Long Reads

The Tactical Evolution of Wolves Under Nuno Espírito Santo

The rise of Wolves under their Portuguese manager, Nuno Espírito Santo, has been incredible. Three years ago, after the uninspiring era of Paul Lambert at the club, Wolves appointed a manager that was not just much better than the situation Wolves found themselves in as Championship also-rans, but someone who fitted in perfectly with the Chinese owners’ vision for Wolves.

As mentioned, Espírito Santo took over the Midlands club when they were in the Championship after a period where Wolves had bounced from one journeyman to another and struggled to build any kind of identity on and off the pitch. Wolves had become ‘one of those teams’ who paraded between 11th and 18th in the Championship, not really troubling anyone after their Premier League foray under Mick McCarthy.

Then came Nuno. The bearded Portuguese manager had a poor reputation at Valencia and as such was goaded by fans of the Spanish side after his ill-fated spell at the club. But managers learn and improve, find their level and work on it. Nuno has certainly done that with Wolves. They are well coached, tactically excellent and have all the platforms in place to become one of the Premier League’s finest ever upstarts.

Basic Set-up

Nuno has built Wolves as an industrious yet talented team that both excels playing against supposed better teams on the counterattack, and also finds quality patterns of play against weaker teams that sit more defensively.

Wolves have played with a three at the back since Nuno arrived at the club. Whether that be in a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2 depends. There have been different moments in seasons and games that have dictated what Nuno has done in terms of the composition of the midfield and attack, which have allowed him to freshen up the team and make it more competitive.

Cardiff City 0-1 Wolves (Championship2018)

Let’s start with Nuno’s first season at the club and a visit to second in the league Cardiff City. Take Wolves’ starting line-up that day: Ruddy, Bennett, Coady, Boly, Doherty, Neves, Saiss, Douglas, Jota, Bonatini, Afobe. Setting up in a 3-4-3 formation, Wolves’ natural game plan of finding quick transitions up the pitch and spending a lot of the game on the counterattack was naturally thwarted by the side with the lowest average possession in the Championship that season.

The main offensive tactical port of call for Wolves was to draw in the Cardiff centre backs – Sean Morrison and Sol Bamba – by keeping all three attacking players – Jota, Afobe and Bonatini – central so when a defender came to the ball, the attackers had space to run into the area vacated by the defenders coming out to win the ball back. Alternatively, they could find one of Wolves’ wing backs, who played high up the pitch to force back the Cardiff full backs and keep a strong feel to the game, making Cardiff feel under pressure and struggle to find an out ball due to Wolves’ strong press and ability to find good passes in the final third. These passes came from one of the centre backs stepping out (usually Boly) or from Ruben Neves or Roman Saiss, who were adept at switching the play to find either wing back and move Cardiff’s low block around.

wolves creating gaps
Benik Afobe pulls Cardiff defender out of position creating gaps

Wolverhampton Wanderers had a usual 61% possession due to the fact they find their best moments in games in the counter attack with hard working wing backs and dynamic forwards who exploit the space in behind the opposition’s defence. One of the weaknesses of Wolves’ system is their struggle to break down a low block. There has been a couple of games against Brighton in the Premier League and Burnley in the Premier League where they could not break down a compact 4-4-2 or a 4-5-1 mainly due to the fact that the narrowness of the low block takes out Wolves ability to find the inside forwards relying on a lot of crossing from the wing backs. That would have been the case in this game if it was not for Ruben Neves’ excellent free kick to give Wolves a vital lead in the game where they could return to their normal game plan with Cardiff taking the game to the Championship leaders.

In order to defend the 0-1 lead, Wolves did not simply revert into a 5-4-1 shape rigidly because by doing such it would allow Cardiff to win flick ons and very rarely do Cardiff recycle ball possession anyway so Wolves would drop back deeper to win aerial duels and second balls to cope with Cardiff’s aerial bombardment whilst pressing intently in wide areas to limit the quality of the shots. Of course, the plan was not executed perfectly, Wolves conceded two penalties late on, but did enough to win the game and promotion to the Premier League.

wolves wide areas
Wolves press in wide areas while dropping deeper on the edge of the box to win aerial duels and second balls.

2018/19 Premier League: Wolves 1-1 Manchester City

There was certainly a feeling in the media that Wolves could be the surprise package of the 2018/19 Premier League as even in the Championship there was a feeling that tactically they were a Premier League team and with the additions of Joao Moutinho, Raul Jimenez and Rui Patricio, Wolves looked a strong side.

In the Championship, Wolves usually had more of the ball than the opposition because they were the best team in the division and simply mid-table teams and relegation-threatened teams would play to stop Wolves.

Wolves, like in the Championship, played with a three at the back, but in this game ended up more like a five at the back, with Wolves defending deep, narrow and looking to hit Man City on the break.

This was far from Wolves’ perfect performance, they were poor in possession and spent long periods of the game without the ball and with better care, Man City could have opened Wolves up. But as a newly promoted side coming up against the Champions both of the previous season and the 18/19 season, Wolves did fantastically well to get a point from the game and set them up perfectly for the rest of the season.

Not only did Wolves hold their shape well, they also did well to push Man City further and further back by closing down Man City’s ability to pass forward and triangular fashion where Man City have done well to open up the pitch by drawing teams in by playing short passes. Wolves uniformity in their press meant that the only option for Man City to play forward would be a long ball which isn’t part of their strengths and Wolves would have been fine in dealing with that due to the aerial ability of Boly, Bennett and Coady.

wolves pressing vs man city
Wolves press in uniform to stop Man City playing in and behind them

Wolves did not simply sit back for the whole of the game. They’re a dynamic attacking side so they look to find space in behind Man City. The ability of Jimenez, Jota and the space of Helder Costa and later on Adama Traore pushed City back and made them worry about the threat they would pose.

Everton 1-3 Wolves

All this game did was show the tactical gulf between the Everton manager, Marco Silva and Wolves’ Nuno Espírito Santo. Wolves were in fine form at the time especially after the shift from the 3-4-3 formation they had started the season with, to a more rigid 3-5-2 formation with Diogo Jota playing off the prolific Raul Jimenez.

Take Wolves’ starting lineup, Patricio, Bennett, Boly, Coady, Doherty, Dendoncker, Neves, MoutinhoJonny, Jota, Jimenez. Wolves only had 36% possession that day, but used the ball much better than Everton, defended diligently and were much better than Everton in every area.

Wolves mostly set out in a 5-3-2 formation against Everton with the Toffees playing much of the game in front of the Wolves mid block. Although Wolves let Everton have 64% possession, Wolves pressed intently and apart from a wonder goal from Andre Gomes he or Everton offered very little apart from sideways and backwards football and played into Wolves’ hands.

Nuno commented on Wolves’ game plan after the game saying, “It requires a lot of shape and being compact but when we achieved the third goal the game was done for us.“ Wolves, under Nuno Espírito Santo, while may seem a full expansive unit with the flair of Neves and Jota, are also an extremely functional outfit which also know how to dig in, in order to win games in the Premier League.

During the game, Wolves looked to attack Everton through both full backs, Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines (eventually Jonjoe Kenny) through the two wing backs, and Raul Jimenez peeling off Baines to help create an overload on that side for the run if Doherty inside or the same with Jonny on the other side.

Wolves, by overloading the left hand side of Everton, helped win a penalty early on in the game which then allowed Wolves to defend in their shape and hit Everton on the break.

There would have been other examples and games in the 2018/2019 season that better showed Wolves’ strengths as a team but there will have been none which showed a gulf in tactical ability between two managers and Nuno playing on the weaknesses of the opposition quite like Wolves vs Everton.

Where are Wolves now?

Wolves have had another great season under Nuno. Wolves are sixth in the Premier League, albeit having played a game more than Sheffield United before football stopped.

Wolves have changed back to a 3-4-3 formation this season with Adama Traore, Diogo Jota and Raul Jimenez all linking to create one of the Premier League’s finest front threes which is complemented by the strength in defence seeing Wolves only lose six Premier League games all season a further example of their tenacity in holding a lead and their ability to claw back a point from losing positions. Wolves are amongst the league’s hardest working teams playing a good mix of direct football coupled with good movement and short passes which creates space for the inform Adama.

In defence, they continue to defend in a 5-4-1 formation forcing sides to play the ball out wide where Doherty and Jonny tenaciously win the ball back. Teams rarely have the ability to play through Wolves such is their compact formation which limits space to play in and around, evident in their 0-2 victory at the Etihad where Wolves only had 24% possession but did enough to win the game.

Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota

A lot has been made of the upturn in the form of Adama Traore this season but the consistency of Wolves’ other two attackers, Diogo Jota and Raul Jimenez has been incredible considering the expectations people had of them before signing for Wolves.

Jimenez struggled to reach ten goals a season in the Portuguese league and showed little signs of success in the Premier League. Yet, Jimenez paying for Wolves has proven to be a top class goal scorer, propelling Wolves from mid table to the European places.

Although Jimenez doesn’t stand out as one of the league’s most hard working forwards with a modest 3.71 average successful pressures per 90, he works hard for the team, defending from the front but the Mexican’s main strength is his ability on the ball and in front of goal.

Raul Jimenez carries the ball well for Wolves. His dribble success rate of 63.6% is good and is important for Wolves’ ability to counter attack especially away from home. His partnership with Diogo Jota is what makes him stand out also. Jimenez is good at finding Jota and vice versa with a xA of 0.20 per 90 for Jimenez and 0.14 for Jota.

As for Jota, he has very similar strengths to Jimenez in the sense that he is a good ball carrier but also creates an average of 3.14 shot creating actions per game also.

The pair, partner each other, are adept to playing counter attack, are good in front of goal and with Jota you have a good creative outlet.


It would not be ridiculous to suggest that Wolves are one of the best coached teams in Europe under Nuno Espírito Santo. The Portuguese has Wolves not only playing some free flowing football going forward, but also have a good structure in defence and team that works very hard that has become on the best underdog stories of recent times. They are not a team that is obsessed with styles of play that are aesthetically perfect neither are they kick and rush. They are a team with even bigger potential than their current sixth place in the league and in Nuno, they have one of the most underrated managers in Europe.

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