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Nuno Espírito Santo

Wolves, 2017–

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That Wolves continue to improve, despite the potentially damaging high-profile departures of Matt Doherty and Diogo Jota, is in no small part to the influence of their manager Nuno Espírito Santo, and the extent to which he organises his players. If Nuno has proved capable of developing an impressive team with those who previously had so little experience of English football, he has also impressed in nurturing and polishing individual talents like Adama Traoré.

Once a player at Porto under the respected José Mourinho, Nuno not only built Wolves’ finest team of the modern era – he previously re-established Valencia among Spain’s leading teams after they had struggled in the years following Unai Emery’s departure, before taking Porto into the last 16 of the Champions League. “He has one of the best teams from a tactical point of view,” Mourinho once said of Nuno and Wolves. “That’s the way he wants to play and his team plays exactly the way he wants to play. His players are perfect for the puzzle. The characteristics and qualities are perfectly adapted to the ideas he has for his team. Really, really fantastic work he is doing.”

Playing style
Nuno favoured organising his respected Valencia of 2014 to 2015 into playing with a back four that involved their full-backs advancing and one of their central midfielders withdrawing into central defence to form a back three while they did so. There existed an emphasis on creativity in wide areas, and crosses from those same areas into a powerful striker – Paco Alcácer, Álvaro Negredo, or Rodrigo – positioned inside the penalty area.  José Luis Gayà, Antonio Barragán, and the versatile João Cancelo provided that width from full-back, encouraging wingers Sofiane Feghouli and Pablo Piatti to adopt narrower positions before working the ball wide while the relevant striker remained advanced; one winger would contribute to the build, and the other would attack beyond that striker.

Depending on whether they had adopted a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, and therefore the depth offered by those in central midfield, those wingers’ roles would vary. If a back four was maintained behind them, they would instead become responsible for providing Los Che’s attacking width; the attacking central midfielders inside them would offer the attacking movements required around their leading striker, and were particularly effective at doing so on the counter.

Similar principles defined Nuno’s time at Porto, though he there more consistently favoured a front two and more direct passes. His wingers were therefore instructed to prioritise playing crosses into that front two, even though the full-backs behind them continued to offer overlaps (below), and to instead move inside during the second phase of play.  Their central midfielders remained in deep positions to assist their central defenders with building possession and to offer cover when their full-backs attacked; their reduced numbers there, however – even if one of their strikers moved short – also meant that less protection existed during moments of transition.

André Silva represented the focal point of Porto’s attack and was supported in that role by Jesús Corona and Yacine Brahimi, as wide midfielders, and Jota, who like Rúben Neves and Willy Boly followed Nuno to Wolves, where the back three he experimented with at Valencia became his favoured approach. Wolves’ 3-4-3 and 3-5-2 – their 3-4-3 provided the foundation for their promotion from the Championship – have provided similar patterns to those seen with Valencia and Porto. Through already being organised into either of those systems, Wolves also require fewer rotations than Nuno’s previous teams.

If towards the left Wolves’ wing-back offers an overlap around the forward attacking through the left inside channel and supporting Raúl Jiménez, their leading striker, towards the right, their wing-back underlaps inside the right-sided forward – increasingly Traoré – as often as he drives outside of him. That fluidity not only creates numerous goalscoring chances, but represents a continuation of Nuno’s desire to encourage width (below); Wolves’ full-backs in their 3-5-2 resemble Valencia’s full-backs as much as when, while adopting a 3-4-3, they resemble Valencia’s wingers in advancing and attacking crosses at the far post. The front two in their 3-5-2, similarly, operates like Porto’s; the leading striker attacks the first phase of direct moves, and the second contributes in the second phase. 

Wolves’ 3-5-2 offers increased security in central midfield than that seen with Nuno’s previous teams. They largely resist making the same attacking runs, and therefore provide a significant level of cover during moments of transition, remaining in deep positions that encourage their wide forwards – Daniel Podence and Pedro Neto particularly relish doing so – to attack infield. From central defence, Conor Coady’s diagonal passes, as was once the case with Nicolás Otamendi in Valencia, provide access into their potent wide players.

Pressing and defending
The extent to which Valencia rotated into different shapes meant that spaces emerged that made them vulnerable, and contributed to opponents targeting those around their defensive midfielders. With their full-backs’ willingness to advance, their central defenders lacked support and faced attacks through the three central lanes; when those in central midfield withdrew to between them to offer support, Otamendi and Shkodran Mustafi moved wide to defend in wider positions, and were often beaten in the inside channels.
On the occasions they instead moved to outside of those in central defence – particularly when defending with a 4-1-4-1 or 4-5-1 mid-block – they were more resilient during moments of transition, if less potent in the final third.

That Porto offered only two central midfielders contributed to their relative vulnerability during transitions, in the same way that their advanced full-backs encouraged opponents – many of which favoured defending with a low block, leading to Porto attacking with numbers – to play on the counter against them. Attacking with width against their 4-4-2 or 4-1-4-1 mid-blocks also proved effective; Porto’s full-backs were regularly drawn away from their defensive line, and tempted into pressing higher than they perhaps should have, so attacks around their defensive block regularly offered potential. Their desire to trap possession towards one side of the pitch and along the touchline also meant that switches of play often worked against them; their three central midfielders pressed with aggression to support the wide players outside of them, and the far-side wide midfielder was therefore instructed to tuck infield, leaving spaces for those switches (below).

As with his in-possession approach, Nuno’s methods have evolved at Wolves. The back five that was occasionally used in Spain has consistently been the foundation of Wolves’ defence, and is seamlessly created from either their 3-4-3 or 3-5-2, making their defensive shape comparatively more difficult to progress around. Even on the occasions one of their wing-backs is tempted out of position, the presence of an additional central defender ensures that they remain compact and continue to defend with at least a back four. In comparison to Valencia and Porto, the press they apply in both wider positions and to the ball in advanced positions is significantly reduced (below).

Their attacking players instead focus on forcing the ball wide, and those in central midfield attempt to restrict access to the opposing defensive midfielder and, supported by the relevant wing-back and central defender, to apply a press intended to lock the ball towards the touchline. With those elsewhere in midfield capable of retaining their positions, switches of play are also less likely to succeed.

Regardless of their shape, a low block is a consistent feature – the regains they make in the defensive third almost doubles the total of those made in midfield – and the organisation, compactness and discipline demonstrated by their central midfielders is influential in that. With the central areas of the pitch protected, and so little space existing behind them, neither their 5-3-2 nor 5-4-1 defensive shapes struggle against lengthy periods of pressure or direct play, or to adjust and then attack on the counter.

On the occasions a central defender strays from his defensive line to compete for possession, his movements are impressively covered by a teammate. From midfield, Leander Dendoncker has proved particularly capable of providing a strong defensive presence in front of central defence, and even convincingly deputised there.

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