What Went Wrong With Wolves?

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What Went Wrong With Wolves?

Written by: FPL Will

We’re safe from relegation, we’re not getting Europe and now we’re waiting for this buzzkill of a season to limp to a sorry conclusion.

Last season, we finished 7th and only missed out on another season in the Europa League on goal difference. Cut to this season and after 32 games we are 11 points and 7 places worse off. There is a stark contrast in our goal difference too at this stage: 2019/20: +11, 2020/21, -9.

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So, what went wrong? To analyse this decline, I will break it down into a comparison of our attack and our defence and comment on our failed attempt at freshening up our formation. I will make my points as succinctly as I can and would love to debate any of them if you had something to contest or offer up!

The Attack (or lack thereof)

32 games. 32 goals. It’s not great. Enough to keep us safe, thankfully, but far from ideal. The gigantic elephant in the room is the season-long injury to the majestic Mexican, Jimenez. It’s very easy to pin a lot of our troubles on the fact that we’ve been without our talisman striker all season. He managed 17 goals and 7 assists last season, a huge contribution to our attack. This season, before the bumbling clown David Luiz fractured Jimenez’s skull in GW10, he was on track to replicate that form having already notched 4 goals and 1 assist. Ever since then, unfortunately the rest our team haven’t been able to fill the void he left.

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We have two strikers: Willian Jose and Fabio Silva. Playing as our starting striker, Jose has managed 981 minutes so far and has scored 1 goal – by my calculations that means he is averaging a goal every…. 981 minutes. At least Silva (the teenager who had 1 senior appearance when we decided to spend £35m on him) has managed 3 goals in the same number of minutes. Looking at minutes per goal and it’s clear to see why we haven’t been putting in the net as frequently this season. In fact (spoiler alert), I’d put at least 50% of the blame for this poor season on Jimenez’s injury and the absence of a capable deputy.

Our wingers are also partly to blame for a lack of goals. Our main wingers, Traore, Podence and Neto, are all undeniably gifted. Traore can beat a man with incredible ease, Podence can turn on a 5p coin, Neto can leave a man in knots with his dribbling and speed. However, what they have not done is find the net this season (you know, that important thing attackers need to do). Add up all their goals and in 83 games between them they haven’t even hit double figures! From watching our matches, it is obvious that we have become easy to defend against with our predictable attack. Neto (5 goals), Podence (3) and Traore (1) struggle to score for us because our opposition nearly always puts the defensive emphasis on neutralising our wingers.

You will notice most teams that play Wolves will:

  1. Double up on our wingers at every possible opportunity (especially Traore)
  2. Cynically hack down Traore on the occasions we do actually manage to counter-attack with him going through on goal
  3. Drop deep, putting as many men behind the ball as quickly as possible.  

It is so frustratingly effective, and it can be painful to watch us try to attack. Our wingers tend to receive the ball out wide, usually when they are stationary and often when they are around the halfway line. I feel bad for them every match – they receive the ball, turn around and see 50 metres between them and the goal with 5 defenders in the way. It’s as though we expect them be able to go Super Saiyan every time and burst through the entire defence with the extreme grace and poise of Santiago Munez. Although Traore is capable of beating several men with his pace and dribbling, it is not an efficient way of creating big chances.  

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Well, why are they always receiving the ball so deep then? Simple – our midfielders can’t carry the ball! There are things I love about Neves, Moutinho and Dendoncker (who operate as our go-to central midfielders), but their borderline refusal to carry the ball up the pitch is infuriating – just look at those appallingly low dribble stats below.

We are crying out for a box-to-box midfielder to link the defence and attack and (most importantly) support the attack further up the pitch. Too often when we get the ball in the centre of the pitch, we execute slow and sideways passing which only allows our opponent to get all of their men behind the ball, thus nullifying our wingers’ threat. A faster and more direct attacking style would enable us to up our goals. I would love a central midfielder that takes men on and carries the ball past that initial row of defenders.

I will mention briefly Jota, who has been very prolific for Liverpool this season when he has not been on the injury table. My official stance on whether we should have let him go is this: had he stayed at Wolves, I think he would be posting the same decent figures as he did in his first two seasons (9 and 7 goals) and therefore £40m is great business by us. The way we cautiously attack and rely on counter-attacking likely stunted his goalscoring for us and at Liverpool he has greater freedom to attack. We didn’t find a great replacement for him, but he is not the main reason we have had a poor season.

Formation Pains

Formation wise, we have flirted a few times this season with putting an extra midfielder in the line-up at the expense of a CB. This helped with our attack, giving us more bodies over the halfway line to find gaps and get shots away. This would be great, if it weren’t for the fact we then completely lost our ability to control games and began haemorrhaging goals, as the graph below shows. To be fair to Nuno, he tried something different. We had played the same football for two seasons and though it was safe and controlled, he wanted to try to take us to the next level. To do this, we needed to dominate the ball more and be more attacking. Unfortunately, a combination of injuries and not having the right players for this style meant that the experimentation largely failed.

This season, when we play 4 defenders our Goals For increases from 0.8 to 1.4 goals per game. But, at the same time our Goals Against increases from 1 to 1.8 goals per game.

In terms of our results, our win percentage drops by 13% and our loss percentage increases by 9% when ditching our tried and tested 5 defenders.  

Ultimately, this squad’s best way of grinding out points is by prioritising being extremely organised at the back and working the whole match to avoid giving up big chances. It can sometimes feel as though scoring is an optional bonus. As a fan watching football, a spectator sport, I would like to see us throwing more weight at the opposition, but it has become clear this season that some personnel changes are required before that we can effectively do that.

An eloquent summary is this:

“When we play five at the back, we can’t score. When we play four at the back, we can’t defend.”

The Defence

Finally, we come to our defence. I’ll start of by saying that it hasn’t been that much worse this season. Our goals conceded per game has increased from 1.05 last season to 1.36 this season, roughly equating to an extra goal conceded every 3 matches. Last season we kept 13 clean sheets; this season we are on 10 with 5 games remaining.

*2020/21 after 33 games

This will be our worst defensive performance so far since coming up, assuming that we concede more than 1 goal in our last 5 games. Either way, our xGC is already the highest it has been, although it is similar this season to Tottenham, West Ham and Villa. 

The biggest defensive difference this season is the huge drop off that has occurred in goal contributions from our defenders. Most people are aware that Doherty was a big contributor in our attack in our first two seasons, and his absence has definitely been noticed. In his first two seasons he managed 8 goals and 15 assists, and we have not had a defender take over the reins this season.  

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If you look at the number of goal contributions this season, the combination of Ait-Nouri, Jonny and Semedo has only yielded 4 goals this season, far from the double figures scores of our first two seasons. Semedo has the 5th most tackles in the league this season, but in 29 appearances he has 0 goals and 2 assists. He doesn’t have Doherty’s knack of finding himself in the 6 yard box at the end of attacks, resulting in a severe lack of goals. He also doesn’t have a great understanding with Traore, as the two fail to link up effectively in most games. Ait-Nouri has been disappointing, with his debut season in the Premier League proving challenging. His debut goal gave us a lot of hope, but he hasn’t shown much else since then.

*2020/21 after 33 games

Injury-wise, we have been unlucky. Jonny has missed huge parts of this season with two ACL injuries and Boly has been absent for 15 matches. These two are guaranteed starters when fit, and losing them has made this season harder. The 19 year old Ait-Nouri has also been thrown in the deep-end, starting 10 games this season due to the injuries to the more experienced Jonny and Marcal forcing Nuno’s hand.

It’s worth pointing out that in 33 games, we’ve only lost by more than 1 goal on five occasions. However, 4 of those 5 games were pretty emphatic defeats (4-0, 4-1, 4-0, 4-0). Aside from those humbling results against Liverpool, Man City, Burnley and West Ham, we haven’t been blown away in many games this season and with a bit more luck and a few less injuries, we could have been comfortably top half again this year.

Conclusion

So, there we are. That is my take on what went wrong with Wolves this season. It nearly all boils down to our attack being about as threatening as a new-born child.  Neto is our top scorer this season with 5 goals, and although he is now out injured for months (another unlucky blow to our season), there is every chance he still ends up top scorer… with FIVE GOALS. Nursing Jimenez back to full fitness, finding that missing link in the midfield and finding a way of getting our defenders back on the scoresheet are all imperative to ensure we can improve next season. It has been sad barely owning Wolves players in Fantasy Premier League this season and I’d like to have more confidence in picking our players next year.

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