Sam Tighe assesses the key areas that could decide Saturday's Premier League meeting between Wolves and Southampton at Molineux. It's the latest edition of Tactical Watch, in association with Sportsbet.io.
This weekend Southampton travel to Molineux to face Wolves, hoping to build on the momentum generated by a fantastic 4-1 win in front of a home crowd and new owner Dragan Šolak on Tuesday night.
It’ll be no easy task; Wolves are coming off a huge high themselves, having beaten Manchester United at Old Trafford for the first time since 1980 last week, then following it up with a convincing FA Cup win.
After the United game, Wolves manager Bruno Lage gave a revealing post-match interview on how he’d devised a winning plan.
“It’s about trying to understand the spaces,” Lage said, before delivering a uniquely detailed sermon on exactly how he’d instructed his players to negotiate Manchester United’s pressing habits – and where to look for space in multiple scenarios. It hammered home just how customised Lage’s match plan is and should serve as a reminder of how tactically sharp the man in the Molineux dugout is.
But while the plan is customisable, the formation Lage uses is almost always 3-4-3. It’s the same one previous manager Nuno Santos Espírito utilised, allowing Wolves to become a more proactive, enterprising team on the ball and play higher up the pitch – but with the comfort of doing so in a familiar shape.
“Familiar” has been the theme of Wolves’ season, in fact. The back three have all started 19/19 Premier League games this season; João Moutinho and Rúben Neves know each other inside-out; Raúl Jiménez is the long-term focal point up front; while almost all of the rotating wide men have been with the club for more than a year.
However, that back line continuity is about to be broken up. Romain Saïss, away on Africa Cup of Nations duty with Morocco, will miss his first Premier League game of the season on Saturday. Fernando Marçal or Leander Dendoncker will deputise, creating the kind of fresh look in defence no manager ever wants.
That’s the first thing Southampton must test out, and in Ché Adams, Armando Broja and Adam Armstrong, they have the combination of speed and brute force to really squeeze it. Depending on if Hasenhüttl continues with the midfield three seen against Brentford, Saints may have a man advantage in the middle to utilise too.
From a defensive standpoint, the major threat Wolves pose is clear: no team in the league has attempted (411) and completed (255) more take-ons than Lage’s troops, who beckon their wing-backs into space with the ball, and have a legion of dribbling attackers to call upon – led by the unique Adama Traoré.
They use Jiménez as a pivot, feeding off his back-to-goal work and carrying the ball forward threateningly. From there, the attack is a mix of crosses, long shots and clever passes. Each of Saints’ players – no matter the position – must be ready for a series of intense 1v1s and duels in order to achieve team success.