Wolves 1 Southampton 1 - The debrief

With a quarter of the Premier League season in the books, assessing Wolves’ progress remains far from straightforward.

Joao Moutinho of Wolverhampton Wanderers (AMA)
Joao Moutinho of Wolverhampton Wanderers (AMA)

Nuno Espirito Santo’s men sit closer to top spot than at this stage of the previous two campaigns yet performances have often been inconsistent or underwhelming.

Monday’s 1-1 home draw with Southampton was, in some respects, the most radical display of Nuno’s three-and-a-half-year reign to date.

Changing shape

Max Kilman of Wolverhampton Wanderers and Nuno Espirito Santo the head coach / manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers at full time (AMA)

Since walking through the door in the summer of 2017, Nuno’s transformation of the club has been built on the foundations of a three-man defence.

Seeing Wolves line-up with four at the back against the Saints will, therefore, no doubt have left some supporters rubbing their eyes.

The Covid-19 enforced absences of Conor Coady and Romain Saiss might have made the change a necessity, yet for a head coach who has sometimes been accused of lacking flexibility this was still a bold move and the results were not all bad.

True, Wolves looked more vulnerable at the back, with Willy Boly in particular taking time to adapt to a slightly different position. Theo Walcott’s opener was a sloppy goal to concede from the home side’s perspective, while they were fortunate the former England international then missed a golden chance to double the Saints’ advantage.

Yet going forward Wolves posed far more of a threat, particularly after the second-half introduction of Pedro Neto, which saw them briefly play a four-man attack.

Another late change then saw Vitinha introduced as a No.10, a further sign perhaps Nuno is more willing than before to try things out as he searches for the ideal formula after a transfer window which brought considerable change.

The balance still isn’t quite right and Coady’s imminent return will likely see a switch back to more familiar tactics for Sunday’s trip to Arsenal. But this outing should have provided the boss ample food for thought.

Neto makes his point

Pedro Neto of Wolverhampton Wanderers. (AMA)

While it was a surprise to see the Portugeuse youngster relegated to the bench, his impact after coming on with 20 minutes remaining was exactly the response Nuno would have been looking for.

Neto’s introduction completely altered the course of the match. Within seconds he had almost levelled the scores, seeing a shot blocked by Kyle Walker-Peters.

Ultimately it only took him five minutes to find the net, showing quick reactions to direct the ball past Alex McCarthy after Raul Jimenez’s shot had crashed against the base of the post. McCarthy then denied Neto a winner, saving with his legs, as Wolves dominated the closing stages.

Finding the back of the net remains a problem for Nuno’s team, who continue to average just one goal-a-game following the departures of Diogo Jota and Matt Doherty. Monday underlined the point they are a far more effective attacking unit when Neto is on the pitch.

Defining run?

Raul Jimenez of Wolverhampton Wanderers (AMA)

The more pessimistic of supporters might point out Wolves’ fixture list to this point hasn’t included too many of the division’s contenders (though Southampton have the look of top six challengers).

That is about to change, starting with Sunday’s trip to Arsenal, a team who are also struggling for consistency but typically strong on their own patch.

Then comes champions Liverpool, before home meetings with a much-improved Villa and a Chelsea outfit starting to live up to their pre-season billing as title contenders.

With Tottenham and Manchester United also lurking during the festive period, we should know a lot more about where this season is heading a month or so from now.

The feeling is that Wolves, while far from perfect, have built a solid enough platform to this point. The question now is whether they can kick on?

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