Masters of Defence: A Statistical Analysis of Wolves

Sitting in 10th place, with victories over Tottenham and Chelsea, Wolves certainly don’t look like a traditional newly promoted team. Playing with a swagger of an established top flight side, and the results to match, Wolves are here to stay. On the surface, they are a tough team to figure out, but dig a bit deeper and the philosophies and standards that Nuno Espirito Santo drills into this team are very much visible. As with our Liverpool and Chelsea article, this will be a statistical analysis of the play style.

 The most obvious thing to note when looking at Wolves is the formation they play.

Starting with 5 at the back (which often shifts to a 3 with the full backs Jonny and Doherty pushing up), the side has an extra defensive edge to create the stability from the back. The 3 centre backs of Boly, Bennett and Coady have barely missed a minute this season and a lot of the team’s success is down to this. The captain and middle centre back, Conor Coady, has leadership qualities that many desire. Often seen barking instructions to the rest of the team, he is the man that sees everything. Statistically, he only makes 1.1 tackles per game. His role is the last line of defence, the man that comes in to sweep up if all else fails. A heatmap of the game against Tottenham shows he sits in one place, just outside the penalty area, and rarely strays away from here unless required

Going forward and the ability to play a pass into the midfield is a key quality of a middle centre back, (as shown by players such as David Luiz who has the most through balls this season), statistically, Coady averages 7 long balls per game, he is the last line of defence and the first line of attack.

Coady heatmap v Tottenham

 The other 2 centre backs in Willy Boly and Ryan Bennett have a slightly different role. When the two wingbacks push forward, these two will shift over to their respective sides, ready to defend the balls down the line to the opposition winger. Boly and Bennett still do not have too many tackles to make, an average of 2.6 and 1.9 respectively. And this is down to the nature of the fullbacks. As soon as the first whistle sounds, Jonny and Matt Doherty bomb down the flanks and put pressure on the opposition fullbacks. So much so, that passes are limited down the wings at all. In the rare occasions that they do, the outer centre backs Boly and Bennett come over to tackle. If they cannot, then Coady steps in. These lines of defence make it very hard to play that killer pass.

Heatmap of back 5 v Chelsea

When playing against Wolves, the shape of the back 5 almost funnels play into the centre, where the play is usually more of a battle, a tactic that works especially well against the bigger teams who are used to flowing play and stringing passes around. This is where the two central midfielders of Ruben Neves and João Moutinho can work. Moutinho is currently 6th in the league for tackles made, and when watching him play it is evident how much his defensive duties help the team out. What interests me the most is the nature of the tackles, as most of them seem to be made when Moutinho is facing his own goal. The defence can sit relatively deep to invite pressure, creating a pocket in front where the opposition will usually play. Neves and Moutinho will then track back and make the tackle, giving the ball to Coady, Bennett or Boly ready to start the counter attack. Going forward, Neves is the man that can play the through balls to set the forwards off, and an interesting statistic, of his 9 goals in a Wolves shirt, 8 have been from outside the box. The other 1 was a penalty. This ability to shoot from range adds another dimension to this Wolves team and gives the opposition another thing to think about when coming up against them.

When looking at the Tottenham game, another thing to note is that of the 10 shots Tottenham had in the game, 9 of them (including Harry Kane’s spectacular goal) were from outside the box. Wolves are very comfortable defending the box and very strong to not let the waves of attack penetrate the area.

Chalkboard of Tottenham shots

For any ‘weaker’ side, these defensive tactics occur quite regularly, protecting the box has worked on many occasions. The difference in this Wolves team is they also have the attacking strength to win the games, and seem to do so pretty comfortably. The ability to break through Helder Costa, Diogo Jota, and the two pacy wing backs means that on the break the side can almost look like a 3-2-5 formation with Raul Jimenez up front ready to put away the chances. It is an effective tactic that sees the wing backs play an important part on both ends of the pitch. Jimenez is having a spectacular season with 10 goal contributions already this season, and behind him sits Matt Doherty with 3 goals and 4 assists. In fact, statistically Doherty averages 1.3 shots per game, as many as Anthony Martial and more than Glenn Murray and Jesse Lingard.

The surprising issue for Wolves is how they perform against the lower ranked sides. Losses against Crystal Palace, Cardiff, Huddersfield and Brighton show a weakness against teams that are happy to sit back in a similar fashion. This is where the 5 defenders could be an issue, as it removes one attacking player needed to finish off the games. Playing counter attack against the big teams is possible when your side is as well-drilled as Wolves, but when playing smaller sides, the motivation and well-drilled tactics don’t seem to be as prominent. A switch to a more traditional 4 at the back could be an option, perhaps even letting Doherty or Jonny push up in a more attacking role.

All in all, Wolverhampton Wanderers are a very welcome addition to the Premier League, not happy to just win the ‘winnable’ games, this side want to conquer the league and upset the big boys and so far they are doing a good job showing just how important a good defence is in a 38 game season. I enjoyed researching and writing this article, and I gained a lot of knowledge from one site in particular, Musings from Molineux. Wolves are an extremely interesting team to watch.

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