Despite the Premier League season being on a temporary hold, it is important to analyse the most impressive stories of the season and the tactical usages which have allowed teams to flourish. Wolverhampton Wanderers are no exception to this and have had what can only be described as an extremely strong season. They sit sixth in the table and they had a real chance of getting into the Champions League before the season was suspended. They were also on course to go far in the Europa League which highlights the excellent job Nuno Espírito Santo has done.
The way Wolves have always played under Nuno is through excellent counter-attacking play. Since he has been in charge, Wolves have developed into one of the best counter-attacking teams in the current world of football. Counter-attacking relies on two important aspects, both of which must be executed at speed. The first step is to transition quickly between defence and attack when the team wins possession. Upon transition, the team must attack at speed to capitalise on a numerical advantage. Wolves match these two criteria and can be classed as one of the best counter-attacking teams in world football. Their ability to get the ball forward in a quick manner when the opposition is at its most vulnerable is exceptional. Raúl Jiménez, Adama Traoré, Diogo Jota have 34 goals between them in all competitions which highlights the attacking output that results in strong counter-attacking play.
This scout report will attempt to look at how Wolves have become the counter-attacking experts in the modern game. This tactical analysis will also look at the aspects of their game which they do well which allow them to counter-attack in the way in which they do. The analysis will examine the tactics that are used in order to achieve this. Should the season continue, they will most certainly be strong favourites to get into the Champions League next season be that through the top four or the Europa League.
One of the main reasons that Wolves have been so strong at counter-attacking is because of their excellent defensive structure. Wolves play with five in defence and coupled with this they use the low block to prevent spaces in behind their defensive line. When linking this to their counter-attack, it means that due to them operating with such a low block, teams have to push high up the pitch to break them down. As a result of this, they can use the pace they have going forward to exploit the spaces that have been left behind. This works extremely well in the games against teams that are higher up in the table that like to keep the ball and get men forward. In their 2-0-win vs Manchester City at the Etihad, this was seen to great effect. The likes of Connor Coady and Willy Boly are excellent defenders and have maintained excellent defensive structures throughout the season. This, therefore, has given the attacking players the freedom to counter-attack to their full extent.
Below is an example of this from the 0-0 draw at Old Trafford against Manchester United. Throughout this game, Wolves limited Manchester United to minimal chances and hit them with some excellent fast motion counter-attacks. This defensive structure we can see involves the midfield as well as it is a collective effort to deny space and then get forward quickly on the counter-attack. The defensive structure provides a solid foundation for the attacking players to get forward which once again highlights why Wolves are so strong at counter-attacking.
The distances between the defensive line and the midfielders in front of them is also something worth analysing. When they do not have the ball and they are implementing the low block, the spaces between the midfielders and defenders are limited to prevent the creative players from the opposing team from receiving the ball on the edge of the area. This is not only an amazing defensive work, however, it also gives them a real platform to build on when they go forward on the counter-attack. This, therefore, highlights the link between having a solid defensive organisation and excellent counter-attacking. It is something that Wolves do very well, and it highlights why their ability to break at pace is occurring on a regular basis. As mentioned, this has often been seen in the games against tougher opponents and teams that like to keep the ball.
Below is an example of the 3-2 way win they obtained at Tottenham Hotspur. We can once again see them in an excellent defensive structure. The back five are in excellent positions, alongside the fact that all the midfield players are in good positions to receive the ball and move forward with the ball in a counter-attacking motion. This is very often the case when Wolves play against the bigger sides and is a good explanation as to why they are often able to get good results against the better teams in the division.
Another aspect of Wolves’ game which has led to them being one of the best counter-attacking is the fact that they often press high intending to win the ball back and be able to counter-attack more effectively. This as opposed to sitting deep against the better teams is used against teams that like to sit back and are not as possession based. This often is effective with the likes of Jiménez, Traoré and Jota having excellent footballing intelligence and the ability to know how to press in the best way. By winning the ball back higher up the pitch it means the opposition is often startled and they have an excellent opportunity to score. This, therefore, highlights how the high press can also be a factor in good counter-attacking football. To the wider point, it once again shows how Wolves have managed to accompany a variety of different techniques to be an excellent counter-attacking team.
Below is an example of the pressing to win the ball back. We can see the front three pressing together to reduce the passing options the defender has. This is excellent pressing and it highlights why Wolves can win the ball higher up the pitch. Having the ability to sometimes press and sometimes sit off has helped them be pragmatic and change their approach based on the opponent.
This structural press containing the front three is effective in many ways. Playing against a rigid back four means that when one of the centre-backs move forward with the ball there is an opportunity to win the ball back and isolate the other centre-back. It’s essential to understand how Wolves do this concerning counter-attacking. They essentially wait for their opponents to make a risky pass so that they can get the ball back in the opposition half. This varies depending on whether they operate with a front three or a front two. The players in the central areas of the pitch also contribute to this. Rúben Neves and João Moutinho are also very good at pressing the ball. By moving them higher up the pitch alongside the forward players it means that the opposing team has less of a chance to come out with the ball and cause them problems. This, therefore, allows them to be more effective with the counter-attack.
Below is another example of this pressing that is structured in winning the ball back to counter-attack well. Winning the ball back in the areas that are seen in the areas below are key to being able to counter-attack in key areas. As mentioned, this is often against teams who don’t have a lot of possession of the football. Teams that don’t have much possession of the football are often not able to play out from the back because they are not used to it. This plays into Wolves’ hands as they can capitalise on mistakes that are made. This is how they get a large percentage of their goals.
The front three
We have discussed the defensive qualities that Wolves possess which allow them to be highly effective on the counter-attack, however, the most important aspect of their attacking play can be seen through the forward three themselves. As mentioned earlier Jiménez, Traoré, Jota have 34 goals between them in all competitions. This is a credit to the excellent attacking talent they possess and the ability they have to obliterate opposing defences when they win the ball back in the opposing half. They have pace, power, and an excellent ability to get the ball forward on the counter-attack. This is something that significantly gives them an advantage when counter-attacking. The front three are Wolves’ most important facet of attacking play. Any defence would hate to play against these three players. Often, Traoré will lead the charge with the direct runs into the opposition box with the other two making runs into the box to receive the ball.
Below is an example of this. We can see the front three on the counter-attack looking to cause problems for the opposing defence. The pace and power they possess is really useful in this situation as it allows the over the top pass from midfield or defence to go in behind. This example once again provides a clear example of not only why Wolves are so strong at counter-attacking.
Wolves’ attacking players have a real connection with the management staff, in the sense that they always seem to be aligned and do the things that are required of them. Pressing wise they are fantastic at winning the ball back. They make the right runs at the right time, and seem to be in sync with the midfield players. These are all strong qualities they possess, and it means they sit perfectly in the Wolves system. This strongly points to the counter-attacking element of Wolves’ game. By having such players in forwarding areas it means they are likely to be able to attack the spaces left behind by opposing defences more effectively. This is another reason as to why Wolves are so good at counter-attacking and it also highlights the role the front three have in this.
Below is a further example of the front three breaking at a pace to counter-attack. This is an image which is now commonplace with the Wolves front line. Pace and power in attacking play are what makes their counter-attacking so unique. The midfield helps this also by supplying them with excellent passes for them to run onto. This, therefore, makes their counter-attacking system excellent and impossible to defend against.
To conclude, it is clear to see why Wolves are seen as one of the best counter-attacking teams in the current world of football. Their ability to get the ball forward after winning it back in transition is exceptional and they can hurt any defensive line with the pace and power their forward players have. This coupled with their excellent midfield full of technical talent and the solid defensive line that they have means that counter-attacking is common and effective in its usage.
We are in strange times currently, meaning that the Premier League is on standby. Should it continue, or should we move to a new season they should really be a favourite to achieve Champions League football. Wolves’ brand of football really suits the European competitions and their counter-attacking football means that in the later rounds of the Europa League it could really come into advantage.