Who's gonna fix Wolves?
Things are not great in Wolverhampton. Wolves sit second to the last in the table, one of only two teams without a victory. Only fellow winless side Watford are preventing them from sitting in dead last. This was a team that finished seventh best last season, with numbers that were arguably better than that. So what’s going on? Is it time for Wolves to panic?
The first place to look, as always, is at the expected goals. There’s some good news here for Wolves. In attack they’re basically running at xG with six goals for against 5.61 xG (plus a penalty).
On the defensive side of the ball is where the good news is. Sure they’ve given up 11 goals, but only 6.49 expected goals. That’s exactly the kind of performance you’d expect to see turn around without doing too much of anything different.
Specifically all of that extra conceding seems like it’s down mostly to keeper So far this season he has the worst goals saved above average % of any regular starting keeper in the Premier League. He’s only saved 50% of the shots he’s faced while his expected average giving those shots is 66.1%. That’s really bad! Patricio’s -16.1 GSAA% is significantly behind Everton’s Jordan Pickford at -9.9% and Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga’s -9.1%.
Encouragingly for Wolves, last year Patricio’s was almost exactly flat against expectation. He saved 71% of shots and was expected to save 71.1%. So this horrible form will probably work itself out. They don’t need him to be great this season, they just need him to be fine. So far, he hasn’t been, but there’s not a ton of reason to suspect he won’t be going forward.
So that’s the good news. Here’s the bad news. Even adjusting for the unexpected defensive lapses, Wolves haven’t been nearly as good as last season. Last season StatsBomb had their xG difference at 0.28 per match, virtually tied with Spurs for the fourth best in the Premier League. This season, so far it’s dropped to -0.16. That’s not nearly bad enough to be where they are in the table, but it’s not in any way remarkable. It’s just outside the top half of the table (and interestingly enough again virtually tied with Spurs).
That difference amounts to almost half a goal per match, or just under three goals in six games. For a team that’s drawn four times and lost another match by a single goal, that’s a massive difference. Their sixth match, a 2-5 home defeat to Chelsea was one of the wilder mostly balanced xG matches you will find.
Last season Wolves were a great defensive team. They were one of only four teams to concede fewer than one xG per match (0.91). They were also a decent attacking side. They accumulated 1.19 xG per match, which is nothing to write home about but landed them exactly in the middle of the league. This year they’re just worse on both sides of the ball. This year their defense is average, at 1.09 xG conceded, which trails eight other teams and their attack, well their attack at 0.92 xG per match is simply an utter mess.
Then there’s a matter of the schedule. They’ve played a relatively difficult set of six games so far, facing Leicester City away, Manchester United at home and Chelsea at home. Though given the sides early season aspirations those were all games they’d be expected to compete in and taking only two points is minorly disappointing. That said, if they’d taken more than two points from Burnley at home, Everton away, and Palace away nobody would have much noticed the struggles against the top teams. If Wolves had taken six points from the easy half of their schedule they’d currently be tied with the six teams sitting in seventh through 12th place. Instead they’re beginning a fledgling fight against relegation.
The next month remains pretty easy for Wolves. Before the end of October the side will face fellow relegation battlers Watford at home and Newcastle away, as well as hosting Southampton (currently in 13th place). Just ignore that they fourth match in that stretch of time is against Manchester City. It’s possible that with a handful of strong performances Wolves numbers will improve, and their results will follow (especially if that is combined with their luck turning). Another month of struggling though, and the discussion slips from having a minorly disappointing season to a real relegation battle.
There are, as there always are, all sorts of possible reasons for the poor start. There’s the added burden of Europa League, especially on a squad that was fairly short to begin with and didn’t add much depth this summer. Even minor rotation for a team exceptionally used to a fixed starting 11 can be disruptive. Wolves have been starting bit players from last year like Morgan Gibbs-White and giving super sub Adama Traoré starts at wingback.
It’s also possible their numbers are being impacted by playing from behind so much. They’ve conceded first in five of their six matches (and the sixth was the 0-0 opening day draw against Leicester). For a team built to defend, the fact that they’ve been forced to chase the game so often might be dragging their numbers down (one might for example imagine a world where they have improved numbers because several of their draws came from late, lucky equalizers rather than what actually happened where they scored late themselves). This again is the kind of factor that generally, although not always, evens itself out as the season progresses.
The bottom line for Wolves is that there is no reason to panic. The team’s defense is its calling card, and that defense has been pretty unlucky so far this season. It will likely improve as the season goes on, just by dint of getting out from whatever soccer god cloud is currently raining goals on them nonstop. That should be enough to turn them into a somewhat below average team that’s safe from relegation. After last year, however, that shouldn’t be enough for Wolves. This side was genuinely impressive last season, and they’ve come out of the gate this year looking genuinely average. Whether it’s Europa League or something else, Wolves have taken a step backwards. The fact that it won’t likely cost them relegation doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be disappointing. This was a team on a meteoric trajectory. Without some sharp improvements over the next month, they’re now overwhelmingly likely to be just another midtable side.