justify his exit.
Jonny Castro arrived on a season-long loan from Atletico, who had just acquired him for €7 million. Jonny is much better defensively than Douglas, as well as a better ball-carrier but hasn’t ever really played in a back-5 and doesn’t offer nearly as much punch in the final third. They’re different fullback types and the team will have to adapt.
In other leftback news, talented 19-year-old left-back Ruben Vinagre, who got around 600’ on loan last season, has now been fully acquired from Monaco. He was an important piece for a Portugal side that just won the U19 Euro and will be the second man in his position at the club. Perhaps bringing in Jonny for just a season is an attempt to give Vinagre the starting spot sooner rather than later. He’s a top prospect, but asking a player so young to develop that quickly is optimistic at best.
Rui Patrício was brought in to upgrade the keeper position. Portugal’s best player in their run to win Euro 2016 and arguably the best goalkeeper outside the top five leagues, he was Sporting’s starter for 10 years and is still only 30. While what is demanded of a goalkeeper in a dominant team is different to what is asked of one in a less controlling side, he’s succeeded with a National Team that has a defensive mindset and just had a very David De Gea at United like season with Sporting, saving them often from their defensive woes – so he should be able to adjust to the change in circumstances without too much problem. Although he technically moved on a free, Sporting has filed an official complaint to FIFA, meaning Wolves could still have to eventually pay a to be determined transfer fee for him.
In defese, Willy Boly’s deal was made permanent from FC Porto after a good campaign as the team’s left center back. While in midfield, 31-year-old João Moutinho was added from Monaco. He’s a very technical, experienced midfielder who will partner will with Neves. Moutinho will perhaps have to be more proactive defensively than usual but he’s very good from a positional stand-point and will offer plenty of control on the ball. Romain Saiss will, therefore, be dropped from the position he played in last season. He was a center back for Morocco at the World Cup and he’ll probably compete with Ryan Bennett for the right center back spot, as well as provide midfield depth.
That said, it’s possible the team will bring in reinforcements for one or both positions. Their midfield seems particularly thin, as behind Moutinho and Neves and Saiss the next man up is 18 year old Morgan Gibbs-White. A potential loanee who come in to handle 1000 minutes or so would make sense to round out the unit.
Further ahead, Diogo Jota’s deal was also made permanent for only €14 million which is huge. He’ll be in constant rotation for the inside forward spots, alongside the other Portuguese attackers Ivan Cavaleiro and Helder Costa. Brazilian striker Bonatini was also brought in permanently after 12 Championship goals last campaign, but he’ll have competition from Mexican international Raul Jimenez. On loan from Benfica, Jimenez is a good box focused striker who was never able to grab a hold onto the starting spot in Portugal but always produced coming off the bench – which is why his per 90 stats are so eye popping (2.2 open play key passes; 3.8 shots in the penalty area). It’ll be interesting to see if he still excels off the bench in England or if he’ll have a starting role. Regardless, both strikers offer the hold up play that the system requires to thrive.
From a talent perspective, this Wolves team – in full force – is clearly a top 10 team. Patrício and Moutinho’s additions offer a step-up in both positions, while Neves and Jota are more than talented enough to play for top teams. Nuno is also a pretty adaptative manager, which bodes well for their ability to shape up differently (and effectively) against the top six and the rest of the teams.
Looking at last seasons’ “best of the rest”, no team had Wolves’ ability to control matches and tear through opponents. While the difference in quality between them and their opponents is much smaller (if even existent) when compared to their Championship campaign, they’re systemically prepared to be grab a hold of the ball and be controlling. Whether that ends up being a good thing or not is yet to be seen – perhaps there’s an intrinsic reason why sides like Burnley and Allardyce’s Everton did so well –, but at least we’ll witness less of the pattern-less games we often watch between lower table teams.
That said, the team is slim at the moment and the difference in quality between the starting eleven and the other options is sizeable. They’ll need to avoid injuries to hit their full potential. But, if things go well this is a side that’s ready to finish in the top 10 in their first campaign back in the Premier League, a great building block for a project that will be looking to achieve more and more over the next few seasons.
Thank you for reading. More information about StatsBomb, and the rest of our season previews can be found here.
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