Following up on the departure of Unai Emery form Arsenal, several names have come to the forefront as potential replacements. Nuno Espirito Santo is one of the outsiders, however, is he what the Gunners need after an unstable last 18 months?
This report will analyse what Nuno could bring and how his Wolves side last season performed in the premier league after a six-year absence.
Last season Wolves recorded a remarkable 7thplace finish after not featuring in the Premier League for six seasons. Nuno Espirito Santo’s side won 16 of their 38 league games, losing 13 and finished the season with 57 points. In Unai Emery’s first season in English football, Arsenal won 21 league games and lost 10. The Gunners finished 5th with 70 points to their name.
One of the most impressive parts of Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolves side was how competitive they were in the Premier League last season and how they blended a plethora of new talent into their squad without sacrificing their principles and squad dynamics. He built a squad which maintained its core values from their Championship-winning side. He also did what the likes of Fulham didn’t – he repaid those who helped bring the club up from the Championship. An impressive 3 out of 5 Wolves players with the most minutes last season played in the Championship (Coady, Doherty, and Bennett). They’re all staples of the Wolves defence and have helped keep the Birmingham club performing beyond expectation.
In their Championship-winning season, Nuno favoured a 5-2-3. The double-pivot midfield of Ruben Neves and Romain Saiss had enough quality to dominate most matches, however, with the step up of calibre to the Premier League they quickly struggled. Nuno addressed this and deployed a 5-3-2. He began to favour a midfield three of Neves, Saiss, and new signing Joao Moutinho. Another new signing in Leander Dendoncker, once settled, took the place of Saiss and allowed for greater fluidity in Wolves midfield. This allowed for Wolves to create numerical superiority and better distribute the ball through midfield and more effectively progress the team up the pitch.
Wolves midfield would often adapt to the opposition and state of the match, by moving one of the three further forward into a more attacking position. Repeatedly, should Wolves find that they needed extra attacking emphasis, they would move Moutinho into a 10 position and allow Neves and Dendoncker to hold and control the midfield positions. If they were in a position whereby they needed to defend and hold out, then they would move either Saiss, Dendoncker, or Neves back into a number six position and eradicate the space between their midfield and defence. This allowed them to defend deeper and with greater numbers. The 3 central defenders didn’t need to worry about pressing and attacking the space in front of them, which meant they could deal with defending the channels and space behind them.
When defending, Wolves position themselves in a tight 5-3-2 system aiming to negate central build-up from their opponents. They were more than happy to allow their opponents to attack the wings once they had dropped to a low block. This is because Coady, Boly, and Bennett were more than adept in the air and could deal with most crosses into the box. By defending the central areas of the pitch, Wolves could draw their opponents onto them, cut passing lanes and counter-attack with quick direct balls to their two strikers.
When Wolves are defending in a medium or high block, they aim to almost create an impenetrable wall which stretches across the pitch. The wing-backs help to create a 5 in midfield and generally look to latch onto an opposition winger or wing-back.
When Wolves counter-attack out of their low block, they look to surge outwards and attack the wide positions. In the process, they are aiming to stretch their opposition and attack the wings thus creating space on the interiors for their midfielders and forwards. Another benefit to attacking with this width is they can draw counter presses and because they are stretching their opposition at the same time, and should they effectively play through them, they can expose their opponents and create clear-cut chances.
Wolves are a very good team on the ball and are more than comfortable being the dominant team in the game. This can be shown by the Passes per defensive action last season (PPDA). Over the course of the season, teams began to drop off towards their own goal and sit in a low black. This led to Wolves’ high PPDA of 15. This means that Wolves were allowed to make 15 passes before a defensive action (tackle, interception etc.) was made. This indicates that teams factored in Nuno’s possession-based game and largely accepted to allow it.
If a team comes on to Wolves or they look to mix up their build up play, then Nuno instructs his players to hit the ball long to Raul Jimenez. He then lays the ball off for his strike partner or midfielder. This allows Wolves to press break and beat the opposition press. They also have the chance to catch their opponent unawares to this play.
Nuno likes for his wing-backs to have a great complete influence on the team. He wants for them to be able to attack and create overloads as well as be defensively solid and be able to cope with intense pressure. Last season in the premier league, Matt Doherty and Jonny Otto either assisted or scored 11 goals between them. For two wing-backs in a newly promoted team, this is a phenomenal output. As we all know, Arsenal are well endowed in the full-back/wing-back position: both Tierney and Bellerin being the standout two. Ainsley Maitland-Niles is very good going forward, however, is more susceptible defensively than the aforementioned players. Arsenal compare very well to Wolves in attacking output from their full-backs last season with Kolasinac and Bellerin getting 10 assists between them in the Premier League. Again, it still comes down to their defensive ability, which isn’t as good as Jonny and Doherty.