This game, for many, was the undercard to the most anticipated match of the year in the Premier League. This was not the case for Wolves, as for them, this was a huge match. Firstly, it was a West Midlands derby and secondly, revenge was the order for Nuno Espírito Santo. As Wolves crashed out of the league cup at the hands of Aston Villa less than two weeks previously.
Wolves certainly did not disappoint as they outfought and outworked an injury-stricken Aston Villa to come out as 2-1 victors in front of a packed Molineux Stadium. Wolves’ quality shone through on the day which I will go through in my tactical analysis that will show how Wolves for large parts dominated this Aston Villa side.
The hosts set up in their 3-4-3 formation with the team remaining unchanged from the draw with Arsenal. Dendoncker and Romain Saïss continue their impressive run in the Wolves defence, either side of club captain Conor Coady. After a number of impressive performances for Nuno Espírito Santo’s side, Traoré remained in the wide right position. Raúl Jiménez, who is also in a great run of form himself after scoring in his last two game, led the line for the hosts.
Dean Smith did not have the same luxury as Wolves and was forced into making three significant changes. Konsa came in for the suspended Engels at the heart of defence. Jed Steer replaced the injured Heaton in between the sticks. The other significant change came more from expectation that club captain Jack Grealish would come back into the starting line-up. Unfortunately, hours before kick-off Grealish failed a fitness test and was not included in the squad.
Overloading Aston Villa’s Wide Areas
Wolves started much better of the two sides in this West Midlands derby. Pundits questioned whether Wolves had the squad depth to compete in the Europa League and the Premier League. That there was a risk Wolves would mirror Burnley‘s poor European juggling act last season which effected them so badly. From early proceedings in this game, the fact that Wolves had a week’s rest and Aston Villa played mid-week in Europe was already seen. Aston Villa would have taken a huge physiological blow in the late defeat to Liverpool which would have explained their lack of energy or guile early on.
Wolves system was more of a factor in why Villa were so sluggish. In the build-up play or when Wolves were playing out from the back, they always had the numerical advantage. Wolves had three defenders and four midfielders against Aston Villa’s three-man forward line and two in midfield pressing them. This at times made it seven vs five in favour of Wolves, making it easy for Wolves to play out past the Villa press and therefore dominate the ball.
With Wolves dominating the ball, Aston Villa dropped in a medium to low block like they did to stop Liverpool for the majority of that game. Wolves, however, had the answers early on to create opportunities – by overloading the wide areas. Wolves created these overloads through great ingenuity. When one of the three Wolves centre-backs had possession against Villa’s medium-low block, Neves pushed slightly wide right and dropped to receive the ball. This made Villa’s left-winger (in this case Trezeguet) start to shoot out of the block to press Neves and left the Wolves right wing-back Doherty and right-winger Traoré 2v1 against Targett. That clever and well-drilled move helped Wolves to create chances.
This was not just happening down the right for Wolves. When Doherty was receiving the ball in those advanced areas there was also an overload on the left at the far post. You could say that Trezeguet and El Ghazi were far more disciplined defensively against Liverpool’s full-backs, of course that was a factor, but I have to pay homage to Wolves’ system where they put way more distractions (in the form of the right and left centre-backs and the CM’s pushing out wide) in the eye line of both wingers in order for them to lose their markers. El Ghazi was definitely more distracted at times, so much so that even when Villa were defending he was still looking up the field and not tending to his defensive duties.
Wolves Stop Villa Progressing
Wolves dictated the play and dominated the ball which forced Villa to sit back in their own half. But, what do Aston Villa love to do? Counter-attack – something they did so well against Liverpool. Wolves however had their homework done – Nuno Espírito Santo did not want to give Aston Villa any foothold in the game. Wolves were alive to the danger when their attack broke down and extremely well drilled to stop Villa’s attempts to progress the ball.
With Jack Grealish, who is so vital to Aston Villa’s ball progression from defence into attack, out injured, another player had to take on his role for the game against Liverpool in his absence. This came in the form of John McGinn, who progressed the ball really well in that game. When McGinn looked to put Villa on the front foot, Wolves targeted him and were alive to him when a Wolves attack broke down. When he received the ball, he was intensely pressed by both Jota and Moutinho who won back the ball or if they could not win the ball they tactically fouled him to stop his progression up the field.
Moutinho’s positional sense when his team were attacking was a huge part in negating John McGinn’s ball progression. When Wolves were attacking down the left, Moutinho would come in and fill the space vacated by Jonny. His position served two purposes. Firstly, he was an option if the left-sided forward players could not cross the ball in. Secondly, and maybe the more important purpose of his position was to stop any potential counter-attacks. Moutinho positioned himself were John McGinn was looking to break with the ball, making it easy to stop and dispossess him. This tactic made sure Wolves kept Villa in their own half.
El Ghazi also showed, like McGinn in the Liverpool game, his ability to progress the ball forward for Villa. El Ghazi is quick, and is such a strong runner, which he uses to get himself into attacking/ crossing opportunities. Wolves were also alive to the danger El Ghazi possessed. Wolves may not have stopped El Ghazi progressing with the ball but their appetite to defend and get men around the ball isolated him. This forced him to cough up the ball or make him try an audacious pass. Wolves in the first half really dominated Villa both on the ball and off the ball meaning they could not get into the game at all.
Aston Villa Changes Reap Reward
With Wolves placing so much emphasis on stopping the more advanced right-sided players for Aston Villa in McGinn and El Ghazi, Guilbert became the free man when Villa had the ball. The problem in the first half was that Guilbert had no space as El Ghazi stayed wide and on the same vertical line. It was therefore much harder for Villa players to identify that he was the free man. It was also easy for Jonny to defend against both Guilbert and El Ghazi so Villa couldn’t create any opportunities.
After the interval, Dean Smith looked to change things and did as both wingers switched sides. As Trezeguet moved to the right-wing, he was given a clear briefing by Smith to create space for Guilbert. These tactics worked instantly as Guilbert’s teammates were looking for him and space was opened up in front of him to get crosses in and create opportunities.
This tactical tweak brought Aston Villa back into the game and they looked the more dangerous side. Trezeguet moved infield and off Guilbert’s line creating space for him. Villa benefited from this greatly and had some good opportunities to score. However, against the run of play, Wolves got a goal from a counter-attack.
Nuno Espírito Santo, with less time to prepare for this game than Aston Villa, devised a great system that made it easy to keep the ball and dominate possession, as shown by this analysis. The system allowed them to form overloads in wide areas to create chances. Without the ball, Wolves set up to dominate territory by not letting Villa out of their own half. Wolves should have finished the game as they overran Aston Villa in the first half. The problem for Wolves which was evident in the first half is their conversion rate. Including this game, Wolves in their last three games have had 62 shots on goal but only scored four.
Wolves’ first goal in this game came just before half time and was gifted to them as Aston Villa left Rúben Neves open at the edge of the box while defending a free. Following such a dominant first-half display, they needed Aston Villa to hand them a goal. A small concern for Nuno Espírito Santo’s side.
Dean Smith summed up Aston Villa’s first-half saying “It was the worst 45 minutes they have ever had”. They had the worst first half but they were still in the game as Wolves did not finish them off. Through a few tactical changes, Aston Villa got control and a foothold in the game after the break. Only for a Jiménez goal set up by the brilliant Traoré with less than ten minutes remaining ended any sort of comeback for Aston Villa. Even with the late goal from Trezeguet, it was a case of too little too late for Dean Smith and his team.
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