F365’s early losers: Wolves stuck in backwards step

Will Ford

One step back to go two steps forward – that appears to be the party line at Molineux right now. There’s been a clear reticence from Wolves to rest on their laurels amid a fear that seventh place was the limit of their powers while using an effective but limiting style of football. But the change of ethos and shape has led to a loss of identity this season that will now see them struggle to get close to those admirable levels. And again in the 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa it wasn’t clear what Wolves are, or are even trying to be.

The big tactical change has seen Nuno Espirito Santo switch to a back four. The idea – presumably – is to allow more of Wolves’ attacking talent to threaten on the pitch at the same time.

On Saturday this meant Adama Traore, Daniel Podence and Pedro Neto all played behind Fabio Silva. Last season we were accustomed to seeing two of them – or Diogo Jota – either side of Raul Jimenez.

Not having their brilliant striker obviously doesn’t help. Silva – making his first start in the Premier League – often looked like the lightweight rookie he is up against Tyrone Mings. An excellent first time shot in the second half was a glimpse of his “generational talent”, but – on this evidence – he’s a poor imitation of Jimenez in the here and now.

Wolves have now scored just 11 goals in 12 games. It’s difficult to know how much of that lack of potency is down to poor form and how much the new system. But with the switch to a back four only coming in the last four games, the players must take some responsibility for what has been an issue all season.

None more so than Adama Traore. After six goals and 12 assists in all competitions last campaign, Traore has so far drawn a blank. And it’s weighing on him.

His state of mind was summed up by a typical breakaway run in the second half which saw him take a pot-shot from the edge of the area with Podence begging for Traore to slide him through. 

The improved decision-making that had him and us purring last season has now regressed to what Nuno will be hoping is not in fact the norm after an anomalous season which saw him tear Premier League defences apart.

Podence and Neto had decent games and either or both of them were inevitably involved in the good stuff Wolves did play at times. Neto’s quick feet and rabona to carve out a chance for Leander Dendoncker – which produced a magnificent save from Emiliano Martinez – was a moment of genius.

But Wolves – as a whole – are less of a threat. The attacking ability of Matt Doherty and Jonny, who were brilliant outlets at wing-back last season, is being poorly imitated by Marcal and Nelson Semedo, while their supposed superior defensive quality is not enough to merit the formation change.

And it was £27million Semedo who lost his head in the 93rd minute to cost his side. John McGinn simply waited for his tussle with the Portuguese full-back to continue into the box before falling to the ground. You could see it coming a mile off.

Anwar El Ghazi stepped up to score the penalty between two red cards, as Mike Dean surpassed 3,000 Premier League yellows, by showing his eighth and ninth of the game to send Douglas Luiz off prior to the Villa winner and Joao Moutinho after it. Thirty-eight free-kicks sums up what was a very bitty game.

Wolves and Nuno will claim the defeat was undeserved. They had more possession, more shots and more shots on target than the visitors, and Martinez pulled off two or three excellent saves. But not being able to overcome a Villa side that were solid, but far from their best, should be a real concern. 

But it represents another step in the right direction for Villa – their fourth win out of five away games this season. And at the moment it’s them who look the more likely to stake a claim for Europe than their opponents on the day, who are struggling to take those steps forward after a big one back.

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