Poor starts and late goals – What’s happened to Nuno’s Wolves?

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There is no doubt Wolves are in great trouble, last week’s Black Country derby defeat meant it is now eight league games without a win and hopes of achieving a European spot this season are nothing more than a distant memory. It is perhaps too soon to call this a crisis, but it is certainly heading that way. There are various reasons and opinions as to why Wolves have fallen quite drastically from the dizzy heights of Nuno’s first three years in charge, but I take a look at one specific trait to their game which they will want to eradicate as soon as possible. Wolves are conceding goals in the opening and closing stages of games now more than ever, and the stats show that the warning signs have been there for some time, but why exactly is this? 

 

Wolves in the Championship

Wolves strolled to success in Nuno’s first season, but there were various incidents in the closing stages of games that ultimately made their season. Of course, Ryan Bennett’s late winner away to Bristol City will live long in the memory. The Wolves we’d all come to know and love didn’t do such things, didn’t turn up in big games, didn’t score big goals at vital moments, but this one did. Wolves also claimed an important early-season win at home to Barnsley with a stoppage-time winner from Alfred N’Diaye. Then club captain Danny Batth scored the other important late goal that season, salvaging a point at home to Bristol City. What was far more impressive that season was Wolves’ ability to see games through. The only points Wolves dropped in stoppage time that season was at home to Norwich where John Ruddy’s late error allowed the Canaries to come back from two goals down to take a point. 

 

Wolves have been given the tag of a ‘second-half team’ in recent seasons, but that certainly did not apply the season Wolves were promoted from the Championship. Wolves scored a total of seven goals in the first 10 minutes of games, and went on to win all seven games.

 

Hull 2-3 Wolves – Neves 5

Wolves 1-0 Millwall – Jota 10 

Burton 0-4 Wolves – Jota 5 

Wolves 2-0 Fulham – Saiss 9 

Birmingham 0-1 Wolves – Bonatini 8 

Wolves 3-0 Sheff Utd – Neves 5

Wolves 2-0 Derby – Jota 6 

 

This shows that Wolves’ promotion campaign was built on a solid foundation that allowed them to see games out. The three at the back formation had been drilled throughout a rigorous pre-season and the players knew it like the back of their hands. Wolves looked to take control of games early on and therefore did not exert too much energy going forward late on in games. Wolves only won by three or more goals a handful of times. The only goal Wolves conceded early on in that season was in the forgettable defeat to Aston Villa where Albert Adomah poked home inside eight minutes. Some vital goals and moments certainly made Wolves’ promotion campaign, but the control they exerted in games having taken an early lead are what ultimately brought about the majority of their points. 

 

Wolves in the Premier League

Wolves then took the Premier League by storm and secured European football at the first time of asking after a thoroughly enjoyable season, finishing seventh and reaching the semi-finals of the FA Cup. Unlike the promotion season, Wolves took many points late on in games, and warranted their tag of a ‘second-half team’.

 

West Ham 0-1 Wolves – Traore 93

Newcastle 1-2 Wolves – Doherty 94

Fulham 1-1 Wolves – Saiss 85

Wolves 4-3 Leicester – Jota 93

Wolves 1-1 Newcastle – Boly 95

Shrewsbury 2-2 Wolves – Doherty 93 (FA Cup)

 

A total of eight points were won in the closing stages of games in that memorable season. Wolves did, however, conceded four late goals that season, none of which came at Molineux. Points were lost at Arsenal, Huddersfield and Chelsea as well as the dreaded semi-final at Wembley. But the biggest difference from the Championship campaign was the lack of goals scored early on in games. 

 

Wolves 4-3 Leicester – Jota 4 

Everton 1-3 Wolves – Neves 7 

Wolves 3-2 Shrewsbury – Doherty 2 (FA Cup)

 

Wolves scored just three goals in the opening ten minutes throughout the season, and yet again all three games resulted in Wolves wins. It is clear that when Wolves start a game well, they go on to win, but they had failed to bring their early dominance from the Championship into the top-flight. 

 

Warning Signs

Wolves’ return to European football after over 30 years away led to widespread speculation as to how it would affect their chances in the Premier League. Well, Wolves finished 7th with a better point tally than the previous season while getting to the Quarter Finals of the Europa League. However, throughout the season, there were various warning signs that a downward turn in form was coming. Wolves won points in the latter stages of five games, three of which were in the Premier League. But the number of goals Wolves conceded late on was alarming.  

 

Wolves 1-1 Reading – Boyce 99 (Carabao Cup)

Wolves 1-2 Tottenham – Vertonghen 91 

Espanyol 3-2 Wolves – Calleri 91 (Europa League)

Sheff Utd 1-0 Wolves – Egan 93 

Burnley 1-1 Wolves – Wood 96 

Sevilla 1-0 Wolves – Ocampos 89 (Europa League)

 

For the first time under Nuno, Wolves had conceded more meaningful goals in the closing stages of games than they had scored. A likely explanation of this, as was often pointed out by the media, could be fatigue from the 54 game-long season. However, something that certainly impacts Wolves far more than many other clubs is games behind played behind closed doors. Carry on into the 2020/21 season, and the worrying trend continues, reflected in a poor league position at the halfway point. 

 

Wolves 0-1 Stoke – Brown 86 (Carabao Cup) 

Wolves 1-1 Newcastle – Murphy 89

Wolves 0-1 Aston Villa – El Ghazi 94 pen 

Man Utd 1-0 Wolves – Rashford 93 

 

Pedro Neto’s stoppage-time winner against Chelsea is the only moment to combat this trend and shows a complete contrast to Nuno’s first two seasons in charge. Since games have been played behind closed doors, Wolves have conceded late on in a total of seven games (losing nine points), the same number of points lost in the entirety of Nuno’s first two seasons at the club. There is a similarly disturbing pattern evolving in terms of goals conceded early on too. In recent weeks, Wolves have conceded early on in games against Tottenham, Everton and West Brom. But once again the alarm bells should have been ringing from the 2019/20 season: 

 

Everton 3-2 Wolves – Richarlison 5 

Wolves 1-1 Sheff Utd – Mousset 2

Wolves 1-2 Tottenham – Lucas 8 

Wolves 1-1 Newcastle – Almiron 7 

Wolves 1-2 Liverpool – Henderson 8 

Braga 3-3 Wolves – Horta 8 (Europa League)

 

A total of six goals conceded in games in the first ten minutes in 2019/20, eclipsing just four in the previous two seasons combined. Including this season, Wolves have conceded early on in nine games, winning none and drawing four. Wolves only scored one goal in the opening stages of a game throughout the 2019/20 season too, a ninth-minute penalty from Raul Jimenez to see off Olympiacos. That means Wolves did not score an early goal in any of the 38 Premier League games, a far cry from their assertive dominance in the Championship days. 

 

Change in shape

The Wolves squad of 2017/18 were far too good for the Championship, that goes without saying. But the way in which the style of play changed as they progressed through the Premier League has ultimately caused this downward spiral this season. As previously noted, the warning signs were certainly apparent last season, such that Nuno felt he had to act and try to ‘evolve’ the style of play to become a more dominant and possession-based team.

Well, that hasn’t gone particularly well so far. However, there have been signs of promise in the 4-2-3-1 formation and it certainly is not something that should be forgotten. Wolves’ narrow win at Chorley was far from inspiring but saw a return to the tried and tested three at the back. This is something Nuno is likely to stick with in the coming weeks having emphasised the need to go ‘back to basics’ and you’ll struggle to find a Wolves fan that disagrees. This season is a write off in terms of league position, and the chances of Wolves putting an FA Cup winning run together are slim to say the least. But once Wolves have a few more wins to eradicate fears of becoming embroiled in a relegation battle, Nuno should continue to persevere with a back four. The addition of Willian Jose brings a much welcome lift to everyone and he could play a vital role as Wolves adopt a formation with more attacking players on the pitch. The bottom line is something had to change, sticking with the previous formation and style of play would not see Wolves move forward. So, this begs the question, what is going so wrong? Well, actually, a combination of just about everything. 

 

Problems mounting for Wolves & Nuno

There had always been a worry of teams ‘finding Wolves out’ and that became apparent during a spell in November 2018, but Wolves made minor changes including the introduction of Leander Dendoncker into midfield to combat this. Similarly, in the second Premier League season, where an impressive second-half display at Newcastle saw Wolves revert to the 3-4-3 formation which once again brought about an upturn in form. However, this too became stale and Wolves had to do more, hence the summer shake-up. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a detrimental impact on the club, and it is not as easy as just saying ‘everyone is the same boat’, they certainly aren’t. It is no coincidence West Ham are so successful playing in an empty stadium… The Molineux crowd and the vocal away following Wolves enjoy has played a huge part in Wolves’ success in recent years and has often led to the last-minute winners and strong starts at home at the beginning of Nuno’s reign.

But it is not just a lack of fans that the pandemic has thrown at Wolves. It has been well documented that Nuno and many of the players will not have seen their families in a raucously long time, and this is something that is hard to ignore regardless of how laborious it may sound. The lack of a pre-season in the summer of 2020 is also something many will put under the bracket of ‘it’s the same for everyone’, well once again, this is not the case.

Wolves had a mere two-week break following the energy-sapping defeat to Sevilla. Meanwhile, the Premier League denied their request for an extra week break to compensate, despite granting the extra time to the Manchester clubs who played in Europe just days later. Let’s not forget, Wolves’ season lasted far longer than any other club side and consisted of six more games than any other Premier League club. This is hardly ideal prior to the biggest tactical change since the summer of 2017 where Nuno worked on formation and roles for six whole weeks. 

 

Why didn’t he wait until next season for such a radical change? After all, Wolves were a point away from a top-six finish. Well, that is a valid question. However, the sheer volume of late goals conceded, and the worrying starts to games where Wolves often fell behind and hardly ever took the lead meant Wolves were destined to go backwards. Rather than admiring the second successive seventh-placed finish, Nuno felt as though the style of play had hindered Wolves and ultimately cost them a top-six finish. Had Wolves continued their impressive record in the opening and closing stages of games from the previous two seasons, they could easily have been in with a chance of a Champions League spot. Something had to change for the better and it was always going to come at some cost, but the stats mentioned show a poor season was almost inevitable. A poor summer window and a horrifying injury crisis have also contributed, but it is Wolves’ own doing in these vital stages of games that have ultimately cost them. 

 

It has been a difficult watch for every Wolves fan this season. But as shown, Wolves’ style of play was flagging red, and something had to change. Back to basics to get points on the board for the time being maybe, but Wolves must look to the future in what is now conceded to be a ‘write-off’ season. Wolves have a huge summer window ahead where they must get the recruitment right, with first-team ready players who fit the new formation and style of play. A full pre-season on the training pitch with time to work on tactics will be invaluable, just as Austria was in 2017. Wolves have to get it right next season, and in truth, they have to put things right this season if they are to avoid a nervy ending. Their focus should solely be on intensity and concentration which had been faultless early on in Nuno’s reign. The hopeful return of supporters in time for next season will certainly help this. Going ‘back to what they know’ should not mean sitting tight with men behind the ball for 90 minutes. It should be the confident and dominant side of 2017-19. The early goals and promising starts, the defensive solidarity, and ultimately the confidence and ability to win games late on or defend narrow leads with ease. This is the identity which Nuno built, and this is what brings success. 

Has Nuno taken Wolves as far as he can or is he still the man for the job? Leave your comments in the section down below.

Ciaran Barker is part of the Talking Wolves editorial team – you can follow him on Twitter here.