Plenty has changed since last season. From new players, backroom staff to off-field optimism and of course Nuno Espírito Santo. Along with Nuno came ‘Nu’ ideas for the club on the pitch too. Ideas which so far have proven stronger than the ideas of the rest of the Championship. The basis has been the 3-4-3 formation. In this blog I’ll be taking a deeper look into the success of the newly-implemented shape and how much it actually all means to our lofty league position this season. Many thanks to @WolvesAnalytics who sourced much of the data for this blog and provided a sounding board for some of the points made.
Most Wolves fans will actually be accustomed to seeing three defenders at the back. Throughout the 90s from Graham Turner, to Graham Taylor and Mark McGhee, managers attempted to get Wolves through the Championship battleground with a 3-5-2. This was mainly in order to get two strikers playing within the width of the box and with some of the strikers at our disposal at the time it made sense. It offered a threat and security in equal measure, although the wing-backs were a little more rudimentary then, crossing from deep positions rather than hitting the by-line. This was also very much still the ‘Second Ball Football’ era.
Whilst not being 3-5-2 in shape, the dynamism of modern-day footballers has seen the advent of the lone frontman, making Nuno’s a very distinct 3-4-3. Three defenders, wing-backs who cover the pitch from touchline to touchline, disciplined central midfielders that act as pivots and roaming forwards based around a central ‘link’ striker. That is what we do in layman terms. There are many complexities to that model but first and foremost that is the role of each within the 3-4-3 shape.
The real virtue of 3-4-3 comes with its flexibility. In its most compact form, defensively it’s a 5-4-1. Almost impenetrable centrally and out wide due to the forwards dropping in front of the wing backs as wide midfielders, with a triple-bolt back door in the form of three centre backs protected by the two central midfielders. This quickly morphs on the counter-attack into a near 3-2-5 formation, with the wing-backs providing extreme width, whatever the situation. Even defensively this shape guards against the counter by forcing teams wide as they come up against a bank of two and then three through the middle of the pitch. Plotted against most formations, 3-4-3 generally has an answer from a geometrical perspective.
Nuno arrived on these shores with a reputation for laying solid foundations at the back and ensuring his teams concede few goals. His transfer activity also demonstrated his thinking. Three new centre backs came in, which in most cases would have left us bloated in that position, but given the shape of the side having six high- class Championship defenders is a luxury we can afford. All bases are covered from the robust, head-a-brick man markers (Batth, Bennett, Hause) to the more cultured ball-playing centre halves (Miranda and Boly), a quality more in need in a back three than as a centre back pair.
The big question mark from a tactical point of view was the middle centre back. It’s a specialist role as shown by the likes of Leonardo Bonucci and David Luiz. Both were considered good defenders in a centre back pairing but are imperious as the central man in a three. Again Nuno emphasised his tactical nous by converting Conor Coady into his main man at the back. Coady suits this role for a number of reasons. First of all he’s a loudmouth. In the dull days of last season he could be heard well above any other player on the pitch or fan in the stand, barking orders. From that position he can see the whole game and the geometry of the team defensively. It’s his responsibility to ensure people aren’t getting dragged out of shape and that the shell remains impenetrable. He is the key cog. Having played as a sweeper – albeit at a low level – I was consistently reminded of my responsibilities vocally to ensure the team kept its discipline. Generally speaking Coady will be free of marking responsibilities and his experience in the middle of the park serves him well here. While many remember him as a blood and guts destroyer – and he does love a tackle – he was actually very adept at nipping in to intercept forward passes. As the free man at the back he has licence – and generally no striker backing into him – to anticipate forward balls into strikers and kick start attacks. This is more evident now because of the relative paucity of forward balls into midfielders at Championship level compared to the number of passes directly into strikers. The final element which I just mentioned is his ability to kick start attacks. Having played in the middle he is naturally a little more adept in possession but his calling card is his ability to switch the ball quickly to either flank. He’s not quite Ruben Neves because he lacks true creativity in his passing but what he makes up for is the speed with which he can get the ball out of his feet and ping it to the wing backs. This is crucial to Nuno’s system. Most goals are created by forcing overloads on either side of the pitch and if opposition teams are scrambling across to combat the extreme width provided by the wing backs, there is an opportunity to make inroads towards goal.
|Source – WhoScored.com||Accurate Long Passes / 90min||Accurate Short Passes / 90min|
Source: Twitter – @11tegen11
The added responsibility of the defenders to be adept in possession is further demonstrated by the above graphic from the Villa game. The size of the dot shows how often the player is on the ball and the thickness of the arrow shows how often passes were played between players. The thicker the arrow, the more often the passing combination occurred. Here Miranda is especially prominent when feeding the central midfielders. He essentially acted as a playmaker in this game.
The final requirement of the right and left centre backs is to be comfortable being dragged out wide on the counterattack. Two of the few vulnerable spaces left by a back three are the corners behind the wing backs who would be pressed high up the pitch after an attacking phase of play has broken down. Much to people’s surprise I imagine, Danny Batth has excelled at times in these situations, being dribbled past just 0.3 times per 90 minutes and Miranda has also been adept when dragged out wide by mobile strikers. It remains an area of concern for most managers though, which explains why the likes of Cesar Azpilicueta are fielded in the back three as he is excellent defensively in one-on-one situations.
Wing-backs are arguably the most fundamental difference between the back-three based teams of old and present day. The introduction of flying full backs in modern day football has revolutionised the game and increased fitness levels in elite footballers has made these players a vital cog in elite teams. Full back has been a problem area on and off for the last 10 years at Molineux, especially on the left, with the likes of Jamie Clapham, Michael Gray (who became a handy right-winger), George Elokobi and Stephen Ward all either failing to truly make the position their own or just being bang average. We managed to get away with Matt Doherty doing an excellent impression of a left back last season but with the shift in formation it was important to have a natural left-footed player on the flank. This issue was quickly addressed with the arrival of two new left sided players in Barry Douglas and Ruben Vinagre and Phil Ofosu-Ayeh to provide competition with Doherty on the right. Interestingly Dominic Iorfa was deemed not right for the system, probably due to his inability to play quick passes and deliver the ball well in the final third.
Wing-backs will nearly always be full-backs by trade, rather than wingers that have dropped back slightly – Victor Moses aside. This is more due to the nature of attacking from a deeper position. Full backs and wing-backs usually rely on making late runs over-lapping or under-lapping a winger. Matt Doherty is at his best when he’s run from deep to join an attack that is building up ahead of him. He’s deceptively quick and possesses a deft enough touch to cause problems, but you will rarely see him receive the ball to feet out wide for him to run at defenders in the manner that a typical winger such as Jordan Graham would. This also explains why Graham looked uncomfortable in the role and is also perhaps why Ben Marshall hasn’t been given a run there while Ofosu-Ayeh is injured. Marshall lacks the mobility and dynamism required for the role, despite having played as a full-back previously.
On the opposite flank Douglas and Vinagre have proved astute additions despite possessing different qualities in the role. Douglas’ class with the ball and his cultured left-foot have been a reassuring presence for Wolves fans, who have grown accustomed to some rather unconvincing displays down that flank. He lacks the dynamism of Vinagre but has a good engine and copes relatively well with the challenge posed by physical wingers and full backs. Without being box office he is a solid performer who can be relied upon for ball retention and to link well with the wide forward in front of him. Ruben Vinagre is a star in the making. He’s very much a left-sided player, but with the tendency for inverted wingers in his native Portugal, I imagine he was encouraged to play left-back from an early age despite his pace and dribbling ability. You can see from his confidence when receiving the ball he has had a very good footballing education and he demonstrated against Man City he belongs at a certain level of football. He also showed his incredible stamina, running rings around Kyle Walker in extra time. He is a slight figure, still developing physically who can be overwhelmed in physical battles – Jed Wallace was keen to impose himself on him against Millwall – and he isn’t massively comfortable dealing with aerial balls but he is a natural talent, the like of which we haven’t seen at Molineux since Robbie Keane.
The role of the wing-backs is integral to our attacking formation of a 3-2-5. They add an extra layer of width when up against a back four. You will rarely see them occupy any space inside of the edge of the 18-yard box when we have the ball. As a result of this you will have seen on a few occasions this season misplaced crosses from one flank being kept in by the wing-back on the opposite flank, resulting in goals on a number of occasions – think Douglas v Derby, Bonatini v Cardiff, Bonatini v Bristol City and Cavaleiro v Preston. Each of these goals featured the wing-backs attacking the far post and either shooting or crossing. It’s actually a surprise that Doherty hasn’t featured on the scoresheet yet this season given his relatively prolific year under Zenga and Lambert and the advanced positions he regularly finds himself in.
The presence of the wing-backs allows our wider forwards to operate closer to goal as well, which has led to much more productivity from that part of the field. Ivan Cavaleiro and Diogo Jota have been amongst the goals and assists and it’s surely a matter of time before Helder Costa begins to fire. The combinations between wide forward, wing-back and closest central midfielder can cause many problems to opposition defences and this is where Nuno’s team looks to create overloads with quick switches of play via the centre of the pitch.
The graphic below shows Doherty and Douglas’ heat maps from the Preston game. You can see here the distinct lack of activity in-field and they act very much like old-fashioned wingers, ‘getting chalk on their boots.’ Douglas and Doherty also feature in the top 8 Championship full backs for accurate crosses per 90 minutes this season.
Image and data: WhoScored.com
In my time supporting Wolves the centre of the park has always been a problem position. Aside from the Ince/Cameron/Rae years, the Henry/Jones promotion season and the McDonald/Price combination, we’ve never really dominated games from the centre of the pitch. This battleground is often a place where we would lose matches, not getting close to the opposition. Strange, given the importance of controlling the centre of the pitch. Not anymore.
The signing of Ruben Neves illustrated two things. 1) We mean business as a club and we want the Premier League as soon as possible. 2) We were taking a big step away from second-ball football. The departure of the likes of Lee Evans, George Saville and most pertinently Dave Edwards demonstrated that Nuno wanted an overhaul in that part of the pitch. It was now about ball retention and circulation. Pivotes as the Spanish would call it. Along with Romain Saiss, who had already shown a degree of class in the role before being unceremoniously ignored for the most part by Paul Lambert, Neves would be the conduit for Wolves building attacks.
Neves is an extremely interesting player, comparable to nothing we have seen at Molineux. A friend of mine commented that generally speaking, as we have a view of the whole pitch from the stands we can spot the next pass in a move. Neves changed that. His vision is unrivalled and beyond that he manages to execute his plans very effectively. His main feature has been the long switches of play in behind opposing full-backs out to Matt Doherty, one of which led directly to the penalty versus Preston. I could write a whole blog on Ruben Neves alone but to summarise he is very economical with his touches, which generally means teams cannot press him and he’s also excellent at reading passes and intercepting balls. We’re lucky to have him that’s for sure.
His partner in crime Romain Saiss is the brute of the pair, almost acting as Neves’ bodyguard. While Neves is happy to put his foot in when required, Saiss loves getting stuck in to opposition midfielders, making 2.4 tackles per match, whilst retaining a class on the ball which allows the team to build through the centre if Neves is occupied. He also adds balance to the side, being left-footed. Both are happy to play a disciplined role out of possession which means having a very solid block through the centre of the pitch which is difficult to break down. Whereas midfield pairings in a 4-4-2 can get outnumbered easily, the extra defender in a back three allows the central midfield to press up higher against opposition midfielders, safe in the knowledge there is a spare man defensively.
In possession Neves and Saiss play on a string. They regularly combine with the wide players and are never too far from each other. Build up is patient and considered. This actually often leaves a chasm of space in the middle of the park. But with Conor Coady and an extra centre-back available as a deeper pivot and the freedom of the wider forwards to occupy this space, there is always a route by which Wolves can switch play to the opposite flank. It also helps that both midfielders can do this with one pass as well. Both Neves (6.3 per 90 minutes) and Saiss (6.2 per 90 minutes) rank in the top 4 for accurate long passes in the Championship this season. Source: WhoScored.com
An interesting innovation that I’ve noticed with Neves and Saiss is that they tend to play on the ‘wrong’ side of the centre of the pitch. I say ‘wrong’ in the textbook sense, but Saiss features predominantly to the right and Neves to the left. Now this isn’t as strict as it would be playing as a centre back as their job is to always be on hand to receive the ball but from what I have seen, it helps each of them switch the ball at the first available opportunity. Imagine a ball going from left to right towards Romain Saiss. The ball will arrive quicker to his stronger left foot than his right foot. This instantly allows him to get the ball under control or play a pass first time, sweeping the ball out wide. The same applies to Neves with the ball going right to left. Rather than waiting for the ball to run across their body, allowing opposition players the chance to nip in and win the ball, they can move the ball on sooner. Passing channels can be shut down within split seconds so it’s important to take advantage when possible. Time is everything. Other than that it just opens slightly different passing avenues to a left-footer on the right and vice versa. Witness Saiss’ regular passes around a wide midfielder into the feet of Doherty, something much more difficult and dexterous for a right footed player, who would need to play the ball in front of a defender to ensure the ball reaches its destination. If required, it also means they can shield the ball from the opposition on their favoured foot too.
We do have alternative options in the middle of the park. Alfred N’Diaye is the hard-running, physical option who can break free from the shackles of Nuno’s midfield base. He showed against Bristol City and Barnsley that he has the ability to open up defences with his runs beyond the striker and he has a serious engine. But he lacks the discipline of Saiss and can leave his midfield partner isolated. It was part of the reason that the Bristol City match became so helter-skelter at times. N’Diaye is definitely Plan B for now and he’s proven effective off the bench on a number of occasions. Jack Price is the watered-down Neves in this shape. Like Coady he lacks the creativity of pass that Neves offers but he is assured with his distribution and adept at nipping attacks in the bud. He was excellent against Man City and justified the new contract with that performance alone.
The importance of the midfield to the system can be demonstrated by a couple of graphics.
This is the passing map for the Aston Villa game again. You can see here that Saiss and Neves dominated possession of the ball and much of the passing was from wing-back to wing-back via the midfield pair. Villa actually did well to reduce the number of touches Diogo Jota, Ivan Cavaleiro and Helder Costa had by sitting very deep, but once Nuno brought Bonatini on, with a greater penalty box presence Wolves began to create more chances. This all stemmed from Neves and Saiss running the show.
Contrast this with the following image from the QPR defeat.
While Romain Saiss features heavily, Ruben Neves’ influence is considerably diminished. He received less than two passes from each of Miranda, Coady or Batth – a clear tactic employed by QPR. It’s also notable that in our poorest performances this season, Neves has failed to stamp his authority on a game. As shown in the graphic below, Wolves’ worst performances have come in games where Neves pass completion and overall WhoScored.com rating has been down.
While it’s not ideal to rely on players, when they have outstanding qualities it becomes inevitable. This becomes apparent in our attacking forays too – which I will feature later – but it is an area of concern that the performance of the team seems to fluctuate with Neves’ own levels. A sign of star quality, but also of a worrying lack of depth. Saiss isn’t able to combine his own role with Neves’ and N’Diaye and Price aren’t up to the task either. The fact remains though we’ve never had such a fluent central midfield before and it is here that games have been won and lost.
Goals win games and we didn’t score nearly enough of them last season. Dave Edwards, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and Nouha Dicko were three of our most used players with responsibility of scoring goals over the course of the season. Between them they managed 16. Something needed to change. Our solution? Remove the lot of them and bring in a winger from Atletico Madrid and a striker from Al-Hilal. Fans were understandably nervous starting the season with just one senior striker, unknown to virtually all of us. The Nouha Dicko sale created most confusion, especially given how he had started the season relatively well. But Nuno’s plan became apparent upon implementation.
The front three is where things become a bit more free-form compared to the rest of the formation. This is where the graffiti artists spray their work. A little more haphazard, free to be as creative as can be without the constraints laid down elsewhere on the pitch. But it is the structure which allows these players the freedom to roam. They operate in the pockets of space between centre back and full back, between defence and midfield initially. It’s very often difficult to pin down into a shape the positions of these players, as shown on the passing maps above. They’re definitely not wingers. They’re certainly not all strikers. But forward covers all bases, with the ability to create and score their real remit.
Wolves fans were extremely excited about the prospect of Ivan Cavaleiro, Leo Bonatini, Helder Costa, Diogo Jota and Bright Enobakhare all dovetailing nicely as part of this all-conquering front-three template. Originally there was another name as part of that group, who has become conspicuous by his absence – Jordan Graham. There was outrage when he was allowed to go on loan to a rival. The story goes that Nuno didn’t see Graham adapting well to a role in the front three and wanted Graham as competition for the right wing-back position. This might seem strange but there was method to Nuno’s perceived madness. Graham is very much a linear winger. Much like Matt Jarvis he relied upon playing on the left wing, giving him the option to work the ball onto either foot and cross the ball. Despite him being an excellent crosser of the ball there wasn’t much else to his game. This was exciting for us at a time when we were devoid of Bakary Sako and the injured Nouha Dicko with Benik Afobe toiling away up front. But the Championship has changed. The old school winger is the oldest trick in the book. Players need more strings to their bow. Nuno offered Graham that by promising to develop him in another position – and who would argue with Nuno’s ability to convert and develop players elsewhere on the pitch right now? The proof has been in the pudding. Graham’s lack of minutes at Fulham is a poignant reminder of the changing tides in football tactics and styles and the game waits for nobody. What we do have at Wolves though is a stable of forwards that are the envy of teams across the country.
Leo Bonatini is key to the structure of the side. Wolves fans have become used to physically strong, pacy forwards proving successful at this level, from Sylvan Ebanks-Blake to Nouha Dicko prior to his injury. I think that featured heavily in the minds of the fans when it came to early assessments of Bonatini. Despite his goal on debut, people viewed him as being immobile and allied with his career history and the lack of any alternatives hopes weren’t high. How he has answered any critics. Nuno’s decision to let Dicko go proved what he valued in a striker. Bonatini gives him that. He’s a firm fixture in the centre of the pitch. There are few runs into the channels and most of his movement is towards the ball. He creates problems for defenders who must contend with either dropping off and allowing him to turn or going tight and being vulnerable to the pace of the wider forwards in behind the defence. Despite being more slight of frame than many typical Championship forwards, Bonatini holds the ball up exceptionally well, mainly due to his excellent close control. As he is such an important part of the build-up, with players often running ahead of him, he can lag behind the play. What this allows him to do is to make a late run into the box, akin to a midfielder – the ghost of Dave Edwards walks past – which makes him harder to pick up on cutbacks etc. He’s shown his ability to finish off either foot too which cannot be underestimated. A few of his goals have simply been diverting a ball already headed towards goal which demonstrates his instinct. But what sets him apart is his ability to find on rushing players. His part in the winning goals at Forest and versus Barnsley cannot be given enough praise. Whereas most strikers will hold on to the ball for a few seconds so as many players can get up in support as possible, Bonatini releases the ball quickly on both occasions and we get our just rewards for his endeavours. This is the model of a striker that Nuno wants – not a typical, mobile striker who wants to consistently get in behind defences.
The advantage of having such a striker is that both players either side are brought into the goalscoring stakes. Nobody has benefited more than Diogo Jota. If we think of our formation as following the Chelsea template, then Jota is our Eden Hazard. He is the outstanding individual within the team and the whole of the Championship. He is the best player I’ve seen at this level, period. As such, there aren’t too many tactical constraints on him aside from the fact he tends to drift towards the left flank. Despite being far more prolific than Cavaleiro who tends to occupy the right side of attack, Jota’s positioning is considerably deeper and closer to the midfield. I feel this is a symptom of Jota’s game rather than a tactical plan, as he is at his best collecting the ball from deep, turning and running at defences. He is another of those magical dribblers who almost seem quicker with the ball at their feet. Due to his deep position he is often the first point of the counterattack, which works perfectly as few players can keep up with his pace on the ball. As illustrated against Aston Villa, Millwall, the pre-season friendly against Leicester, Burton, QPR and Nottingham Forest (pretty much against everybody to be fair) he is devastating and clinical when given space to run into. Nobody has settled better.
The benefit of a pre-season and a change in shape has also seen an upturn in fortunes for Ivan Cavaleiro. Cavaleiro was a mercurial figure last season, in and out of the side and in and out of form in equal measure. He went from the sublime to the ridiculous within 90 minutes let alone from game to game. He’s clearly a more temperamental talent than the likes of Bonatini and Jota and at times so far this season has proven our most dangerous player. Cavaleiro has operated as the furthest man forward, positioned inside-right. This adds depth to our attacks and means defences must guard against the ball in behind. To have Jota and Bonatini deep and Cavaleiro higher creates confusion around where defences should play their offside line. He prefers to operate close to the box as he lacks the searing pace of Jota with which to dribble away from people. Instead he relies on sudden bursts of acceleration, twisting and turning defenders inside-out and looking for cute passes to provide assists and chances. He was exceptional against Bristol City, until he visibly ground himself pretty much to a halt. He remains slightly inconsistent however and can drift in and out of games. His position is the most tenable of the three as a result and he is often taken off or benched in favour of Costa or Bright Enobakhare. Ben Marshall also offers a more workmanlike alternative.
The data gives a bigger indication of the role of each forward. Cavaleiro attempts 8.9 crosses per 90 minutes, compared to Jota’s 1.5. Jota’s role is more to score goals. His 2.8 shots per 90 minutes is the 5th highest of all wingers in the Championship. Bonatini links it all up – his 31.2 passes per 90 minutes is the 3rd highest of any striker this season, and his 1.7 through balls per 90 is second only to Neal Maupay of Brentford. Bonatini is the striker with the most assists in the Championship, 3 of which have gone to Jota, which is the most prolific partnership in the Championship.
Data and graphic: WhoScored.com
It would be interesting to see how Costa would play in the same side as Bonatini and Jota. Costa is like Jota in that he prefers to collect the ball from deep and glide through challenges with his pace and balance. He offered a glimpse into the other aspect of his game when he ran through one-on-one against Villa, only for Alan Hutton to recover well. I would expect more of those runs from out-to-in when he regains full fitness. Bright is Bright. I’m not sure that he partakes in the tactical conversations pre-match as he seems to be playing his own game in his head. One with no goals but points for making mugs of defenders. He is slowly beginning to add more end product and he showed against Man City he can stretch teams in behind. We’re more accustomed to him collecting the ball deep and dribbling.
The other variant we have seen from Nuno’s tactics is employing a strikerless front three, with Costa, Cavaleiro and Jota interchanging. This relies upon fluidity, understanding and preferably a high defensive line. Burton were undone very early on when Jota raced through to score an early goal and teams pressing us when we have these three up front play into our hands on the counter. When teams sit deep – a la Villa – it means we lack a penalty box threat and can struggle to create chances. The fact remains Bonatini is our only option as a fixed centre-forward and he will need to have a break from time-to-time. Horses for courses will be the order of the day in these instances, at least until January.
To summarise Nuno’s approach has been refreshing. It’s innovative, adaptable and embellished with exceptional talent. Be under no illusions: you need special players to make this system work, especially in the front three. Fortunately for us we have that at our disposal and ultimately it is the players that win matches, not the tactics. But Nuno’s framework has so far proven well thought out and I’m sure there’s even more to come from his charges.
I hope I’ve been able to give some insight here and you may watch our games in a slightly different light based on my observations. When you feel yourself getting a little frustrated with the patient build-up play just think to yourself – Nuno knows best.