A less-than-ideal summer has led to a wild week within the ranks at Wolverhampton Wanderers. As Julen Lopetegui leaves the club after just nine months in charge, ex-Bournemouth manager Gary O’Neil has found himself at the helm. Less than a week before the season opener at Old Trafford.
During the negotiations surrounding Lopetegui’s departure, the club reportedly held positive talks with the Englishman. What can fans come to expect from their side under O’Neil?
Steadying the ship
After a 9-0 defeat away at Anfield, O’Neil was placed in charge at Bournemouth, originally on an interim basis. With 16 goals conceded in three games, changing the fortunes of a side seemingly in disarray was never going to be a simple task. O’Neil was given one job, to steady the ship.
In his first match in charge, his side achieved a morale-boosting result. Wolves, with Bruno Lage in charge, failed to score away at The Vitality. Whilst not being the prettiest, a 0-0 draw at home proved vital for the Cherries, kick-starting a six-match unbeaten run.
Wins against the likes of Nottingham Forest and Leicester, and draws against Newcastle, Brentford and Fulham saw the club amass crucial points as the World Cup break neared.
January reinforcements proved to be crucial to see the club over the line regarding safety. Post-World Cup, the tight nature of last campaign’s relegation was evident. As Wolves proved under Lopetegui, only a handful of wins would be required to achieve safety with games to spare.
O’Neil’s side did what they had to do. With highlight wins against the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham, the club were successfully steered away from relegation with two games remaining.
A likeable and honest manager who completed the task set in keeping Bournemouth in the top flight. His departure came as a surprise. However, higher ups within the club decided that a more nuanced approach was the way forward, hence the appointment of highly regard Andoni Iraola. What does this mean for Wolves?
On the pitch, O’Neil set his side up in a 442, with the outlook being to get the best out of the exciting attacking players at his disposal following on from the January transfer window. The signings of Dango Ouattara and Matias Vina, in particular, allowed Bournemouth to be much more expansive in counter-attacking scenarios.
A sense of ‘common sense’ was applied within the tactical setup. Remaining tight and compact defensively mitigated the issues (whilst not perfectly) present earlier in the season, whilst the attacking values revolved around getting the best out of their more technically gifted forwards.
Racking up nearly half of Bournemouth goals between them, there were no two players more important to the side, than Dominic Solanke and Philip Billing.
Billing was deployed in a role much higher up the pitch than had come to be expected of the Dane throughout his career. Acting as an archetypal ‘second-striker’, Billing thrived under O’Neil. With seven goals to his name, he formed half of a fantastic partnership with Dominic Solanke.
Solanke himself had his best goalscoring season in the Premier League, with six. However, his seven assists proved his importance to the side. He showcased himself as a versatile centre-forward, comfortable in deeper areas, whilst being vital in the final third.
In forward areas, the use of cutbacks became somewhat archetypal for Bournemouth. Yet again a ‘common sense’ approach, however, its effectiveness cannot be ignored. Wolves supporters will remember Marcus Tavernier’s winner at Molineux in February. A simple movement from Solanke dragged multiple defenders into wider areas, allowing Tavernier to ghost into the box, before bundling the ball home.
In terms of chance creation, cutbacks proved to be a vital source for Bournemouth. Philip Billing’s winner against Liverpool is a prime example. The excellent movement into the box, supplied by Solanke yet again.
This form of chance creation revolves around the idea of creating high-quality chances. Despite taking only 9.45 shots per game, (footystats.org) the lowest in The Premier League, Gary O’Neil’s side managed to outscore their relegation rivals Southampton, Everton and Wolves.
O’Neil recognised the flaws in his side and adjusted to this. In a relegation battle, points are more important than performances. Remaining compact defensively, whilst being effective during transition proved crucial. A simple, yet efficient outlook that ultimately steered Bournemouth to safety.
How does this translate to Wolves?
Despite the talk revolving around behind the scenes issues at the club, pre-season performances against Luton and Stade Rennais raised the spirits of supporters in terms of on-the-pitch performance. Despite the lack of investment, there is the nucleus of a more than capable squad at Wolves. How might Gary O’Neil set up his side?
There is no doubt that under Lopetegui, Wolves were at their best when set up in a 442. In terms of profiles, the Wolves squad carries certain similarities with what O’Neil had at his disposal last campaign.
The use of a marauding left back works in the favour of both Rayan Ait-Nouri and Hugo Bueno. The transitional nature of the side could play a part when it comes to Pedro Neto getting back to his best.
These are just a handful of examples when it comes to profiles similar to that of O’Neil’s Bournemouth. All over the pitch, Wolves have the personnel to cause problems. The catch is that each individual requires the correct use, which has not been the case in recent times with what has seemed like a ‘square pegs in round holes’ approach.
The importance of Matheus Cunha
The correct use of Matheus Cunha will prove crucial. On multiple occasions last season, the Wolves were toothless in the final third. This was not aided with the clubs record signing being deployed in as a lone striker, in a team that created next to nothing. At his best, Cunha is a dynamic, elegant and forward-thinking ‘second striker’. This has been evident throughout pre season, where he has been effective when utilised correctly.
He may fit the bill for the Philip Billing role perfectly, and when diving deeper into the players, it is clear to see the similarities. Matheus, like Billing last campaign, is someone who carries great versatility. His ability to link the midfield and forward lines, whilst being able to capitalise on loose balls in the final third makes him an almost perfect profile for the ‘second-striker’ role.
During his final full season at Hertha Berlin, when Matheus was at his arguable best, his numbers speak for themselves. Recording seven goals and four assists across the campaign proved to be a respectable tally in a low-scoring side. His overall impact however set his move to Atletico Madrid in motion. According to Fbref.com, Cunha recorded 110 shot-creating actions over the course of the season. This role behind a natural centre forward allows The Brazilian to operate at his best. Only time will tell as to whether this will be Sasa Kalajdzic or Fabio Silva. However, when Cunha’s elegance and overall impact on a side is considered, he simply has to be a mainstay in the side.
To open a season in this manner, is far from ideal for any football club. Frustrations from supporters are understandable when a manager with Lopetegui’s credentials, is replaced by someone entering his second year in management.
With a difficult set of opening fixtures, will supporters give leverage to the new man at the helm? Or will the sour atmosphere around the club, which has been building over the summer months reach the point of toxicity?
Gary O’Neil is far from a statement appointment compared to his predecessor. A new dawn is yet again, on the horizon at at Wolverhampton Wanderers. Galvanising the squad and getting his ideas across quickly will prove to be crucial. The club simply cannot find themselves playing catch up yet again. Only time will tell as to whether this risk will pay off for the Wolves. However for now, it is over to you Gary O’Neil.