Wolves’ issues in front of goal began when Raúl Jiménez sustained a skull fracture at Arsenal in November 2019. Before then, the Mexican had taken to the Premier League well, scoring 30 goals across his first two seasons in England. Yet as his goals dried up, so did Wolves’. Jiménez returned to the team eight months later, but he has not been as effective. Factor in the departures of Diogo Jota to Liverpool and Matt Doherty to Spurs, and it’s easy to see why Wolves have struggled in front of goal.
That being said, they still have players who can fire the team up the table. Pedro Neto, Daniel Podence and Adama Traoré are tricky wingers who can get the better of any marker, though Neto was out for 10 months last season with a knee injury that curtailed his development. Wolves also sought to rectify their striking issues in the summer by signing Sasa Kalajdzic from VfB Stuttgart for £15.5m. As luck would have it, the Austrian sustained a serious knee injury on his debut and is likely to miss the rest of the season.
Wolves cannot catch a break in attack but, while their struggles in front of goal are nothing new, their lack of resolve at the back most certainly is. Since their return to the Premier League in 2019, Wolves have conceded an average of just 1.2 goals per game – the sixth fewest of any club in the division. They have not been prolific going forward, but they have always made it hard for opponents.
This season they are conceding a worrying 1.5 goals per game. They have conceded 18 goals already this season – including four in a humbling defeat to Leicester at the weekend – giving them the seventh worst defensive record in the league. The difference from last season is striking; they conceded an 18th goal last season in late February, their 26th game of the campaign.
Changes in personnel at the back have not helped, with Conor Coady moving to Everton, Romain Saïss signing for Besiktas and Willy Boly departing for Nottingham Forest. They were not prolific last season but at least they had a solid backline to fall upon. With their defensive resolve gone, they are freefalling and currently sit in the relegation zone.
Wolves have scored just five goals in their 12 matches this season – the fewest of any club in the top four tiers. For context, Miguel Almirón has scored as many league goals this month as Wolves have scored this season. Erling Haaland has scored one more for City in the league this month (six) than Wolves have managed all season (five). Rúben Neves, a central midfielder who has never scored more than five Premier League goals in a season, is Wolves’ joint-top scorer, with two goals to his name. One of them was a penalty.
The only consolation is that Wolves are still creating chances. They have taken 145 shots this season, which ranks 10th in the league and is 14 more than Chelsea, but they are scoring from just 3.4% of their shots, the worst in the league. If their strikers find their shooting boots, it would only be a matter of time before Wolves pull away from danger but, until then, tightening up at the back remains a priority.
Bruno Lage’s decision to try a 4-2-3-1 setup did not help Wolves. His centre-backs were well drilled in a three-man backline and, while Wolves could do little over the departure of Saiss, who left after his contract expired in the summer, the decision to allow Coady to leave on loan and, to a lesser extent Boly, has exacerbated their defensive shortcomings.
Nathan Collins and Max Kilman are solid centre-backs for caretaker boss Steve Davis but Wolves are still short of experienced defenders. Toti has made just six Premier League appearances in his career, and Jonny and even Neves have both been used at the back this season. Their move away from a three-man backline has accentuated their struggles in defence, particularly considering that Collins had a spell on the sidelines following his dismissal against Manchester City last month, limiting chances to build an understanding with Kilman.
Davis now has to rectify issues at both ends of the pitch. At least Wolves are creating chances – their xG is the 11th best in the league – but they need to start finishing them. The goals should come, so Davis should be more worried about the lack of protection being given to his defence. In Neves and Joao Moutinho, Davis has two of the most technically gifted ball-playing central midfielders in the league but, in a 4-2-3-1 setup, their defensive shortcomings are capitalised upon. On the ball, the Portuguese pair are able to pick a pass for the full-backs and wingers to pry apart defences. It’s off the ball where the issues arise.
Wolves players are being dribbled past 7.3 times per game – the fifth highest in the Premier League this season. That issue is particularly problematic in midfield, where Moutinho (15) and Neves (14) are the third and seventh most dribbled past players in the league, respectively. When Wolves played with a three-man backline, this wasn’t such a big issue as they had three experienced centre-backs who could mop up. In the current setup, which largely sees Moutinho and Neves operate at the base of the midfield, Kilman and Collins are more exposed.
Hindsight is, of course, 20-20, but the decision to sell Leander Dendoncker to rivals Aston Villa is proving more questionable with each passing week given the Belgian’s effective work off the ball. Without a decent ball-winner in the middle of the park, the Wolves defence is under greater pressure. This is proving their downfall. For now, though, Davis has to make do with the players at his disposal, and needs to find a system that will make his team more solid.