Premier League 2019/20: Wolves vs Norwich – tactical analysis
Wolverhampton came to this Premier League fixture in a need of a win amidst the heavy schedule. Between January 23 and March 1 they have to face difficult opponents, with names like Liverpool, Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, and Espanyol among their counterparts. As expected, they were struggling as they failed to score in their last two league games. However, a staggering 4–0 home win against the Spanish side in the Europa League recovered Wolves’ mentality for this game.
In the other side, Norwich City’s performance were getting better. The Canaries won three out of their last seven games in all competitions. Not only that, their only defeats in that sequence were only to big-six clubs. Yet Wolves humbled the visitors with a convincing 3–0 win at the Molineux, and so without further ado, this tactical analysis will inform you how the match unfolded.
Nuno Espírito Santo chose 3–5–2 for his side. Rui Patrício was picked between the sticks with Willy Boly, Conor Coady, and Romain Saïss playing as the back-three. In front of them, Leander Dendoncker, Rúben Neves, and João Moutinho controlled the midfield. Beside them, Matt Doherty and Jonny Otto started as the wing-back duo. Upfront, talisman Raúl Jiménez spearheaded the attacking line alongside Diogo Jota. Wolves’ dugout was filled with names like Adama Traoré, Rúben Vinagre, and Pedro Neto.
Oppositely, Daniel Farke opted to use 4–2–3–1 for Norwich. In the goal, Tim Krul was chosen to start. Youngsters Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis were picked to play as the full-back pairing, alongside centre-backs Ben Godfrey and Grant Hanley. The duo of Alexander Tettey and Kenny McLean played in the engine room in the middle. Up top, Finnish striker Teemu Pukki led the frontline, supported by Lukas Rupp, Ondrej Duda, and Todd Cantwell. Their bench was packed with the likes of Emiliano Buendía, Josip Drmić, and Marco Stiepermann.
Wolves’ stout defence: prelude
In this part of the analysis, we’re going to see the defensive tactics used by Wolves. As mentioned before, Nuno set his team up in 3–5–2 with three centre-backs. With three bodies in the heart of their defence, Wolves had numerical superiority against Norwich’s sole striker, Pukki. Not only that, but having three centre-backs also had another advantage for Wolves – especially in defending counter-attacks. For example, two defenders can put their eyes on Pukki’s run, and the remaining centre-back can focus to attack the ball.
Mainly, Wolves chose to sit in a mid-block. In the less-aggressive block, Wolves’ 3–5–2 would shift to 5–3–2 with Doherty and Jonny dropping from their positions. The 5–3–2 was more visible when Wolves retreated to a deeper area. In the 5–3–2, Wolves were very compact vertically, which meant they didn’t allow any space in between the lines.
Despite not actively pressing Norwich up to the visitors’ penalty box, Wolves did defend with aggression in another part of the pitch: the flanks. Nuno instructed his ball-side midfielder to step up next to the strikers to press Norwich’s build-ups. This particular tactic was deployed mainly when Norwich were approaching the halfway line. In the process, the midfielder would try to prevent the on-ball opponent from building through the flanks. The objective was to force the opponent to make a backward pass.
We’re going to dig more on this tactic in the next part of the analysis.
Wolves’ stout defence: strength in numbers
The midfielder was not alone to make the press as he was supported mainly by the wing-back behind him. Quite similar to the ball-side midfielder, Nuno asked his wing-back to step up from his position. This would make the wing-back in parallel with the other midfielders, therefore limiting the playing area of Norwich’s winger. The objective was to force Norwich to restart their attack.
If Norwich were able to bypass Wolves’ first defensive line, they would try to overload the wide area. The home side reacted to this very well in a calculated ball-side press. First, they would send the ball-side midfielder and wing-back to press the opponents. Second, Wolves’ defensive midfielder — the middle one — would also move accordingly to prevent the ball from being played centrally.
Third, the nearest forward sometimes would also drop from his area to join the press. Last but not least, Wolves’ ball-side centre-back came to help his teammates. This would give Nuno’s men up to four or five men in the press. As a result, Norwich couldn’t make an overload to capitalise from the flank area.
The best thing about this defensive tactic is how consistent Wolves’ players managed to put it into practice. They rarely lost the focus and kept on pressing in the flank aggressively, even late in the game.
Norwich had an interesting opening …
The statistics showed Norwich got the majority of their xG in the opening 20 minutes. It even stayed quite long before Wolves could surpass the xG stats via Jota’s first goal. How did Norwich attack? Let’s take a look.
Farke’s main idea was to tuck his wingers inside and allow the full-backs to provide the width. By tucking in the wingers as well as giving them the freedom to rotate, Norwich would have many bodies in between the lines. Not only that, but Farke also preferred to ask his team to start their attacks through the flanks. The particular area was chosen because Wolves’ 5–3–2 naturally had width problems in the midfield.
By having the wingers inside, Norwich wanted to pull one Wolves centre-back out from his position. After that, one of the attackers — mainly Pukki — would make a diagonal run in behind the marauding defender. The attacker’s darting run then will be rewarded with a through-ball from the flank, sometimes aerial.
The statistics showed that Norwich had 0.71 xG in the first quarter of the game. Yet, they only got 0.16 xG in the remaining minutes as the stats recorded. How did that happen?
… but not for long
Again, Nuno’s superb defensive tactics were the reason behind that. The schemes deployed to nullify Norwich were as follows:
First, Wolves’ ball-side centre-back would happily step up from his position to close down Norwich’s inside winger. Not only to close the opponent down but also to prevent him from receiving the ball in between the lines. Behind him, Wolves’ defensive line wouldn’t be disturbed from this as there were four remaining defenders to cover the centre-back.
This approach was exploited by Norwich early in the game. However, Wolves’ backline were able to communicate better to prevent that from reoccurring. Not only that, but Wolves’ ball-side press also helped this defensive setup, especially to limit Norwich’s time on the ball.
Second, Wolves’ midfielders were also very smart in closing the passing lanes. It was quite apparent when Norwich tried to break in from the central area. The midfield trio did that by standing very close, thus limiting the gap between them. As a result, none of Norwich’s attackers in between the lines could be accessed.
Nuno gave Doherty attacking freedom in this game. The Portuguese manager allowed the right-wing-back to make darting runs into the box. The objective was to offer himself as a crossing target alongside Jiménez, Jota, and one of Wolves’ midfielders.
Doherty was very unpredictable in his runs. Sometimes he would arrive in the half-space with his finger pointing to the sky, making him noticeable for the crosser. Doherty would also offer himself at the far post as his last-minute chance showed. Not only that, there were occasions where Doherty appeared in the goalmouth to attack the ball.
Such freedom and unpredictability helped Doherty to get 0.20 xG – quite a respectable number for a defender. Not only that, Doherty’s aggression was the reason behind his assist for Jota’s opening goal. The Irishman could even have returned home with a goal, if only Krul didn’t make a crucial save against his header.
Coming into the second half, Wolves deployed a higher defensive line. The objective behind this was to congest the space between their lines. By congesting the space, Norwich were unable to progress the ball smoothly. The visitors then opted for long balls to reach their attackers in behind. Again, it bore no fruit for Farke’s men.
The aggressive defensive line didn’t last very long. With their three-goal lead, there was no obligation for Wolves to keep the high line. Later on, they returned to a deep-and-compact 5–3–2 to defend their advantage.
Shape-wise, Norwich shifted to 3–4–1–2. Lewis moved to left centre-back alongside Hanley and Godfrey to form the back three. In front of him, right-back Aarons switched position to play as a left wing-back in the second half.
Tactic-wise, the visitors kept their flank-based approach and were still unable to break Wolves down. Then again, Wolves’ defensive block was not perfect either. As mentioned before, the 5–3–2 had a natural width issue, especially in midfield. However, Norwich didn’t capitalise on this as their players were very slow in making offensive plays.
What a performance it had been from the home side. Once again, Nuno proves his worth as one of Premier League’s best coaches with his brilliant tactics. If Wolves continue to play with this quality, it won’t be a surprise if they get a Champions League ticket for next season.
Oppositely, Farke’s Norwich faced another devastating defeat. His tactics weren’t enough to break down Wolves’ disciplined backline. With only 18 points so far, Norwich are six points down to Watford, their closest opponent in the table. The German manager must do everything he can to pull Norwich up from the bottom of the table. If not, it seems that he must wave goodbye to the Carrow Road this summer.