Considering our previous analysis of Wolves’ matches, we hypothesise that Nuno Espirito Santo’s structural change to a back four is part of the Wolves project’s next stage in terms of their primary tactics. This will compromise their results in the near future for better long-term fluidity.
Meanwhile, although Villa’s recent form has been inconsistent, their style of final third ball progression makes them a constant threat. They are, therefore, the dark horses of the Premier League.
In this match report, we provide a tactical analysis surrounding the opposing forces of a physically strenuous December night at Molineux.
Aston Villa’s teamsheet and formation were fairly unsurprising. They lined up in their standard 4-3-3, with 21-year-old Jacob Ramsey getting his first game of the season, filling in for Ross Barkley. Furthermore, Bertrand Traore filled in for Trezeguet on the right-wing. Ollie Watkins participated in triangular interplay with Jack Grealish and John McGinn, who asked several probing questions to Wolves’ defence.
The team selection and structural setup for Wolves was the more intriguing puzzle for the analyst. Having played a 4-3-3 recently, with mixed results, Nuno opted for a 4-2-3-1, with a double-pivot of Leander Dendoncker and Joao Moutinho. This often transposed into a 4-4-2, due to Adama Traore and Pedro Neto’s end-to-end pace. Moreover, Daniel Podence operated as a second striker to the teenage sensation Fabio Silva.
Notably, a fully fit Willy Boly was on the sidelines, as Romain Saiss was given the nod. Due to the transition into a back four, Santo speculatively resorted to the more experienced Marcal over Rayan Ait-Nouri at left-back.
It appears that their decision to advocate this formation is proactive instead of reactive. We explore the tactical possibility and potential of this through their attacking play against Villa in the later sections.
The start-stop nature of the match stands out in numbers. Wolves committed 23 fouls to Villa’s 15. This led to a total of 11 yellow cards in the match, with one red card apiece.
Having 50% of the ball each, both teams managed six deep completions. From these, Wolves managed a higher volume of shots on target, with seven compared to Villa’s two. Despite not creating much from open play, Anwar El Ghazi’s last-minute penalty was ultimately the major contributor to Villa’s expected goals (xG) of 1.27, compared to Wolves’ 1.14.
In many ways, both teams shared a similar style of ball progression. This is observed in their lower than average volume of passes.
The above pass maps highlight the average positions of players when their respective passes were made. We are, moreover, able to decipher that Wolves’ right-hand side (Villa’s left) was the nucleus of many battles.
On the one hand, Wolves used the pace and quality of their front four in conjunction with their centre-backs’ long balls to progress the ball into the final third. On the other hand, Villa employed overloads on each corner of the pitch, backed by their counter-press to do the same.
Notice the number of arrows directed at Watkins. He was the routine target man of long-balls. Watkins especially excels at engaging his teammates in overloads higher up the pitch. Interestingly, this can be observed through his 22 pressures (the most in his team). Furthermore, his role provided a solid foundation for Grealish’s excursions, as he recorded four shots and six shot-creating actions.
Additionally, McGinn’s output from the midfield captures his off-the-ball movement. He has been the subject of thorough analysis by tacticians. From his 22 completed passes, he recorded five shot-creating actions and two goal-creating actions. Additionally, in contrast to Grealish, who recorded a progressive distance of 152 yards, McGinn recorded a progressive distance of a meagre 64 yards.
For Wolves, Traore was the target man for the majority of Conor Coady’s long cross-field passes. Their front four were notably harmonious on several occasions. 18-year-old Fabio Silva, in particular, had a strong performance. The teenager recorded four shots (one on target), two shot-creating actions, and a non-penalty xG of 0.4.
Aston Villa are instructed to create rhombuses i.e. groups of four offensively and defensively.
Off the ball, they display three characteristics. Firstly, they have a distinctly flat back four that notably does not play the offside trap. Additionally, their midfield three have their backs faced away from the centre and towards one respective side. Finally, their wingers (Grealish and Traore) tend to drop deep to provide support on the flanks. Consider the following position.
Villa’s first line of defence encourages Coady to play it wide. Consequently, former Barcelona right-back Nelson Semedo is put under numerical pressure and is ultimately unable to progress the ball as it goes out of play.
Theoretically, the end-to-end nature of Villa’s wingers reveals certain vulnerabilities on the counter. This is because the flatness of their back four creates extra spaces between their midfield and defence. As a countermeasure, Villa’s first objective is to progress the ball higher up the pitch onto either flank.
Longer, down-the-line passes initiate overloads right outside their opponent’s box. This is where the Villa players begin to think about how to attack their opposition.
The above image illustrates the routine rotations made by the Villa players, as well as the dynamic nature of their midfielders. With Douglas Luiz and Matty Cash to support them, Ramsey switches positions with Traore. Furthermore, Luiz and Cash getting forward in possession makes the pitch smaller. This permits Villa to have numerical superiority on one half of the pitch.
Despite the positional pressure applied by Villa, their possession chain was thwarted by some intelligent Wolves defending. In addition to Dendoncker routinely covering key spaces on all areas of the pitch, Villa’s attacks from open play lacked a creative edge on the day.
Wolves’ front four
A distinct upside of Wolves’ formational change has been an extra player up front, particularly Podence’s more central, second-striker role, which plays to his strengths. The Portuguese international’s skill set and work rate are quite reminiscent of Wayne Rooney. Against Villa, he was everywhere on the pitch. In the above position, Podence preventatively tracked Traore’s run for 15 yards, which ultimately rewarded him with the interception. His positioning is noteworthy, as is his defensive initiative, which took the sting out of many of Villa’s tricky overloads.
His industriousness was observed higher up the pitch as well. As he was never static, Podence was quite effective in between the lines. In the following position, he manages to exploit the gap between Villa’s midfield and defensive lines.
Podence’s explosive burst of pace prompts Tyrone Mings to lunge forward. This enables his pass to reach Silva, who was denied by the post – Wolves’ best chance of the game. The Portuguese player’s directness, in combination with the engine in him, added a real threat to Wolves’ attack.
With Traore being the target man for longer passes on the right, Neto was the target man for shorter passes on the left. Considering the higher concentration of players on the right, Neto was afforded a lot of space on the left. Consider the following position.
The above image is the end frame for a position that started 15 yards deeper. Neto’s ability to hold the ball, in conjunction with Podence distracting any markers, permitted him to complete an accurate cross. Additionally, Silva occupies Mings to the extent that Villa’s back four are rendered too deep. This leaves Traore and Dendoncker unmarked.
Dendoncker’s shot was denied by Emiliano Martinez, who was undoubtedly the man of the match. The Argentine’s eight saves may have single-handedly changed the headline into one that ignores Wolves’ sharper play in the final third.
Next stage in the Wolves project?
Several fans, pundits and analysts have been puzzled by Wolves’ tactical changes. We argue that this is part of their long-term plan, and comes as they set sights on their tactical evolution.
In our analysis of Wolves vs Southampton, we demonstrated that their midfield three of Dendoncker, Moutinho and Ruben Neves was a case of a superfluous midfielder. This was rectified through their double-pivot, with Neto playing on the left.
Furthermore, we noted that Podence’s position on the left in a 3-4-2-1 had team chemistry issues. This is due to his almost involuntary urge to be everywhere on the pitch. In their 4-4-2, he was able to contribute to the team more efficiently.
Penultimately, Nuno’s decision to bench Boly was interesting. We believe that this was due to the fact that Boly is right-footed, whereas Saiss is left-footed. Much like Coady’s routine long passes to the right, Santo presumably wanted to do the same on the left.
If Wolves’ four at the back system is to stay, then it is logical to expect that their full-backs (focal points of high investment) may assume more ambitious positions in the future.
A fascinating tactical battle on paper ultimately turned out to be a bit of a dogfight. Yet, the takeaways from this match provide a tactical blueprint for both teams’ remainder of the season.
Ultimately, the combination of Grealish, McGinn, and Watkins led to Villa winning the penalty and the game. Their style of ball progression and positional pressure will continue to be a threat against any team in the league. Conversely, their flat backline, combined with the lack of shots on target, will engender them to drop more points as the season progresses.
Meanwhile, Wolves are transitioning tactically, and Nuno is making practical decisions in order to sustainably do so. While Semedo had an underwhelming night, his role in conjunction with Ait-Nouri will be important to the overall fluidity of their system. Wolves may be aiming to utilise them in their own version of a Liverpool template.
This might well mean that Wolves have some disappointing results until Christmas. Equally, despite the sensitivity of tactical transitions, they might also run into a stellar run of form after January.