Gary O’Neil facing selection headache

Ian Young

Ian Young

NEW Wolves Head Coach Gary O’Neil already faces a selection headache as the new season commences on Monday night at Old Trafford. The return of Matt Doherty to Wolves has meant Nelson Semedo now has real competition for his place, and with Doherty impressing in pre-season, could the Irishman become first choice?

Doherty’s return

The 2020 ‘summer’ transfer window saw a changing of the guard at right back for Wolves. Long term servant Matt Doherty departed to Spurs for around £12m, to be replaced by Barcelona’s Nelson Semedo for slightly over twice the price (plus add ons). Now Semedo and his predecessor are playing together, and both can make a case for game time in 2023/4.

Three years down the line from Doherty’s departure and for all the instability at Wolves, right back is an area where there are choices to be made. With minimal budget for signings and low expectations, the newly-appointed Gary O’Neil will have to try and get a lot out of existing players, and Doherty and Semedo can potentially be useful foils for each other.

O’Neil’s system

O’Neil’s Bournemouth side played predominantly in a compact 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1, which Wolves fans will recognise as being more suited to Semedo’s strength. Despite an (unfair) reputation for calamity, Semedo has proven himself to be a good, at times excellent, 1-on-1 defender. On the reverse, Doherty at Wolves made a name as having one of the best attacking outputs in the Premier League from defence, with 34 goal contributions (in all competitions) in his three years under Nuno. Wolves have struggled for goals since his departure in the same summer as Diogo Jota, with the least and fourth least goals scored in the league in the last two seasons.

The obvious factor to consider is the opposition’s tactical set up and player profile. Semedo is younger and more athletic, but Doherty was always adept at running in behind. Semedo is positionally adaptable, looking comfortable in a back four and a back five, while Doherty has always been seen as suspect without an extra centre back helping from inside.

On technical quality and defensive ability, Semedo is almost certainly the starter. While neither would be obvious examples of consistency, the Portugese is a more rounded player than Doherty, while the Irishman was traditionally offered feast or famine. This difference is indicated if you examine some of their defensive stats.

Statistical comparison

The naked eye has seen Semedo defensively smother dangerous attackers such as Allan Saint-Maximin and Michail Antonio in recent years, and the numbers back up his ability. Compared to Doherty he’s more of a volume tackler, with 2.35 per 90 minutes compared to Doherty’s 1.90, winning 1.47 of those compared to 1.03. Doherty does win a higher percentage, but a four-player system creates more risk when individual defenders are unwilling to engage, with fewer backups in the penalty box to stop balls into the box. Doherty also gets more interceptions per 90 mins (1.36 to 1.09), indicative of a willingness to risk upsetting the defensive shape in attempt to win possession.

Semedo is also better at keeping possession, completing 84% of passes compared to Doherty’s 75.6%. However, Doherty’s passing has a higher potential payoff, with a greater progressive passing distance.  The picture that emerges is that Semedo is more stable, while Doherty is more likely to take risky options to try and win the ball or create. The numbers bear that out, with Doherty offering almost double the number of goal creating actions (0.34 to 0.19) per 90 minutes.

Tactical options

The reality for Wolves is that Semedo is likely to play, but there is comfort in Doherty’s different skillset. Gary O’Neil set Bournemouth up with four at the back and that will likely be the case at Molineux, if nothing else for personnel reasons. With only three recognised first team centre-backs and rumours about a Max Kilman departure swirling all summer, they may yet be called into action together if Wolves choose to sit in and defend leads. Doherty is no centre-half and has never been asked to be one, but were he shifted inside he wins a similar percentage of aerial duels and makes a similar number of blocks to his recently-departed centre-back countryman Nathan Collins.

If Wolves are dominating possession and need creativity, Doherty should and likely will get meaningful minutes with an increased goal threat and creative influence. With squad depth a consistent issue and question marks over the attacking options, Wolves will desperately hope that Doherty proves as shrewd of a signing as his statistics and previous spell suggest. Sentimental his signing may feel as he prepares to play second fiddle, but there is obvious scope for him to be important in his second spell at Molineux.

[all stats from FBRef]