Dan Cooke digs into the numbers to see how we can collect all three points tomorrow.
It’s 2018. We’ve just beaten Aston Villa 2-0 at home, including a Floyd Ayité goal that I remember very fondly. As his effort from the halfway line drifted towards the Hammy End, we all started to believe that this could be our year. Our next game at the Cottage saw us beat top-of-the-table Wolves. And it was well and truly on.
Three years on, we face Wolves after a very different result against Villa – and in polar opposite form. There were debates as to whether us or Wolves were the best footballing side in the Championship during the 17/18 season, but since then, we’ve both been on very different trajectories. Wolves secured back-to-back seventh-placed finishes while we were relegated and experienced another Championship campaign.
However this season, there have been definite similarities between the two teams. Wolves have switched between five at the back and four at the back, just like us. They have also struggled to create chances and consequentially, struggled to score goals, much like us. They have missed the goals of Raúl Jiménez and have their early season form to thank that they haven’t been dragged into a relegation battle.
Fulham versus Nuno
Historically, Wolves have had the better of us. When it comes to playing a Wolves side managed by Nuno Espírito Santo, our record is especially poor, with just four points from a possible 15.
We would probably say that it was the ‘old Fulham’ that lost at Molineux earlier this season; a side that included a centre-back pairing of Tim Ream and Le Marchand, with Joe Bryan playing on the wing. It was actually a relatively even game, and one we could’ve taken a point from if Abou Kamara had tucked his chance away.
The five at the back that Wolves deploy has caused us issues. Barring one game under Ranieri, we’ve always had the majority of possession against Nuno’s side, but rarely had the better chances. They’re a side that often thrive on sacrificing possession, drawing their opponents forward and unpicking them on the counter.
As we can see below, in all but one of Wolves’ victories this season, they have had less of the ball than their opponents, averaging 45.3% possession in their nine wins this season.
If we compare this to their 13 losses so far, they have averaged 50.8% possession. To take this slightly further, of the 13 games where Wolves have had at least 50% possession, they have: one win, four draws and eight losses.
That doesn’t mean that by having more possession than Wolves that you automatically lose, but there are only four teams who have had more of the ball and taken three points this season: Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Aston Villa.
The message appears to be: if you’re going to try and control the game against Wolves, you have to play bloody well and be able to cope with their counters.
Man to watch
Those who have watched Wolves this season will know that Pedro Neto is developing into a serious player. His finish from the edge of the area against us was the spark of quality both sides were looking for to secure three points. Wolves have not lost this season if Pedro Neto has scored or assisted and it’s vital we keep him quiet if we want a result.
He is Wolves’s Lookman; the player they rely on to make things happen. They will look to pick him out and get him running at our defence.
Kenny Tete dealt well with El Ghazi at the weekend, but Trezeguet’s movement when he came on is what undid us, drifting in off the left flank. There was a marked effort from Villa to unlock us from out wide and it eventually worked. We have to expect the same from Neto and Wolves.
Our own Jack Collins suggested that we should look at moving to a five at the back for Friday, with the option to operate with two strikers. I’d be inclined to agree with this. We saw against Aston Villa, Mitro was once again isolated, and when playing against the potentially three centre-backs of Wolves, this issue could be further amplified.
By playing two strikers, it also gives us the chance to move the ball forward quicker, which the stats show is something that Wolves struggle against. If we can look to move the ball to our front men quickly, combining the strength of Mitro with the pace of Maja and an overlapping Decordova-Reid/Robinson/Tete, I think we can trouble the boys in gold.
This was highlighted on Monday evening in Wolves’s loss to West Ham. All three of West Ham’s goals came from direct running and quick, incisive passing. Two of their three goals came from what are classified as ‘fast breaks’, and every time West Ham got forward in the first half, they looked like scoring. It seems like the clear way to expose this Wolves side and I’m sure Scott and his team will know that.
Finally, Wolves’s biggest threats come from out wide from the aforementioned Neto, but also Adama Traore, the returning Daniel Podence and their wing-backs. If we play a back five, we give ourselves two layers of defence, firstly from a wing-back and then a centre-back. This means we can hopefully nullify their wide attacking threats.
Wolves’s two available strikers have scored a combined total of three goals this season, so if we keep their wide men quiet and take our chances, a win is certainly there for the taking. And with the gap to Newcastle widening to three points this past weekend, boy do we need it.