Wolves bounced back from a poor showing at Leicester prior to the international break with a much-improved display at home to Southampton which ultimately ended honours even. Theo Walcott opened the scoring at the start of the second half only for substitute Pedro Neto to bring Wolves level. It was an unusual night as Wolves adopted a 4 at the back system for the first time under Nuno Espirito Santo following the absences of Conor Coady and Romain Saiss in what was a far more entertaining watch than many of Wolves’ previous games this season.
Wolves (4-1-4-1): Patricio, Semedo Boly, Kilman, Ait-Nouri, Neves, Traore, Dendoncker, Moutinho, Podence, Jimenez (Subs Used: Neto, Vitinha)
Southampton (4-4-2): McCarthy, Walker-Peters, Vestergaard, Bednarek, Bertrand, Romeu, Ward-Prowse, Armstrong, Djenepo, Adams, Walcott (Subs Used: Long, Diallo)
Wolves were handed a disjointed and disturbing preparation period to the game, with initial confusion over Conor Coady’s potential involvement given the need to self-isolate having been in close contact with a trace of COVID-19. Whether or not he was eligible remains unclear with conflicting reports still circulating, either way his period of self-isolation had ended, and he joined Jonny Castro Otto in an Executive Box at Molineux. News also broke late Sunday evening that a senior Wolves player had tested positive for COVID-19 and would be unavailable. News soon emerged that this was Romain Saiss and we wish him well in his recovery from the virus. This meant that the team selection would be interesting to say the least, but even when the team sheet came out, no one could have envisaged the way the team set up after kick off. Many assumed that Leander Dendoncker would sit in the middle of the back three, but Nuno went with an unpreceded 4-man defence, with captain for the day Ruben Neves sitting in front.
Wolves started bright with Joao Moutinho sending a free kick from a promising position into the wall, but Nelson Semedo’s long range follow up was spilt by Alex McCarthy, only for the goalkeeper to redeem himself to deny Leander Dendoncker on the follow up from six yards. Southampton soon had a chance of their own after neat play through the Wolves midfield, Che Adams played in Armstrong who slid the ball agonisingly past the post having beaten Kilman to the ball. This was one of many examples of the problems 4 at the back caused for Wolves, having been so used to the tried and tested three-man defence. Willy Boly stepped forward out of defence which ultimately created a dangerous amount of space for Armstrong to run into with only Kilman to cover. The remainder of the first half remained largely uneventful. Daniel Podence met a Joao Moutinho free kick at the near post but his header was well saved. There were heart in mouth moments as Southampton looked to capitalise on the nervy Wolves backline but the teams went in at the break goalless. New formation, same half time result for Wolves.
After no changes at the break Wolves started the second half brightly. Good work from Daniel Podence saw him advance into the penalty area, Vestergaard forced him in onto his left foot and his effort was once again met by Alex McCarthy in the Saints goal. Against the run of play Southampton then took the lead and almost had a second as Wolves looked to have become devoid of ideas. The introduction of Pedro Neto and tweak in formation gave Wolves a new lease of life and will certainly give Nuno food for thought when it comes to adopting a much needed ‘Plan B’ going forward. Not only did it allow Wolves to be more fluid and dangerous going forward, but Wolves also seemed to become more solid at the back, but that is possibly down to Boly and Kilman switching sides to give a more natural balance. Following the equaliser, neither side had a clear-cut chance in what was a frantic final 10 minutes in which both team looked for the win while also being evidently desperate not to lose. However, this change highlighted a note of concern for Ruben Neves. Captain for the day, and in a deep role in front of the back 4, tonight needed a performance from the popular number eight. However, this performance was not forthcoming. Neves was unable to find Podence and Traore in wide areas and in trying to play the ‘killer pass’ actually slowed down the pace of play far too often. He also did little in providing protection to Boly and Kilman, being dribbled past with ease on numerous occasions. It is perhaps because of this, that it was Neves that was withdrawn for Neto, a decision that was ultimately justified.
The first goal of the game came somewhat against the run of play as Wolves started the second half brightly, and they will be kicking themselves with the manner in which they fell behind. Youngster Ryan Ait-Nouri was out-muscled in the middle of the park and stayed down leaving Wolves exposed on the left-hand side of defence. The midfield failed to cover the gap meaning Max Kilman was dragged over to mark Che Adamas as he received the ball on the right-hand side. His cross found and unmarked Theo Walcott who ghosted in at the far post, completely unknown to Nelson Semedo whose reaction to the goal said it all. A very avoidable goal to say the least.
Shortly after the Saints had the lead; they could have put the game beyond doubt as Walcott missed a great chance to grab his second of the game. Che Adams had time and space in a central area to play a relatively simple ball over the top to Walcott who was played onside by Max Kilman. One on one with Rui Patricio, the striker dragged his shot wide of the far post in a moment that could easily have put the game beyond Wolves.
Change in Formation/Neto Sub
Wolves looked lacklustre following the Saints goal and something needed to change. Pedro Neto was introduced but much to the surprise of those watching on he replaced captain Ruben Neves. This meant yet another slight formation tweak as Wolves went to 4-2-3-1. This will certainly have given Nuno food for thought as Wolves looked far more dangerous with Neto, Podence, Traore and Jimenez all on the pitch while also giving Joao Moutinho space to flourish.
Neto Goal ? Wolves’ pressure eventually paid off as Joao Moutinho picked the ball up in the centre of the pitch and played it to Raul Jimenez who found a yard of space on the edge of the box following a momentary lapse in concentration from the impressive Vestergaard. Jimemez’s effort came back off the post but Neto was on hand to fire home the equaliser having managed to stay onside from Jimenez’s initial effort.
Man of the Match – Joao Moutinho
Having come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks and months, Joao Moutinho put in an impressive display against Southampton, with glimpses of his former self Wolves fans have known and loved. From the off Moutinho asserted control in the midfield and grew into the game in the second half. He, like the rest of the team, seemed to benefit from the substitution and formation change as Pedro Neto came on for Ruben Neves. This allowed Moutinho to be more expressive in the middle of the park and he saw much more of the ball. He played a big part in the Wolves goal too, initially winning the ball back to start the move and ultimately spotting Jimenez in space on the edge of the box. A much-improved display from the Portuguese magician who has hopefully rediscovered his pre-lockdown form.
Things to Improve
In and Around the Box
In what was a much-improved Wolves display going forward, there is still an element of frustration when looking back on the game that the home side didn’t take all three points. Wolves had 20 attempts on goal throughout the game, the highest since their return to the Premier League in 2018. Despite this, when analysing clear cut chances, the stats are even and suggest a draw was a fair result. This shows that Wolves have some way to go in terms of the fluidity and confidence with which they attack in order to score more goals and make the most out of threatening positions. Quite often players such as Podence, Traore and Jimenez are isolated in good areas, or that final ball is not on point. These small margins are ultimately the difference between drawing and winning games as was shown at Molineux on Monday evening. If Wolves can improve their decision making going forward, becoming that bit more decisive and clinical, then the wins are bound to start totting up sooner rather than later.
Nuno certainly looked back on the game with a positive mindset in his post-match comments, and he is more than right to do so. The unexpected change in formation was far from faultless and Wolves gifted Southampton far too many good quality chances with which they could have had the game beyond doubt. However, given the unhelpful circumstances they faced prior to the game, and much-improved performance, Wolves can be pleased with a well-earned point. Frustrating not to win it? Perhaps, especially with Wolves facing difficult trips to Arsenal and Liverpool in the coming weeks. However, there is certainly cause for optimism, and given their record in the previous two seasons, you wouldn’t bet against Nuno’s men in either game.