Wolves’ second and final pre-season trip ended at the weekend with the side drawing 1-1 with Portuguese second division side Farense. This year’s pre-season has been fiery, exciting and a hopeful precursor to more attacking football at Molineux. With eight games being played and the side collecting four wins, two draws, and two losses, it’s undoubtedly been a success. We have seen fringe players stake a claim to be involved in the first team and some familiar faces reminding us that they are here to compete.
In this article, we will look at some of the insights learned over the course of the summer and how Wolves are shaping up before a testing start at Leeds this weekend. So sit back, grab a cup of tea, and relax as we relive the glimpses of Bruno Lage’s vision for the upcoming campaign.
Fantastic four at the back
Much has been said about Wolves’ reluctance to stray away from their trusty 3-4-3 or 5-2-3-1 formations that garnered a large amount of success over the course of the past five seasons; a call to switch to a four at the back has long been the call from fans as they are desperate to see a team full of attacking talent do what they are capable of doing – namely scoring buckets of goals and entertaining the masses around the world.
Bruno Lage has also been keen to play a more attacking and controlled style of play which would see the side make use of their technically gifted players. The signing of Nathan Collins was a welcome arrival and one that potentially signaled, finally, a change in system for Lage’s men. This was to be the case. In all but one of their friendlies (They did briefly switch to a 3-4-3 against Villarreal B) Wolves played a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, this allowed for players such as Pedro Neto, Daniel Podence, and Morgan Gibbs-White to make use of their talents going forward and create a higher volume of chances.
The biggest concern for Wolves fans was the impact at the back. With centre-backs that had only played in a three for several years, a switch to one less man in the central areas was bound to cause issues. However, for the most part, those fears can be silenced for now. Max Kilman and Nathan Collins formed a solid partnership against Alaves, Besiktas and Sporting CP; showing of their adeptness on the ball and being intelligent in their challenges. Kilman’s solo-goal against Alaves was an excellent showing of just what our centre-backs can do. Collins had a similar ‘tekkers’ moment against Besiktas when, facing his own goal, he controlled the ball with the back of his neck and turned away from the opposition forward.
It is an experiment that has seemed to pay off, and the money spent on Collins looks to have been a wise move with the club needing someone to partner the ever-improving Kilman. Press-resistant defenders are gold dust in the modern game, and having two young and developing players within that category will benefit Wolves hugely. The switch to a four has certainly brought out the best in both, and you would hope that that form can be continued into the Premier League season. Wolves’ attacking and defensive play relies on the four at the back being successful.
The final note on this particular topic would be the improvement within central midfield. Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho looked particularly impressive in a two and it is clear to see that having more options in front of them suits their game down to a tee. If they can keep the spark between them then the midfield looks to have another lease of life.
With the switch to a four, you might have expected Wolves’ wing-backs to be a bit more conservative. Bruno Lage would highly disagree.
Rayan Ait-Nouri has looked his best in Wolves colours, flying up and down the left-hand side and showing off some remarkable dribbling and ball retention to help drive Wolves up the pitch. His energy has been clear to see and Lage has consistently started him despite Bueno also showing great promise. Not only has the Frenchman shown excellent ability on the ball, his defensive nous is also a weapon that he has improved within his arsenal. He was rarely beaten one-on-one and consistently won the ball back well to begin his driving runs. A huge season ahead for him.
Jonny went a little under the radar but he was also a consistent performer. His delightful cross for Daniel Podence’s goal against Alaves shows his improvement going forward and defensively he was as sound as ever. The consummate 7/10 performer every game. Him and Semedo will provide excellent options at right-back.
The types of runs both players have made, similar to Joao Cancelo at Manchester City, created overloads on either side and this is where Wolves pressing high has really reaped its rewards. Yet again the wing-backs will be key in creating chances, and with the stamina shown so far, it is safe to say we have options up for the job.
Prior to the frustrating injury to Raul Jimenez, Wolves’ frontline looked the best it has ever been. Gibbs-White, Neto and Jimenez all combined fantastically in the first half against Alaves and you could argue they improved even more with the introduction of the 4-2-3-1.
Neto and Gibbs-White are giving Wolves fans the excitement we have needed for the past two seasons. Both young players have come on leaps and bounds this summer and fit into Lage’s vision perfectly. Gibbs-White has shown some excellent positional intelligence and passing selection which has allowed Wolves to transition at far greater speeds and with more potency. Neto, on the other hand, has added the finishing touch to the attacking moves and was a nightmare for defenders. The Portuguese International won two penalties alongside his two goals in Spain and Portugal and looked back to his scintillating best.
The interlinking play between those two and Podence has been marvellous on the eye and just goes to show how good Wolves can be when given the right conditions to make use of their attacking talent. The lack of a striker is a huge concern as the side will need to be clinical. Gibbs-White has shown the most potency in front of goal in his career but to rely on him as the main source of goals would be a lot of pressure to put on a player who hasn’t tasted consistent Premier League football.
Plenty of promise but additions are certainly needed.
It’s been a strange career so far for Conor Ronan. He has been sent out on loan to a variety of teams in a variety of countries but never looked likely to break into this squad. Similarly to Gibbs-White, he saw his game time limited due to not fitting into the 3-4-3 played by Nuno. However, with Bruno changing systems he was given a surprise chance this summer to prove himself, and my word did he take it.
Ronan has provided great delivery from set-pieces, good positional intelligence and a great range of passing that has impressed many. We have all known of his considerable talent, having broken into the first team setup at 18 in Fosun’s first season, but that has not manifested at Wolves until now. His pre-season form has certainly seen him as a contender in the first team squad just months after the club were considering selling him to teams linked in Scotland.
Having two academy players playing well for the first team would certainly be fantastic for the club as they have spent heavily on young players since Fosun took over. Whether Ronan can make the step up in the Premier League is yet to be seen, but he has the chance to prove it now and in a system that plays to his strengths. One to watch for Wolves this season.
By far the biggest (and maybe only) negative of Wolves’ pre-season has been the lack of depth. The club is known to prefer having a smaller squad in the name of unity and fewer complaints over game-time. However, this has resulted in the squad looking extremely thin and not good enough to cope with the intense Premier League schedule.
When playing the second team against Villareal B, Levante, and Farense it was clear to see how desperate the squad is for reinforcements. A feeling only exacerbated by Jimenez’s injury which means Wolves have zero centre-forwards at the club with Cutrone and Bonatini frozen out and looking for moves away.
The back four against Farense featured four centre-backs in Coady, Boly, Mosquera and Toti. For a club that has been in the Premier League for five years, to not have any cover at full-back is simply negligence. Huge Bueno was also forced to play in the front three when he is usually deployed at left-back.
Conor Coady and Willy Boly have also had some shaky moments against lesser opposition, and this opens up another can of worms about the quality of the depth, and not just having raw numbers. The majority of Wolves’ bench was made up of U21’s and U18’s players, something which is great for the young players, but a damning indictment of the club’s reducing recruitment. Whilst the window is not shut yet, Leeds is only a few days away and Wolves still have no-one to replace Jimenez and have the same midfield three for the fourth season in a row.
Whilst the starting eleven is full of quality, you dread to think what would happen should we suffer another major injury.
There’s been plenty of food for thought over the course of the trips to Spain and Portugal and there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming campaign. If we have learnt anything, it is that Wolves, for better or worse, will be an entertaining team to watch. A departure from an arguably stale formation could lead to the side defying the odds again and fighting for European football or fall short.
One thing that does not need teaching however, is that the fanbase will be behind them every step of the way.