Having played 29 games, Wolverhampton Wanderers are currently sixth in the Premier League. Nuno Espírito Santo’s team are two points behind Manchester United in fifth and five behind Chelsea who are in fourth. They have only lost two Premier League games in 2020 and are in a strong position in the last 16 of the Europa League. This sort of form could be what the side needs to push for a potential Champions League spot if the season continues.
It is a credit to Nuno that since he was appointed, his side has gone from strength to strength. This season has been no different as his side has pulled off impressive results like a double over Manchester City and a win away at Tottenham Hotspur. This tactical analysis will explore Nuno’s tactics. In particular, providing a scout report on Rúben Neves who plays a crucial role in Nuno’s tactics.
The first aspect of Wolves to look at is how they set up. Nuno likes to have a rotation in the squad often meaning that they switch between a 3-5-2 and a 3-4-3. What both formations do is the transition to a five at the back when defending. With three midfielders to sit in front of the defence, it limits oppositions to play through the middle. Then when attacking they have players who will operate in between the opponent’s defensive lines. Using the example from their 0-0 draw with Brighton Hove Albion, Leander Dendoncker and João Moutinho would push forward while Neves would provide the central pivot.
The 3-4-3 would then be used when teams like to attack down the sides. This is because the two wingers provide extra support for wing-backs. It then means Wolves can break as a three. This is how they lined up in their 3-2 victory away to Spurs. Neves and Moutinho’s roles stay the same but now they have two players attacking either side as the wing-backs are encouraged to get forward.
Neves defensive role
In the first phase of defending Neves has a particular role in the middle of the pitch. The first phase of defending happens when the opponents are looking to build an attack. What will happen is that the front two will maintain a high position but stay central, this is to put pressure on the centre-backs if they are playing a high line or to apply pressure on a defensive midfielder. The two forwards will move across if the ball is played out wide but they will move into a position that forces the ball down the line or back. This is because Wolves are trying to stop their opponents from playing through the middle.
As the front two are remaining in an advanced position, Neves (alongside the midfield) will also maintain a high position. The three Neves will remain in the middle and the wing-backs will get tight to the opponent’s wide players. Neves’ role is at this point to be in a good position for the second stage of defending. However if one of the opposing players comes short to pick up the ball the closest midfielder will apply pressure. In the example below this is Dendoncker’s job. As both Neves and Moutinho are covering central positions it forces Aaron Mooy to switch the ball out wide. Wolves are effective at this as they win 43.98% of their offensive duels, whereas their opponents only win 38.85% of their offensive duels against Wolves.
Once the ball has been played out wide it then enables Wolves to surround the ball with three players. This can happen as the wing-back will push up onto the wide player. At the same time, either a midfielder or striker will move into a position to cut down the angle on a pass back while a midfielder will be in a position to stop the ball from moving inside. Neves will always try and maintain a central position to cover the option inside. As the example below demonstrates, Neves is covering the Brighton player in the middle while Moutinho and Diogo Jota press out wide, this particular example forces Brighton to go back.
Because of the way they are set up to force the opposition wide it means that Wolves can quickly set up these three-man press often forcing players into a mistake enabling them to win the ball back, they will try to do this as much as possible and as high up the pitch as possible. They are able to do this with wing-backs as they do not sit as deep as a full-back. Even if they do get out of the press there is often a player centrally, in this example it is Leander Dendoncker. This means that the attacking team will have to go back and build their attack again.
Finally when the ball gets to the final third Wolves still want to implement a three-man press out wide. For Neves, this means he covers the space inside if the player does get through the press. This is what happens on this occasion but as his positional awareness is good he is able to intercept the ball and get Wolves moving forward. In fact, Neves has made 42 interceptions in the Premier League this season. His awareness in this position is vital to Wolves as getting himself in an area to cover the danger helps Wolves defensively.
No matter who is playing win the midfield, Neves’ role is to control the game from a central position. The young midfielder is pivotal to Wolves and does an excellent job at it. He may grab the headlines for his wonder strikes but his distribution is the key to Wolves. Part of the reason he is effective is his positional awareness. Looking at his territorial coverage as a defensive midfielder it shows that he spends the majority of his time in a deep position and around the middle of the pitch, this is so he can dictate the game. Notice how he moves spends note time in his own half and covers a large area in front of the back four.
In Nuno’s system, the back three will form a V shape as the middle centre-back will remain in a deep to be in a position to completely restart the attack and provide cover if Wolves lose the ball in the middle. As a result of this Neves will drop in between the other two centre-backs who will push slightly wider. The example below highlights the area Neves will operate in. As you can see the two defenders provide the short passing option if Neves is under immediate pressure. However as Neves is the pivot in the middle his role is to get the ball wide as quickly as possible and in a deep position he is able to see all that is in front of him and therefore pick out a forward pass, he is comfortable doing this with either foot.
As the analysis has mentioned Neves’ role is to spread the play as quickly as possible. Being the defensive midfielder it is his job to pick up the loose ball and move it on. Notice in the example below that he is able to find pockets of space. This is an important skill that Wolves utilise as being able to find pockets of space in the midfield enables him to move the ball out of a congested area into space for Wolves to move forward.
When on the ball Neves will only take a couple of touches on the ball in order to move the ball on as quickly as possible, he does this well as he completes 89.5% of his forward passes and 85.1% of his long passes. He is also comfortable doing this under pressure as he completes 92% of his passes in the opposition’s half. What this means for Wolves is he can get the ball to players in dangerous areas quickly and accurately. What the example shows is that Leicester have got three players to the left to make it difficult for the Wolves players to get around the side. This is where Neves comes in as he will collect the ball in this area and switch it to Traoré who is one vs one against Ben Chilwell. As a result, this switch of play creates a more threatening scenario for Wolves than trying to force the play on the left side.
Finally, when Wolves do get the ball into the final third, Neves will hover in a central position outside the penalty area as he can remain the pivot in the middle and provide defensive cover. He is also in an area where he can shot if the ball is headed away. This is one of Neves’ most impressive strengths as he is accurate with both his volleys and shots from distance, in fact, 72% of his shots are from outside the areas and he has on average 1.77 shots every 90 minutes. This has lead to some incredible goals from the midfield. He may only have two goals in the league but when he does shot it is is often a spectacular effort.
It is clear that Neves is crucial in the Wolves’ system as he is often the one that holds it all together. His distribution and the speed he is able to do so is impressive and is one of the reasons why Wolves keep improving combined with his accuracy in his long-range shooting Neves definitely catches the eye. With him in the middle Wolves have a player who will consistently put in quality performances to control Nuno’s ever-improving system.