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Usually, when a new manager arrives at a club, they like to switch things up. They like to bring in new players, a new philosophy, and most importantly, a new system on the pitch. But at Wolves, this wasn’t the case.
To the surprise of many, fan favourite Nuno Espirito Santo left in the summer of 2021, replaced by former Benfica boss Bruno Lage. It was by no means a flashy appointment, but Wolves landed their number one target, and quite simply haven’t looked back since.
It was Portuguese for Portuguese in the dugout, with much of the club’s current personnel indeed hailing from the southern European country.
While the new boss has certainly delved into the transfer market, he has kept the same system that the squad were so used to playing under Nuno Espirito Santo. And it has worked wonders, with Lage immediately hitting the ground running at Molineux.
Bruno Lage picking up where Nuno left off at Wolves
More often than not, the Midlands outfit have adopted a 3-4-3 formation under Lage, the same formation that Nuno heavily relied on.
The system worked extremely well over recent seasons, with Nuno guiding Wolves to seventh place in the 2018/19 campaign following their promotion from the Championship. It was their highest Premier League finish and their highest finish in the top flight since 1980. Nuno repeated the feat the following season.
Lage has, however, also utilised a flat 3-5-2 at times, particularly in recent matches. This is based on the players at his disposal and indeed how the opposition has lined up. Either way, one constant of his approach is a back three.
Defensive solidity is the key
Lage, like his predecessor, is running a tight ship at the back. Nuno’s Wolves conceded 46 and 40 goals in the 2018/19 and 2019/20 campaigns respectively. However, the new man in the dugout may just outdo his compatriot in this sense.
Lage’s Wolves have conceded just 18 goals from their 24 matches so far. Only leaders Manchester City (17) have conceded fewer. It’s an astonishing achievement, especially considering how much money the biggest clubs in England have spent trying to perfect their backlines.
One constant for both managers has been Conor Coady. Captain fantastic Coady has been the central man in a back three for Wolves for years. His performances have drawn attention from some of the league’s leading clubs, as well as England national team boss Gareth Southgate.
Coady’s bravery, clinical tackling, and aerial presence have been key to the club’s hugely impressive defensive record. However, he isn’t alone, with Romain Saiss and Max Kilman fitting in effortlessly on either side of him.
And even that back three isn’t alone, with the two full-backs tucking in to form a back five when Wolves are out of possession. Step up Nelson Semedo and Rayan Ait-Nouri. While the duo like to get forward as much as possible, they know that Lage also expects a huge defensive shift from them as well.
But no talk of Wolves’ sturdy backline would be complete without mentioning goalkeeper Jose Sa. Brought in to replace Rui Patricio, Sa has been a revelation between the sticks. His nine league clean sheets this season place him fourth in the leaderboard.
Progression towards goal in midfield
Once possession has been won back thanks to this compact backline, it is quickly fed out wide. Coady once again has been the man often tasked with this job, with his impressive ability to land long balls at the feet of his travelling full-backs.
If not Coady, it is the hugely talented pair of Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves who Lage relies on to pick a pass. At 35, Moutinho has all the experience in the world to sit and spread the play, allowing the younger, more dynamic Neves to operate in a defensive midfield role.
At 24, Neves is full of energy, with his tenacity in midfield catching the eye of many top clubs, particularly Arsenal. Lage likes his players to stick to their zones, and both midfielders do this very well.
With Moutinho approaching his final years, the versatile Leander Dendoncker may just fill his boots in the years to come. He can operate centrally or in a more defensive role. Incidentally, all three midfielders have an eye for goal.
But when opting for the more sensible option of passing, it is frontman Raul Jimenez who is usually sought. The big striker can hold up the ball, and more often than not creates time and space to allow the wingers and full-backs to get forward, before laying it back to Moutinho or Neves.
The midfielders then spray a pass out wide or indeed attempt an intricate through ball towards one of the onrushing attackers. There is, of course, the route one option. The Mexican forward is deceivingly quick, and has great feet for dribbling, on top of his superb finishing ability.
But usually, quick, short passes are the name of the game for Wolves, who keep the ball in triangles, drawing their opponents towards the ball. It inevitably creates space, which has the potential to be exploited, if only the attackers could fully make use of the chances they get.
Wolves yet to reach attacking potential
Now comes what should be the fun part of this Wolves side. But sadly, the exciting talents at Molineux have yet to fully burst into life. Perhaps Lage is yet to settle on his best options, but he needs to do so quickly in order for the net to start rippling.
Importantly, super striker Jimenez is slowly but surely working his way back to his best after his horrific head injury that saw him miss out on so much action.
It’s clear that Lage isn’t scared of upsetting anyone, allowing the talented yet ultimately frustrating Adama Traore to head out on loan to Barcelona. The winger has enjoyed an electric start to life back in Spain, but Lage has his own secret weapons in that position ready and waiting.
The likes of Trincao and Daniel Podence have huge potential. They love to dribble and take on their opponents, but there is an evident lack of goals and assists given their positions on the pitch. Podence may just be turning his form around, scoring against Leicester on Sunday. He has also shown his versatility, operating either on the wing or upfront.
The same lack of goals and chances created can be said for strikers Hee-Chan Hwang and Fabio Silva. Both are on a lengthy goal drought. Taking shots has been a major issue for all of the attackers. Only Norwich and Burnley have attempted fewer this season.
What is most unfortunate for Lage is the absence of one of the most exciting attackers in the league. Pedro Neto has been out all season with a knee injury sustained last year. But in fantastic news for the Wolves boss, the winger is back in training, and could certainly be the key to unlocking the club’s huge potential going forward.