The world’s oldest cup tournament started for both Wolves and Manchester United this week. As top-caliber teams in English football, they entered the competition in the third round and with similar campaigns in the Premier League. The home side occupies seventh place, with just one point less than the Red Devils, the fifth-placed team. Since Wolverhampton were promoted, they have been a troubling match-up for United, and the history of the clash between Nuno Espírito Santo and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is particularly good in favour of the Portuguese boss (two wins and three draws).
Although the recent results have been sort of inconsistent, with three losses in the last five games, here the Wolves’ gaffer is trying to put a rotation among the players into going along with new positioning of them. Ole also makes changes and is aiming to revitalize the team after the 2-0 loss to Arsenal in the last Premier League fixture. Therefore, this tactical analysis will point out the main tactical points from Nuno Espírito Santo and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s sides in this goalless FA Cup clash.
For Wolves, even with the five changes to the personnel, the Portuguese coach adopted different positioning to his players. The home side’s 3-4-3 structure was untouched in form, but some improvisations took place – Leander Dendoncker, who was playing as a defensive-midfielder, went back to the centre-back position while one of the CBs, Romain Saïss, took his place in the second line.
Rui Patrício gave place to John Ruddy in the goal and Max Kilman entered Ryan Bennett’s spot in the defence. Rúben Vinagre, who played well last match against Watford, replaced Jonny Castro as the left wing-back and João Moutinho rested while his compatriot, Rúben Neves, started. In the line of attack, the youngster Ben Ashley-Seal was the striker in Raúl Jiménez’s place, his debut as a starter in the first team.
There were seven changes in the visitors’ lineup in comparison to their last game, besides the high number of injuries that have been devastating Ole’s options – mainly at defence and in the middle. In the first line, both full-backs were rested, giving space to the captain Ashley Young and the youngster Brandon Williams, and the two starters at the centre-back position, Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelöf, were maintained.
As Pogba and McTominay were battling different problems, Andreas Pereira was the second man in the first middle line on the United’s 4-2-3-1 system, next to Matic. In front of them, Daniel James changed sides to occupy Rashford’s left-wing, giving space to Tahith Chong in the right, with Juan Mata orchestrating in the middle and Mason Greenwood as the lone striker.
Wolves’ style of play
The 3-4-3 formation used by Nuno Espírito Santo is usually used with a combination of two defensive-midfielders with good passing ability to move the ball up the field to their wingers. In midfield, Wolves start with two wing-backs who can push high but are expected to drop in the defensive phase. In his tactics, there is a lot of movement, mainly on the wide areas where the wing-backs have the possibility to overlap to the goal line or enter the area, while the wingers come short to create dribbling – either in the middle or on the sides.
The base structure of Wolves’ formation is set and the Portuguese boss does not modify it a lot. Besides the changes for the defensive phase, when the wing-backs reorganize themselves into a five-man line of defence, Nuno’s 3-4-3 remains untouchable almost every time in the attack. They look to take advantage of gaps in the opposing defence by moving without the ball. It happens primarily with the defensive-midfielders: while one retains position to help building-up from the defence, the other explores the space created in enemy’s land.
As usual, they posted themselves this way against Manchester United, which led to some pros and cons for the home-side. Wolves’ formation can be easily outnumbered in the middle due to the wide positioning and constant overlapping of their wing-backs, which is particularly a problem against opposition with a loaded midfield like United. Ole’s 4-2-3-1 made Nuno adjust and wait defensively in the first half, without the high-pressing system he enjoys playing.
Because of the big concern of closing the middle, going along with the retreating of the wing-backs to a deep five-man line of defence, Wolves saw gaps between their lines in the wide areas, where mainly Chong and Greenwood took advantage
Wolverhampton’s prime style of passing can be seen when the team build-up from a high pressing opposition. United started with a high and voluminous marking up the field, which made Nuno’s side space themselves to create passing angles as well as making a possible press inefficient. The ball-possessing idea of the Portuguese coach differs from other famous ones because it prioritizes more spacing of his players, without loading a block of passing options.
With three centre-backs spaced on the field, the ball side defensive-midfielder goes to a wide position and releases the wing-backs up, making the opposing defence keep up with them and creating opportunities to build-up calmly.
They like to construct their play from the sides, once the middle is generally outnumbered, and with three players forming a triangle in the wide areas with the defensive-midfielder, the wing-back and the winger, and the centre-forward as an option inside the area or retracting and giving space on the box. While building-up in one wing, on the weak-side the other wing-back stays wide and the winger cuts inside to the box.
In the last third of the field, Wolves continuously overlapped, with the winger coming short to help the creation and the wing-back surpassing the defensive line to generate chances in the box with crosses or back passes. They tried 25 crosses this game, but completed just 8 of them (32%) – these were 8 of their 12 shots. The conductive midfielder, generally João Moutinho and in this game, for the most part, Rúben Neves, places himself in a between-the-lines position, created by the wide spacing and the retraction of the other defensive-midfielder, to build-up with passes to the flanks.
Against Manchester United, Nuno’s side created space between their lines, mostly in the first half, since their two-man first line of midfield stopped Wolves’ chances of ball carrying in the middle, seen by the 143 times they lost possession. That made the attack look for Traoré’s individuality in the right and the constant overlapping of Vinagre and Jota on the left side.
At the defensive end, the home side were not brilliant either but did their jobs. They transitioned from the attacking 3-4-3 to a 5-2-3 formation when defending, and this structure changed more than the offensive one. Depending on the side of the ball (and who are the combined opposition there), the weak-side winger moves into a line of three in midfield, making a 5-3-2, or at other circumstances both wingers go back to form a four-man middle line, going with a 5-4-1. The last option appears more when Wolves are in a deep defensive formation and when the opposition has full control of the ball and posted themselves offensively.
When the opposition has not fully transitioned to offence, Nuno Espírito Santo likes to press high on the pitch. Even if they did not use it much in this match, they press with the three-man line of attack high on the ball and one of the midfielders helping, as they try to cut opposing passing options and force them to get rid of the ball. The Wolves are well-coached to work with angles in this kind of situations, positioning their wing-backs and the other defensive-midfielder in areas where the opponents could not find lanes to escape, even in the back.
The way Wolverhampton operates when recovering the ball is not limited to speedy counters. Nuno’s team knows when to take advantage of the disorganized defence and read their options, but when there is not a real chance of turning a quick attack on, they are not ashamed to take the ball back to the centre-backs and build-up patiently. They do like to close out the wide areas and benefit from the high volume of players there when regaining possession, which is clearly seen on their pressure on throw-ins.
Manchester United’s style of play
On the other side, the Red Devils like to play in a 4-2-3-1 creating space in the transition to attack, but with a condensed and loaded attacking phase. In the middle, when paired with Andreas Pereira, Matic took a more static role, while Andreas tended to move up and from side to side on the pitch, creating room mainly for Mata to operate in the gaps. The Spaniard was responsible to orchestrate the movement upfront with Greenwood, who likes to get out of his position to drive wide.
Solskjaer has created a reputation for himself of being especially good at adjusting his system to take advantage of the opposition, mostly because of the positive performances against stronger teams in the big-six. Even though one of the complaints about this United team is that they have not been able to impose themselves as the stronger side – and this time was no different. There were no variations during the match and the changes of personnel had no effect either.
Their 4-2-3-1 against Wolves started well though, and they dominated the ball in the first half with 62% possession. Even with that superiority, United had difficulties creating in front of a 5-4-1 defence with their centre-midfielders stacked without space, and that led to constant tries of both Maguire and Lindelöf to break opposing lines with passes from the back. Responding to that difficulty, Mata went down the field to help the build-up and created space for the other midfielders to move.
The construction of plays took place in the wide areas, starting with the full-backs, and tended to go from the side to the middle. Mata’s movement was crucial here once he almost always appeared a passing option and a one-two pass creator, which led to early chances from both wings with Chong, James and Greenwood.
When in full control of the possession, the reds of Manchester overloaded the last line of the attack and pushed Wolves back, imposing a 3-2-5 structure. The players’ position depended on the side of the play, but generally Williams overlapped and Young stayed to compose the first line of defence. That way, the last line was made by Williams, James, Mata, Greenwood and Chong, who switched positions between them and went to the ball side to help create.
In the last third, their chances came from the side of the field to the tips of the box, as they liked to liberate space inside for the wide men to cut. That was specifically well used in the first half as they connected seven of their 12 shots in that period. The problem though is that as they pushed Wolves’ lines back, there was less space to invade their box, so from those seven shots, four were from outside. Even so, their build-up phase to the attack generally took place with a block of four players advancing on the wide as Mata was the catalyst to their choices.
As the home side tried to compensate for their wide defensive problems, Manchester United started to occupy the space between the lines gaps that the opposition gave them. On the other side, even with that space, they were in front of a five-man line and had little vertical room to surpass the Wolves’ defenders.
When defending, they closed out the middle and made Wolves’ life difficult to progress from there. The numerical advantages in that sector also helped them to make a quick offensive transition when the ball was recovered, mainly in the first half, where they were marking high up the pitch.
Although the Red Devils’ opted to start defending high, there was little pressure. They preferred to work two lines together: the first one with Mata and Greenwood and then both wingers closing as the second line of defence. That way, the first line looked for the ball, while the other worked to cut passing lanes and/or was responsible for tackling if the opposing player passed the press.
In the defensive phase, United opted to transition from the 4-4-2 to the 4-5-1 at times, with Chong moving back, crucial to defend the high working Vinagre-Jota duo. Greenwood and James, on the other side, suffered to chase Traoré and Doherty, where most of the Wolves’ chances were created. Even so, the compact line of midfield helped them to disarm and intercept: 17 and 13 in the game respectively.
United created blocks of four players to close out on the triangles made by Nuno’s side, that way they could outnumber them on creation and also in a possible counter attack, once Wolverhampton were vulnerable due to the lack of personnel in the midfield area.
This analysis showed Wolves’ tactics were well accomplished after some games where they started losing and came back to win. However, they need to work on creating opportunities other than crossing from the goal line before the Old Trafford replay.
For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer it was another disappointing match where his team could impose itself but did not. United are showing less than expected in terms of tactical repertoire this season. Some positive flashes from Chong and the good work between the opposition’s lines orchestrated by Mata though still show there is room to improve.