Under trying circumstances, Wolves reluctantly travelled over to Athens amid the Coronavirus outbreak to play the first leg in the last 16 of the Europa League. The game started very slow, almost being played at pre-season pace in front of an empty Karaiskaki Stadium. The game kicked slightly into life as Olympiakos were reduced to 10 men as Ruben Semedo brought down Diogo Jota at the edge of his own box. Wolves showed no real intent even with the extra man and were very sloppy in possession. They were punished as Youssef El Arabi opened the scoring for the Greek side just as they did against Arsenal two weeks before. The Premier League side, however, responded through substitute Pedro Neto’s deflected shot earning Wolves a vital away 1-1 draw.
Pedro Martins’ Olympiakos side dominated and controlled the game even with 10 men as the Greek side’s tactics nullified any threat from Wolves. Further detail will be provided in this tactical analysis, going in-depth into both teams’ tactics of how Olympiakos ensured they controlled the game seamlessly against a Wolves side pushing for a Champions League spot in their domestic league.
Olympiakos set up in a 4-3-3 formation. Pedro Martins made three changes to his side that lost 3-2 away to PAOK in the semi-final of the Greek Cup. The first change Martins made was the goalkeeper as José Sá came into the side replacing Konstantinos Tzolakis. Martins also looked to gain some defensive solidity as Ousseynou Ba came into the heart of the Greek side’s defence replacing Pape Cissé. The last of Martins’ changes came in the form of leading goalscorer in the Greek Super League El Arabi replacing Ahmed Hassan as Olympiakos looked to take another scalp from a Premier League side.
For this Europa League tie, Wolves switched formation from a 3-5-2 formation that they played in 0-0 draw with Brighton to a more balanced 3-4-3 formation. As a result of this formation tweak, Nuno Espirito Santo made one change to his side – Leander Dendoncker came out of the centre midfield position as he dropped to the bench, making it a two in the centre of midfield. Replacing Dendoncker was the illustrious Adama Traoré who moved into the right-wing position as Nuno Espirito Santo went with a more offensive approach in a bid to get an away goal in Athens, as we’ll see in this tactical analysis.
Olympiakos’ positional play and movement ensure they control the game
Wolves had lobbied UEFA to postpone the game – an appeal which was rejected – after Olympiakos owner Evangelos Marinakis announced he had tested positive for coronavirus on Tuesday. Nuno Espirito Santo was angered at the decision to play in such conditions calling it ‘absurd’. Wolves wanted to be anywhere but Athens and this was reflected in their play early on as they were playing at walking pace. The Greek side took advantage of Wolves’ lack of intensity as they dominated the ball with 75% possession after the first 15 minutes. Even when Wolves looked to try and win the ball back it was apparent that they were unable to do so as Olympiakos played the ball around with ease as Wolves had to play a lot more defensive setting up in a 3-4-3 medium block. With Wolves playing in a medium block out of possession it meant that Andreas Bouchalakis playing at the base of the midfield could drop deep into space, receive the ball with time and play a forward pass as Wolves were not engaging them high up the pitch.
A player with time and space is only dangerous if there is movement up ahead to advance the ball and Olympiakos’ movement and positional play was subtle but extremely effective. Martins’ clever tactics ensure his team took advantage of the numerical advantage in the centre of midfield a 3v2 situation. The movement of the three Olympiakos’ midfielder caused Rúben Neves and João Moutinho problems. First, as I mentioned above, Bouchalakis dropped deep to receive the ball, therefore Neves and Moutinho had a decision to make, press onto the Greek midfielder, leaving one/ two players free in behind or drop off, giving Bouchalakis space as they did to play the ball around with ease.
The second problem the two Wolves midfielders faced was through the positions picked up by Mady Camara and Guilherme as they split wide and operated in the half-spaces. This created indecision for the two Wolves’ midfielders as they could mark the two Olympiakos’ midfielders but that would open the middle of the pitch up. Or the Wolves midfielders could block the middle but that would leave the two Olympiakos in space to receive a pass in an advanced position.
The indecision faced by the Wolves’ midfielders through clever positional play and movement is illustrated in the image below – Bouchalakis drops deep and has time and space to pick a pass. Moutinho goes to press him but hesitates, this indecision opens the door for a pass to Camara in space to progress the ball to a dangerous position. Such great subtle tactics that meant Olympiakos controlled the game and overran Wolves in midfield.
As a result of Wolves being overrun in midfield, Jota recognised this and tucked in to help his two teammates in the centre. However again, Olympiakos took advantage of Jota’s action through clever positional play to ensure they had a man in space. The Olympiakos captain and right-back Omar Elabdellaoui stayed wide on the touchline and advanced just past Jota who tucked in to help his teammates in middle. Elabdellaoui was free as Valbuena tucked in slightly ensuring his captain had even more space to operate in plus Valbuena was a passing option inside when Elabdelloui received the ball.
Making the situation more advantageous was Vinagre’s aggressive rash press when Elabdelloui received the ball on the wing. Vinagre sprung out of the line too aggressively to stop Elabdelloui, but in doing so he overcommitted himself, leaving space in behind, as you can see in the image below. Elabdelloui was able to bypass Vingare by combining with Valbuena inside and then looking for the return of the French man in the space vacated by Vingare’s action. Olympiakos targeted Wolves’ left side and that was their main attacking avenue.
Olympiakos’ impressive defensive shape
Olympiakos were not just dominating the game while they were in possession. When they lost the ball, their defensive actions were also very efficient as their attacking positional play in terms of defensive shape. Pedro Martins’ side, like all goods teams, defended well from the front in terms of counter-pressing. When Olympiakos lost possession they swarmed numbers around the ball in an aggressive counter-press to ensure they won the ball back fast and stopped any counter-attack from Wolves.
In the image below, a prime example of Olympiakos’ impressive counter-press is on show – as they lose the ball Traoré looks to set Wolves on the counter-attack but he is swarmed and outnumbered by Olympiakos players who win the ball back and stop the potential danger.
Everything was going to plan for Pedro Martins and his side up until the 28th minute when Ruben Semedo got sent off leaving Olympiakos to play the remainder of the game with 10 men. Olympiakos, therefore, took a more cautious approach to defending, stopping their aggressive counter-pressing. Pedro Martins brought on Pape Cissé for Giorgos Masouras and Camara moved to wing making it a switch from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-1 formation. Even with the difficultly of playing with a man down Olympiakos adapted well as their defensive shape was so well organised they could deal with Wolves’ threat easily.
Olympiakos played deeper and kept little to no space between the lines as they moved as a unit. Also what was interesting is the right and left-wingers man marked the Wolves wing-backs, nullifying their influence. This meant that the full-back could tuck in narrow beside their centre-backs, ensuring a compact shape, as you can see in the image below. Wolves found it hard to break Olympiakos down and the Greek side looked comfortable defending.
Wolves’ tactics do not have the desired effect
To make use of the extra man Nuno Espirito Santo decided to bring on Pedro Neto for Matt Doherty. This meant that Traoré and Neto switch positions as the young Portuguese player moved into the right-wing position and Traoré moved to right wing-back. However, Nuno Espirito Santo looked to play an aggressive offensive strategy, essentially playing a 3-2-5 formation in possession.
Both Vinagre and Traoré played high and wide as wingers, as you can see in the image below. Jota and Neto played in the half-spaces alongside Jiménez in a bid to make use of the extra man and grab an away goal.
By committing so many bodies forward, Wolves were at risk at being caught short in defence if they lost possession. Nuno’s aggressive tactic did backfire as result and Wolves conceded a goal on the counter as the wing-backs were caught too far up the pitch and they could not make effective defensive recovery runs to stop Olympiakos from taking the lead. In the image below, Olympiakos win the ball back and play out past Wolves’ forward players and midfield.
Guilherme makes a run into the space left by Vinagre, he tries to make a recovery run back but is caught too far up the pitch. As a result, the Wolves defence have to shift across to stop the danger. Over on the opposite side, Traoré has also been caught high up the pitch so when the Wolves defence shifts across, he is not able to tuck in as full-backs should as he is essentially playing as a winger. El Arabi has acres of space and taps home Guilherme’s cross.
In the one instance that Neto dropped into midfield, he caused huge problems as you can see in the image below. Neto picks up a great position as he decides to move inside into the middle instead of out wide. He then creates a numerical advantage in midfield and is in space in a dangerous position. When he receives the ball off Jota, this triggers Tsimikas to shoot out, leaving Jimenez in space.
Neto plays Jimenez through for Wolves’ first shot on target in the game and a huge opportunity but it was a fantastic point-blank save from Sa. Nuno failed to recognise Neto playing in the 10 position, which caused Olympiakos trouble and he just reverted back to type.
Nuno Espirirto Santo and his Wolves side were very fortunate to get a draw from this game. Olympiakos dominated the game both in possession and out of possession. Ruben Semedo had a huge effect on Pedro Martins’ tactics as they became more cautious and less aggressive. Olympiakos adapted very well to going a man down as they defended extremely well in a very organised defensive shape.
Nuno changed his team’s tactics but his aggressive approach backfired. Still, his side pulled through to nick a result in the end. Who knows when this second leg will be played out or any matches for that case, we just have to sit tight and wait.