Pedro Neto has already had a larger part to play in Wolves season when compared to last season. So far, Neto has featured for 841 minutes in 11 games, less than 100 minutes shy of the 929 minutes accumulated in 29 games last season.
There’s been more room for Neto to shine amidst the departure of Diogo Jota. And although Jota has made a positive start to life at Liverpool, Neto is helping Wolves move on from what was an already successful piece of business.
Coach Nuno Espírito Santo has been known to tinker with his lineups, notably between a 3-5-2 and a 3-4-3 used regularly in Wolves first two campaigns back in the Premier League. In doing so, certain players have taken up more than one position within either system. But this season’s opening 11 games has, for reasons both tactically and injury-based, has seen even more tinkering than ever before. Wolves have at times moved from their usual back three to using a back four in either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3.
Neto is a winger by trade, but when Wolves have used a 3-5-2, in their opening two games against Sheffield United and Manchester City for example, Neto has been used on the left side of a midfield three. The most advanced of the midfielders, Neto will push forward to support the two centre-forwards, both when pressing and when attacking. In an episode of his Zonal Marking Podcast, Michael Cox described Neto as a “half and half” between a wide forward and midfielder, being able to carry out both roles interchangeably. Though come the second-half, Neto did move wide right as Wolves changed formation and aimed to create ore chances which they did.
Though when in midfield, Neto is still able to drift out to the flank and create from those sorts of positions. Having also started in midfield against Leeds, Neto had drifted towards free space on the right-wing and upon receiving the ball in one attack, with an outside of the foot pass, picked out Leander Dendoncker making a run from deep who then advanced into the box.
Neto can play on either flank, and Neto isn’t the only versatile attacker in Wolves ranks. Compatriot Daniel Podence is also a wide player by trade, but has also featured in a front two alongside Raul Jimenez, and was the central attacker within the three in behind the centre forward in Wolves’ 4-2-3-1 used against Arsenal. Adama Traore has been deployed as both a winger and a wing-back on the right, as well as a centre-forward; Traore even started as a false 9 in a 1-2 win against Newcastle the season before last.
Versatility is a key theme when you look at Wolves. Wolves also have midfielders that can either take up varying midfield roles (Joao Mourinho and Ruben Neves) or even drop into defence (Leander Dendoncker), wing-backs that can shift over to centre-back (Marcal), and the centre-backs have been used in back three’s and now back four’s.
And whether Wolves are fielding a back three or four system, Neto and other attackers are a threat in transitions. Although only scoring one goal via a counter-attack so far this season, Wolves’ quick transitions overall are direct and can involve good link-up play, even when outnumbered by the opposing defence.
Neto is well-suited to this aspect of Wolves’ play, and this is because of his directness when dribbling.
In the lead up to Wolves’ second goal against Arsenal, Conor Coady intercepted a pass and simultaneously switched the ball to Traore who pirouetted past Granit Xhaka and passed to Neto in space in Arsenal’s half. Neto dribbled through the centre, forcing three defenders back and creating space for himself to shoot, forcing a save from Bernd Leno, with Podence cleverly jumping over a challenge and converting.
Though Neto did give Wolves the initial lead by pouncing onto a loose ball and shooting from close range, after Dendoncker’s header rattled the woodwork. If you take all of Neto’s goals this season; versus Fulham, Southampton, and Arsenal, all oversaw Neto arriving into the box and either reacting to a loose ball/missed chance, or striking following a lay off. Neto now has 3 goals in 12 games, whereas scoring 5 in 44 games last season.
What Neto has continued to show is that he is an attacker keen to dribble, and when out wide he can cut inside and shoot or pass, or beat a defender one-on-one on the outside and cross into the box; low crosses and cut backs for instance, albeit with hit and miss results.
Nevertheless, Neto is statistically Wolves’ most creative player, having created 20 chances, Wolves highest by some margin – Traore comes second with 12. These chances include 4 from set-pieces, one of which being an assist for Romain Saiss header via an in-swinging corner in the opening game win against Sheffield United. Neto has created 2.1 chances per 90, and 4.09 shot creating actions per 90, in comparison to 3.35 last season.
There is a chance for Wolves to bounce back from a 4-0 defeat to Liverpool as they face Aston Villa on Saturday. It will be interesting to see whether Nuno Santo departs from the 4-3-3, and how Neto will feature tactically, whether he’s starting or having an impact off of the bench.