The simple tactics behind Wolves’ Premier League rise

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Since they were promoted from the EFL Championship at the end of 2017/18 season, Wolves have established themselves as a prominent team in the Premier League, finishing 7th in consecutive seasons under the tutelage of Portuguese tactician, Nuno Espírito Santo.

Wolves defeated Sheffield United in their first league game of the new season at Bramall Lane. This match provided a good illustration of how efficient the West Midlands outfit are at going forward.

Operating in a low 3-5-2 formation, only four players’ average positions were in Sheffield United’s half; Wolves allowed their opponents to come high up the pitch, before then hitting them with pace on the break. Throughout the game, Nuno’s men only recovered the ball eight times in the Blades’ half and attempted 380 passes. In contrast, Chris Wilder’s side attempted 459 passes and won the ball back 51 times in the away side’s half.


After going 2-0 up so early, Wolves managed the game well. Sheffield United were unable to score despite managing nine shots from open play, with one of those having an expected goal value of over 0.5. Even without the ball, the visitors dictated the game, playing very direct balls up the pitch to their forwards as soon as they recovered possession and before the hosts could reorganise.


Wolves tried to repeat what they did in the first game of the season against Manchester City, but Pep Guardiola’s side inevitably proved to be a different level of opposition to the Blades. City’s high press was problematic for Santo’s side, who struggled to keep hold of the ball let alone escape from their half for the first 60 minutes. 

The hosts only managed to complete 287 passes throughout the game, their average last term was 320, and two shots on target in the first half. In comparison, City successfully passed the ball 599 times, registered 10 shots from open play and drew a penalty.


Patterns are already emerging in how Wolves play this season; the first observable one is that even though Nuno’s team are operating with a 3-5-2 system, both Pedro Neto and Daniel Podence tend to drift to the left. This leaves a lot of space for Adama Traoré to exploit on the right side. We can see most of the forward passes go to the striker or the left wing-back whereas the right wing-back, Traoré, runs down the flank with the ball at his feet most of the time. 


This shows continuity from last season as the team was adapting to the former Barcelona youngster becoming a key player. He now dominates his flank with more and more ease as time passes. The Spaniard looked even more impressive than at the end of last season and will surely be one of the players to watch in this team.


The second observation to make is one that was already noticeable last season. Wolves tend to increase intensity in the second half by pressing more and getting the ball up the pitch quicker. 

Their passing network in the first half of matches this season shows the ball mainly moving between the centre-backs and the midfielders. However, in the second half, passes become more direct, with passing combinations to the forward and right-sided attacking midfielder becoming very frequent. 


This was also clear in the end product against Guardiola’s side, where Wolves went from creating opportunities for two shots in the first-half to five in the second. This appears to be a tactical decision which, if perfected, could take many teams by surprise.

Wolves seem to be focusing on improving these patterns to make them part of their regular tactics. In fact, they’re increasingly relying on Traoré who has become one of the most talked-about players in the league last season, due to the technical progress he made coupled with his physical prowesses.

Nuno’s men have risen from the Championship to playing in the Europa League within three seasons by perfecting these tactics. All there is left to prove is their prowess on the European stage. 

All the graphics and visualisations in this article use Wyscout data and were produced in the Twenty3 Content Toolbox.

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