West Ham vs Wolves Tactical Preview 27/09/2020

Wolves are consistent.

They’ve finished 7th in back-to-back seasons and their performances have been remarkably similar across both of them:

They turned some losses into draws last season and tightened up the defence even further (at the slight expense of some attacking output) but they’ve been comfortably the 5th-6th best team in the country in their two seasons since promotion, at least according to the expected metrics.

And it’s not just consistency in performance; it’s consistency in personnel. Have a look at the team sheet from their first Premier League game in 18/19:

Wolves have used fewer players (21) than any other Premier League team in each of the last two seasons

There have been some minor tweaks — Saïss has usurped Bennett at CB, with Boly switching from LCB to RCB, Adama Traore has replaced Hélder Costa, and Doherty was sold to Spurs this summer — but continuity has been the name of the game.

Nuno Espírito Santo has mostly persisted with the 3–4–3 system that got them out of the Championship, although that has occasionally been swapped out for a 3–5–2, and the playing style has remained largely the same across both seasons and shapes.

Generally speaking, Wolves set up to compress the space in their own half and look to break forward from there. As a result, they consistently rank towards the bottom of pressing metrics like passes per defensive action:

And clearly it’s worked for them: Wolves have had the 5th best defensive record in the last two seasons and registered the second lowest xGA last year.

The main purpose of this compact defensive shape is to let Wolves get away with Neves and Moutinho in central midfield together without exposing their lack of athleticism.

The backline and the midfield line always play in close proximity

The way they’ve achieved a solid defensive record without utilising traditional destructive midfielders reminds me of Burnley; Neves/Moutinho/Westwood/Cork aren’t your typical shin-snapping brutes in the middle of the park. Both sides instead rely on their structure to defend well, rather than individuals.

Wolves condense the space on the edge of their own box to congest the middle of the pitch

That solid structure gives Neves and Moutinho (and Coady) a platform to create from, safe in the knowledge they have numbers around to bail them out if they get dispossessed. The job of these deep passers is to move possession from the back half of the pitch into Wolves’ primary attacking threats: their ball carriers.

Last season Wolves attempted more dribbles than any other Premier League side:

2nd highest for completed dribbles too

Unsurprisingly, they had 3 players in the top 20 for attempted dribbles last season: Adama Traore was 2nd, Diogo Jota 7th, and Raúl Jiménez popped up in 17th. Traore is the one who gets the headlines, but the latter’s inclusion is the most intriguing as he’s the only proper centre forward to make it onto the list (Jordan Ayew, Joshua King, Son Heung-min were above Jiménez, and Antonio was two places below in 18th, but they all played a decent chunk of minutes out wide last season).

Jiménez had more touches of the ball vs Sheffield United than any other Wolves player — a rarity for a centre forward. He’s really fucking good.

Style. Shape. Personnel. Performance. You know exactly what you are getting from this Wolves team.

Or at least you did.

We’re only 2 games into the 20/21 Premier League season, but there are signs that Nuno is evolving his team slightly.

Whereas previously it was either 3–4–3 or 3–5–2, Nuno’s seemingly found a way to synthesise the two. In the 3–5–2, the third CM slot alongside Neves and Moutinho was usually occupied by Leander Dendoncker whose role is similar to the one Tomáš Souček plays for us (i.e a more robust physical and aerial presence who supports attacks by getting into the box for crosses). This season, that third player has been Pedro Neto whose role has been different:

Neto defends as a central midfielder but attacks like a left winger, allowing Wolves to switch between 3–5–2 and 3–4–3 depending on the phase of the game.

Against Arsenal we struggled with Saka’s out-to-in movement on the left; if Neto starts, the right side of our defence will have a different test with his in-to-out shifts in position.

That said, it’s important to note that Wolves lost Matt Doherty to Spurs this summer and have been playing Adama at RWB, so it’s unclear how much this rejig has been an attempt to stick some plasters over that situation.

The injury to Jonny Otto is also a factor here. He generally played a more conservative role than Doherty, but Nuno has opted to stick new signing Marcal — who had most recently been playing on the left side of a back 3 for Lyon — at LWB rather than the more attack-mind Rúben Vinagre, perhaps in an attempt to balance out Traore’s defensive deficiencies. Neto’s inclusion could have been a way to compensate for the lack of attacking impetus and width that comes with playing a central defender as a wing-back down the left. Whether that continues now that Nélson Semedo has been brought in remains to be seen but, whichever way you slice it, things have definitely been different so far.

That signing might have other consequences for this team. Looking at these comparative radars from Football Slices, we can see the differences between Doherty vs Semedo:

Those dribbling numbers make Semedo seem like a great fit for Nuno’s approach

On the face of it this looks like a total upgrade, but these numbers don’t quite tell the full story.

For one, there are the obvious caveats that:

Even so, it seems like Semedo offers much more in terms of passing, dribbling, and defensive activity than Doherty did. But the sections on the Football Slices radar don’t accurately capture the role Doherty performed for this Wolves. Here’s a few other per 90 metrics that illustrate it better:

SemedoxG: 0.04/ Key Passes: 0.56/ Shots: 0.34/ Touches in opp. box: 2.45

Doherty xG: 0.16/ Key Passes: 0.73/ Shots: 1.08/ Touches in opp. box: 3.02

Doherty essentially functioned as an extra striker from RWB for Nuno, regularly arriving late in the box to get on the end of shots. Wolves generally defended with 7 players and attacked with 4: either the 3 forwards + Doherty in the 3–4–3 or the 2 strikers + Dendoncker + Doherty in the 3–5–2.

Either way, Doherty was a vital cog in their attacking system:

On top of that, almost all of Patricio’s goal kicks were sent out to Doherty. When he’s previously been absent, Dendoncker has been the target. If neither play, Wolves need someone else to act as an outlet.

If Patricio replicates this pattern with Semedo, we could struggle — the Rice/Fornals/Cresswell/Masuaku axis down our left isn’t the best in the air.

On paper, Nélson Semedo looks like a different type of player, so it’ll be interesting to see whether Wolves adjust their system to accommodate Semedo or whether they try to mould Semedo into the Doherty role. It’s always worth remembering that a player’s data output is descriptive of what they are doing, not what they’re capable of. He’ll presumably slot straight into the side, so we’ll get the first glimpse of what he’ll be like in the Premier League.

So what issues are West Ham facing here?

1) Stuck in the middle with you

As mentioned, Wolves are good at denying space in the middle of the pitch. The problem with playing a 3–4–3 is that your CMs can easily find themselves outnumbered when playing against 3-man midfields, especially when those teams shuffle the ball to side to side. Wolves have a solution to that issue though — the wide CBs step forward out of the backline and are happy to follow opposition forwards high up the pitch if they drop off. They effectively act as a 3rd CM:

This approach to defending is all part of their attacking strategy. Their first goal of the season against Sheffield United was practically the Platonic ideal of a Wolves goal:

The team sits deep and wins the ball on the edge of their own box. Moutinho plays a brilliant cushioned pass forward to Podence. He dribbles the ball half the length of the pitch and swings in a cross for Jiménez, who adds the finishing touch with a bit of individual quality.

And this is the blueprint for Wolves: clog the centre to funnel their opponents wide > defend the cross with numbers and let Moutinho/Neves pick up the pieces on the edge of the box> distribute the ball into the space the opposition wide players have left unattended>wingers carry the team forward on the break.

It’s something they look to do regularly:

Wolves are really good at generating counters from their own defensive corners.

So the important thing for us is that Fredericks/Masuaku/Bowen/Fornals don’t overcommit when we’ve got the ball in crossing situations. If we do, we’re playing into their hands. Souček’s dedication to getting into the box — and his struggles at defending in transition — could see us come unstuck here.

All of the tactical tweaks we’ve seen from Moyes so far this season have seen Fornals adopt a more central starting position when we’ve got the ball and he’s going to have a hard time finding space here against a Wolves team who are set up to deny him that. We’ve also seen Michail Antonio struggle in games where he doesn’t have space to isolate defenders or run in behind. Wolves aren’t going to afford him those opportunities, so we need to find alternative ways to get Antonio in the game.

On Monday, City did show that the Wolves structure can be breached with this kind of forward>back>through> cutback set of passes:

So just copy City then. Easy.

2) Stick or twist with the shape?

I had my reservations about the system we played vs Arsenal, but Moyes will presumably go for the same approach here and use the narrow midfield shape to try and constrict Neves/Moutinho’s time on the ball.

Back 3 vs back 3 games are almost always boring because these systems with lots of players in the back half of the pitch tend to be quite sterile in possession. I think that’s going to be a big problem for this West Ham side.

If you look at other teams around the league who have recently had success using similar shapes, the thing that stops them from being totally anaemic going forward is having players in the back 3 who contribute in the attacking phase: Wolves play two central midfielders at CB in Coady and Saïss; Sheffield United have O’Connell and Basham supporting wide overloads in the opposition 3rd; Arsenal have David Luiz, passer extraordinaire, and Kieran Tierney, a marauding LB, in their back 3; and last season Brighton moved the ball up the pitch via Dunk’s passing or Webster’s ball carrying and this time round they’ve added Ben White to the mix, who did both of those things to an excellent standard for Leeds in the Championship.

Last season, Conor Coady registered the 4th highest total progressive distance of any outfield player with his passing (basically the distance in yards the ball moves towards the opposition goal from a player’s passing). Webster and Dunk were 11th and 8th, whereas Saïss was 22nd (and would’ve been higher if he’d started the season at CB).

The glimmer of hope for us is that Cresswell pops up in 17th place. That might not be enough though; all of the others have at least two of their centre-backs contributing. In his first season at the club, Diop showed an ability to gallop forward with the ball at his feet but he’s either had that coached out of him, or lost his confidence. We could do with him rediscovering it if we’re going to continue defending in a back 3.

3) Flipping the switch

Wolves are a long ball team.

It’s immediately apparent when you watch them and it jumps out in the numbers, too: Neves, Moutinho, and Coady ranked 3rd, 5th, and 12th for total switches of play (passes that travel >40 yards across the width of the pitch) last season. Lewis Dunk and Virgil van Dijk were the only CBs ahead of Coady.

Wolves’ approach in possession is all about overloading one side of the pitch and switching it out to the wing-back on the other side. They’ll exchange short passes close to the touchline on one flank to draw the opposition over to that side and then try to move it inside into Neves or Moutinho for that cross-field pass. If Wolves get stuck, they quickly swing the ball back and square to Coady so he can hit a deeper switch of play. The wing-back is almost always the outlet pass. You see this pattern again and again and again when you watch them:

They particularly like these left-to-right passes because Moutinho/Neves/Coady can all let the ball run across their bodies as right footers. It’s something they’ve been doing since their promotion season.

The way these passes are fizzed causes the ball to travel quickly to the opposite side of the pitch before their opponents can reorganise and shuffle across. It’s incredibly hard to defend against when executed properly. Antonio needs to cut off these backwards passes to Coady if he can and try to reduce the time the Wolves captain has on the ball.

Our defensive shape vs Arsenal left a lot of space out wide for their WBs and if we defend that narrowly again, we’re leaving Masuaku and Fredericks in one-on-one situations with no cover in front of them. They’ll need to close down the flanks quickly with support from our wide CBs or we’ll get caught out.

4) Assault on Vinagre

Marcal came off in the opening 10 mins vs City and it doesn’t look like he’ll be fit for the game tonight. He was replaced by Rúben Vinagre, who is better going forward but is far less comfortable defensively. He’s not that great at closing down opposition wingers and he often gets his body shape wrong when he’s backtracking in transition:

If he starts, he’s definitely exploitable. We scored down our right last week. We should be looking to target that area of the pitch again.

5) Set Pieces

On attacking corners, Wolves have adopted this bunch-then-break setup. They cluster near the penalty spot and then spread into a line across the 6-yard box with their runs. Saïss seems to be the main target as the 2nd player at the front post:

Defensively, Jiménez and Coady zonally mark the front post and everyone else man marks. They leave a lot of space at the far post, but keep Boly free in the middle of the box so he can deal with deeper deliveries.

Against Arsenal, Cresswell tried to pick out Souček at the far post from his corners. That could be a productive avenue for us, unless Wolves adjust their setup.

It’s tough to feel positive about this one. They’re an excellent side and a bad matchup for us. They’ve regularly beaten us in recent years and it’s little wonder why.

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Cast Iron Tactics

I write long, boring, and increasingly deranged articles about football tactics and West Ham @CastIronTactics on Twitter