Premier League 2018-19: Understanding the brilliance of Wolves
When Wolverhampton Wanderers lifted the Championship trophy last season, many expected them to continue their good form in the Premier League. Few, however, could have predicted the success which they have found in 2018-19 so far, and even fewer would have expected results such as tonight's 3-1 thriller against Arsenal to be a common feature of their season.
Having lost just five of their last 15 Premier League fixtures since the calendar year began, Wolves have been one of the most successful top-flight teams of 2019 (for a quick comparison, Tottenham Hotspur have lost six in the same period).
Moreover, with some crucial late winners and powerful performances against arguably stronger competition, Wolves have been a thrill to watch all season. And this has all been achieved in Wolves' first season in the Premier League since 2012-13.
Nuno Espírito Santo has given a new and exciting breath of life to the club. His enthusiasm and managerial style are a hit with players and fans alike, and he is unquestionably one of the keys to Wolves' recent success.
While not bulletproof, his favoured 3-4-2-1 / 3-5-2 has been a force to be reckoned with throughout the season. Not only have they withstood the formidable attacking presence of each of the top six with relatively few concessions, they have also netted a fair few themselves, leaving them with a top six goal difference of +2 and a very respectable record so far (3L, 4D, 6W).
Of course, the application of these positions to the pitch means nothing without the players. While the pacier forwards and midfielders in the Wolves team-sheet are in general able to use the 3-4-2-1 to effectively cut through the opposition's defensive lines, the individual performances also deserve appreciation.
Raul Jiménez, on loan this season from Benfica, has been nothing short of outstanding. With 20 Premier League goals / assists to his name, he has been one of the driving forces of Wolves' offensive successes this season.
The two goals featured above highlight Jiménez's fantastic composure and finishing ability. While he has certainly scored more attractive goals than these in recent months, he must be credited for his capacity to find the net even when being pressured by the keeper and/or several defenders.
There is no doubt that the permanent signing of Jiménez confirmed recently has been a huge boost to the confidence of the fans that Wolves can replicate their success next year.
Though they may not hold the same statistical record as Jiménez, Cavaleiro, Costa and Traoré have also served Wolves incredibly well this season and deserve to be recognised for having done so.
In midfield, João Moutinho and Rúben Neves have been similarly crucial to Wolves' Premier League successes this season. Providing the most assists (8), completed passes (1354) and successful tackles (99), Moutinho has been equally influential at both ends of the pitch and has made a huge difference in the tighter fixtures of the season.
Neves too has been effective in all aspects of his game, with 6 goals/assists, 1663 completed passes and the most interceptions of a Wolves player this season (66).
Diogo Jota, though not as statistically prominent as his midfield teammates, has also been phenomenal this season. With 11 goals/assists - bolstered by his hat-trick against Leicester - he has been a joy to watch.
As a picture speaks a thousand words, below are the highlights from the Leicester vs Wolves match which deserve to be watched in full.
The situation in front of the Wolves goal has been just as promising as elsewhere on the pitch. 2018 acquisition Rui Patricio has some work to do to recreate his Sporting CP record of 179 clean sheets in 460 games, but his seemingly modest 8 in 35 is one ahead of David de Gea's 2018-19 tally of 7.
All of the defenders in front of Patricio have worked diligently this season, but this space is too short to credit each individually. An honorable mention goes to Willy Boly for his 4 goals and 151 clearances, though Coady, Bennett, Jonny and Doherty have unquestionably been playing to a similar standard this season.
Looking at the performances of all these players collectively, a case can be made for further investment in the squad. And this is not because of any particular poor performances (although at times Doherty, Bennett and Saiss have been slightly lacking in pace when needed), but more due to the effect that investment has had on Wolves.
Of the current first-team squad, 11 have been recruited either permanently or on loan since 2016. The role of Jiménez as Wolves' top goal-scorer this season is all the more important when you factor in that he has only played in a gold and black shirt since August.
While the permanent signing of Jiménez is definitely encouraging, there are a few other things Wolves could do to best prepare for the 2019-20 season.
- Tie down Leander Dendoncker on a permanent contract, integrating him into the regular starting line-up. His relative lack of appearances this season don't match his quality in the slightest.
- Invest in a new RB. Depending on the budget, Kenny Lala or Achraf Hakimi could join the squad. Both have had strong seasons, and the board would need to weigh Hakimi's youth and possibility for extended development against Lala's considerably lower price-tag but more extensive experience.