Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: Nuno’s Wolves adapting to every challenge they face
“We don’t change. We adapt.”
It is an ongoing mantra from Nuno Espirito Santo.
The Wolves head coach never deviates from this script. He swiftly and successfully established the team’s new identity on his arrival back in the summer of 2017. Every observer is familiar with it.
There have been odd occasions in the last two-and-a-half years when the head coach has been accused of intransigence.
A couple of blips, firstly during the Spring of the Championship-winning season and again this time last year when it appeared opposing Premier League teams had “found out” how to get at this identity and undermine it.
When Watford turned up at Molineux in October last year and employed a box midfield which swamped Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho, dragged wide men Matt Doherty and Jonny out of position and left the three-man defence exposed, there was concern.
That turned to something closer to panic when Huddersfield departed with three points a month later.
A tweak here and there, with an extra body in the middle and a switch to two up front reinvigorated the side. Wolves adapted.
Until this season that was as tricky as it got for Nuno and his coaching staff. But the success of 2018/19 presented a whole new challenge for this season. An exhausting schedule of European football – wreaking havoc with kick-off times and mileage – was thrust upon the squad. And here we are.
A week into November, Wolves have played an astonishing 24 competitive fixtures this season.
How have they adapted?
Much of what Nuno has done has been forced upon him. Attempting to start a conversation in the Wolves treatment room during the first two seasons under the current management would have resulted in a monologue.
Now, the matches and miles are taking their toll. The side has been struck with injury problems, with Willy Boly’s broken ankle the most damaging.
Conor Coady had two relatively new partners for company against Villa. Despite the plaudits for Adama Traore, Raul Jimenez and Neves, it was the defence – as a collective - that performed most impressively on Sunday.
Leander Dendoncker may turn out to be most suited to a defensive role. If Wolves are to continue to improve, there may not be a long-term place for someone of his limited agility in midfield.
Coady himself has benefited from the switch, and is the player probably best placed to offer advice if the Belgian finds himself slotting in at the back more regularly. Romain Saiss has also proved his worth to the squad over the past two-and-a-half seasons, and he deserves to be held in high regard. Often overlooked, he is Nuno’s utility player. Never one to give attention-seeking performances, his reliability is proving invaluable.
Saiss plays on the limits of his talents, giving every effort in search of a performance that keeps him in the side. To that end he is only ever one lunge away from a yellow card, as illustrated by the early caution for his infringement against John McGinn on Sunday.
He reined it in for the next 80 minutes, though, perhaps learning from his error at Selhurst Park in September.
If Wolves are adapting their personnel in defence, it is on a tactical level they are expanding further forward. There appears to be genuine flexibility in midfield and attack now, a real sign that Nuno is developing the squad along the right lines.
Traore’s progress is the headline improvement. Groans of despair in the stands have been replaced by a sharp intake of breath and anticipation whenever the ball is at his feet.
The Spaniard is still something of a rough diamond but he is in the process of being cut into something special. No longer are Wolves so reliant on Diogo Jota and Jimenez for an attacking spark.
Neves has been a regular topic of conversation amongst supporters since Wolves were promoted to the Premier League. The debate about his effectiveness in a deep-lying position compared to further forward is an interesting one.
He can play well in both roles but, very often, it is not Wolves’ formation that should be considered when looking at Neves’ performance but instead the type of opposition he is up against.
Neves thrived last weekend not simply because of a more advanced position on the pitch, but also because Villa’s midfield played into his lap, leaving manager Dean Smith exasperated.
Their failure to win and retain possession, particularly when their attacks broke down, left holes to exploit. Neves will be keeping his fingers crossed for as straightforward a challenge at Bournemouth next Saturday.
Yet, even when he is seemingly enduring quieter afternoons, Wolves are always a better team for having him on the pitch. He is shrewd at breaking up the rhythm of opponents’ passing, a more gnarly presence in midfield than he is credited with being. The volume of work being asked of these players is high, and yet they are still producing.
Raul Jimenez’s 13 goals deserve a particular mention. He remains the pivot for the attack to work around, providing so much more than just goals.
Despite the unproductive starts from the majority of the summer signings, Wolves are starting to look like a more accomplished side than 12 months ago.
In terms of an overall identity, Nuno’s team has changed very little since the beginning of last season. But they have adapted significantly.
The way they have coped with a fresh challenge must give the head coach immense satisfaction. They are adapting exactly as he would have wished.