Premier League 2018/19 Tactical Analysis: Nuno Santo’s tactical tinkering at Wolves

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Artwork by @chapulana

This was originally a justification for the 3-4-3 formation employed by Wolves. This slowly transformed into an explorative piece into why Nuno Espirito Santo has adopted this slightly different tactical system in the Premier League. It is clear to see why Nuno Santo has made some slight changes in order to get the best out of his players. This tactical analysis attempts to unravel the reasoning behind the subtle changes in Wolves’ new system.

The statistics behind the formations

Purely looking at Wolves from a formational point of view, if we look at the average positioning of players, Wolves have not switched from the 5-3-2 formation since the second Shrewsbury cup match. In that time, they have played 16 games and amassed 25 points.

Interestingly, in the previous 16 games where Wolves tinkered between a predominant 3-4-3 (5-2-3), 3-4-1-2 (5-2-1-2) and 3-5-2 (5-3-2), they amassed 31 points against differing quality opposition.

Furthermore, when comparing the formations through Understat, we can see no pattern of xG differentials between the formations.

Burnley vs. Wolves

In the Premier League match against Burnley, I couldn’t help but see some deficiencies in the 3-5-2 formation at which they were playing.

They struggled to break down Burnley’s deep defensive block. Often times, Ruben Neves would drop into the back four. This created a four vs two situations, eliminating Wolves’ numerical superiority further up the pitch. Burnley’s wingers would take out the wing-backs. Burnley’s central midfielders would mark João Moutinho and Leander Dendoncker, who were often at times in direct line with Deigo Jota and Raúl Jiménez. All in all, this meant Burnley could sit comfortably in their block, without any real threat of being played through.

Compounded by the inability or unwillingness of any of the Wolves ball carriers to step in and drag out a Burnley player, Wolves created a meek 0.6 xG.

Systems not formations

However, upon reflection, I realised this wasn’t a formational issue. If only I had heeded the words of the great Nuno a bit sooner. In a hilarious yet wisdom filled interview in which he took exception to a reporter who tried to box his side into a specific formation. As Nuno said, football is fluid and so to his system.

This is the clear distinction between a system and a formation. Systems are a more complex and over-arching term in order to describe a way of playing which can incorporate many different formations. The difference is important in allowing us to analyse and breakdown the way in which certain teams play.

It is clear that Wolves have undergone somewhat of a transformation as of late in terms of their system.

Firstly, it isn’t purely a 3-5-2. In numerous moments of the games in which the system has been employed, Wolves have shifted positionally in order to resemble a hybrid shape, one which employs Dendoncker in a false inside winger role when Wolves are in possession.

This rotation of sorts begins with Neves dropping into the back three to form a back four. Usually, this occurs when teams press Wolves with a front three. Surprisingly against both Burnley and Watford Neves still rotated out regardless of the fact they set up with a front two.

Tactical Analysis Wolves Premier League Analysis Statistics
Wolves’ rotation which sees Dendoncker act as an inside winger.

Once Neves drops out, the wing-backs stay high with both Jota and Dendoncker occupying the half-spaces and Jimenez down the middle. This allows Wolves an alternative shape when building up consequently adding variability in their play.

The change in Wolves’ defensive set up

Wolves’ defensive set up has changed slightly, sitting most often in a 5-3-2 mid-block now, as opposed to a 5-2-3 mid-block earlier in the season.

When sitting in the mid-block, Wolves shut off the central passing lanes and areas, leaving the only space to play high and down the sides where the opposition full-backs are located. This sucks the opposition full-backs out of a deeper position, often making them advance into more progressive areas deep into Wolves’ half. When the ball goes to the full-back, one of Moutinho or Dendoncker (depending on which side it is on) will go out wide and address the full-back.

Tactical Analysis Wolves Premier League Analysis Statistics
Wolves’ deep 5-3-2 block.

This has a twofold effect for Wolves. Because Jota and Jimenez can stay more central, they exert less effort defensively, which shifts the workload onto Moutinho and Dendoncker. A favourable outcome as both players have excellent running capacity. Secondly, it creates a space in transition for Wolves to exploit, with Jimenez and Jota making inside to outside runs. It is in very similar fashion to the runs Moura and Son tend to make when playing up front for Tottenham, especially against the bigger sides.

This is where Jota has excelled as of late. It places the diminutive attacker in a better position in transition to be further ahead of the ball. Jota is excellent when running into channels and the new system allows this strength to flourish. Furthermore, he is then often 1v1 with the opposition centre-backs.

The improvement in Diogo Jota

Since moving from a wider position to more centrally, Jota’s xGper90 has increased from 0.19 to 0.39, nearly a double increase in production. The same can be said for shots per 90, increasing to 1.37 to 2.46 and finally xGA per90 increasing from 0.6 to 0.26.

As Wolves’ top goal scorer last year, Diogo Jota’s maiden Premier League season was met with anticipation and high expectations from many avid followers of the league.

Jota struggled at the beginning of the Premier League season but has since been burgeoning, repeating the same form and quality seen in the Championship last year.

I believe the recent upturn in his form is down to the subtle tweaks to Wolves’ system. Furthermore, there is credence to the idea that this a deliberate tweak by Nuno Santo in order to get the best out of one of his team’s key players.

A jack of all trades: Leander Dendoncker

A further reason for tweaking the system is the problem it solves in terms of who regularly starts in the side. Nuno Santo obviously favours a more settled starting line. Up until a few weeks ago, Wolves had the lowest number of players featuring in a Premier League Season with 18.

A problem position for Wolves has been the right-wing position, with Helder Costa, Ivan Cavaleiro and Adama Traore mainly competing to start, but with none nailing down a spot. Santo now has switched to three central midfielders including Leander Dendoncker. This has allowed him to settle on a more consistent lineup.

Nuno Santo has found a player who he seems happy with and aids the team in numerous ways on the pitch. Dendoncker had a slow start to his time in Molineux, finding game time hard to come by, but since his start against Manchester City on the January 14, he has started 15 of the 16 proceeding games.

The reason being that Dendoncker addresses a number of weaknesses that were inherent in Wolves’ previous system. With Neves and Moutinho, you have two excellent ballplayers who conversely can at times lack a little in the mobility department. Dendoncker, on the other hand, excels in many areas, including covering the most ground regularly in distance covered and average speed for Wolves.

Whilst he isn’t the quickest player in the team, he has a rangy running style. This perfectly complements Wolves’ best attribute, counter-attacking.

As they sit reasonably deep, the distance in the counter-attack is quite large and something at which both Moutinho and Neves struggle to cover. Additionally, with both wing backs often bombing forward, Neves and Moutinho are needed in order for extra security in case of ball loss. By having Dendoncker, Wolves have someone who can and does regularly break from midfield and gives Wolves an extra man in the counter-attack.

Tactical Analysis Wolves Premier League Analysis StatisticsDendoncker making a forward run beyond the strikers in a counter attack for Wolves against Liverpool.

This was evidenced with his cross to Jimenez against Watford who somehow unbelievably missed. Last weekend, Dendoncker further added to his growing reputation and importance for Wolves scoring the winner against Fulham.

Tactical Analysis Wolves Premier League Analysis Statistics

Dendoncker’s run on the counter which should have seen a tap in for Wolves’ if not for Jimenez’s poor finish.Defensively, Dendoncker aids in immediate ball recovery and covering gaps in midfield that were previously too big to cover for a midfield two of Moutinho and Neves.

Dendoncker is a well-rounded player who has sufficient attributes both defensively and offensively. Whilst not being outstanding in any one particular department, his ability to perform a wide array of tasks reasonably well is vital to Wolves.


Whilst simplistic, I believe the above-mentioned factors are a key reason for the recent change of system by Nuno Santo. With the introduction of Dendoncker and the resulting effects both defensively and transitionally, it allows Nuno Santo to gain the most out of the current crop of players at hand. Furthermore, it adds a tad more variability in their play, reducing their weaknesses and strengthening their strengths. It will be interesting to see whether he tinkers again next season, but one thing can be said for sure: Wolves have a seriously good manager on their hands.

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