Wolves’ win at Vicarage Road last Saturday meant they were in the driving seat for Europa League qualification. If they beat Fulham, they could secure 7th place in the league. Fulham were relegated weeks ago with only 26 points this season. Yet, they arrived at Molineux with three successive wins. So what should we expect? A one-sided-in display or an even one?
Fulham enjoyed 60.8% of the possession and made a total of 602 passes. However, it wasn’t the full story. Wolves won the game comfortably and Fulham only managed six shots. In this tactical analysis, we will see how Wolves’ had this comfortable victory.
Nuno Espírito Santo played the exact same eleven from the last game. The midfield trio was formed by Rúben Neves, João Moutinho and Leander Dendoncker. They executed Nuno’s tactics well in this match. Jonny Castro and Matt Doherty played as wing backs as usual. The three centre-backs were Ryan Bennett, Willy Boly and Conor Coady. These players defended well. It was a 3-5-2 formation.
Scott Parker’s starting line-up possessed players with physical strength like Aleksandar Mitrovic. Club-record signing Jean Seri was not in the squad as André Anguissa started the game. Experienced former Dutch international Ryan Babel joined Mitrovic at the front. It was a 5-3-2 formation on paper.
Fulham’s cautious build up
Despite possessing a target man like Mitrovic, Parker’s team built play on the ground patiently. Below was the heat map of Cyrus Christie, Maxime Marchand, Tim Ream and Calum Chambers. You could see they made a lot of touches in their own half. These four players were involved in the build-up phase for Fulham. Why would they do that?
This was because of the numerical advantage created. Wolves started two strikers: Diogo Jota and Raúl Jiménez. Wolves would press high on occasions, although it was rare. However, Fulham’s back three did not possess the passing ability and vision to deliver through balls to create chances, therefore, they needed passing options to build-up on the ground. Since the wing backs moved into an advanced position, three at the back in the build-up phase was not secure, so Chambers stayed deeper to help the build-up process. In the image below, we could see there’s a four v two advantage created by Fulham. Neither Jota nor Jiménez would press on this occasion, so Fulham could carry the ball further forward. But why did the Wolves’ midfield trio retreat? I will explain later.
To conclude, Fulham wanted to retain possession and avoided playing the risky ball forward. Even though 602 passes looks impressive. Actually, only 157 of those passes were forward passed. Chambers made 90 passes in this game, but only 19 times were forward. This was the problem for Fulham. They were too careful.
Wolves’ well-organised defend
Since Fulham’s build-up phase was slow, Wolves maintained their shape when defending. Jiménez and Jota usually did not press. They didn’t mind Fulham players carrying the ball forward if they were forced to drive to the side. The principle of Wolves’ mid-block was to protect the central area and cut all forward passing lanes that can penetrate the centre. Their job was to force Fulham players to the side. In the image below, you can see Dendoncker, Moutinho and Neves were retreating, not trying to press the ball carrier.
Why would they do that? The below image shows the situation they wanted to create. Wolves used the midfield trio and the defenders to trap Fulham players on the side. Jonny was marking Ryan Sessegnon, the only passing option was Tom Cairney. Mitrovic and Babel would try to help the ball carrier by moving to the right side. However, the back three of Wolves moved to the left to cover the space around Jonny. Boly, Coady and Bennett maintained a tight defensive line to prevent through balls.
Mitrovic did not possess the pace to run behind the defensive line, so he was not an option to pass to. Babel was not an option as well since Neves did his job. He covered the passing angle to Babel. Meanwhile, Moutinho was trying to press Cairney. Could Cairney switch the ball to Anguissa on the left? That’s too risky as Dendocker was lurking around Anguissa. As a result, the only option left for Cairney was to pass back to Christie. Danger cleared. This situation happened on both sides.
The only situation that triggered the press of Wolves’ midfield trio was when the ball carrier was in the centre, in Wolves’ half. The image below was an example. Moutinho and Neves tried to press the ball-carrier. This follows the same principle mentioned above. Move the ball away from the central areas when defending. If you are far away from the final third, you cannot make an attempt on goal. Therefore, the Portuguese midfielders pressed in this situation.
Fulham’s poor defensive spacing
Another problem for Fulham was their defensive spacing. The huge spaces between their defensive line and their unorganized defence set-up allowed Wolves to create chances easily. You could see the lone Mitrović trying to press without his teammates’ support, this usually failed. Wolves got the numerical advantage at the back. For example, the below image showed Mitrović trying to press Coady but in vain. It was because the Fulham players did not press as a unit, therefore, spaces between the lines were huge and Wolves got a lot of space to build-up. It was a five v one situation: five Wolves players against a lone striker.
High pressing is not necessary if a team can maintain their defensive shape and win the ball in their own half. However, this was not the case on Saturday. The defensive line of Fulham also kept retreating when their opponents carried the ball forward. No pressure applied at all. Below was an example. Dendoncker was carrying the ball into the final third of Fulham, but you could see the space around him. No one was near him or tried to stop him. The back line of Fulham retreated. The decision making of Joe Bryan (marking Doherty at his side but not stopping Dendoncker) was poor. He should have moved near to Ream and reduced their gap.
Here was the same problem. Jiménez received the ball in the air and got past Chambers. You could see how much space he got in front of him. Jota was forcing them to retreat. That’s ok if you win the ball back like in this case. However, when Fulham gave the ball away a minute later and Wolves attacked from the right, this showed the huge problem of their defensive approach. If your backline stays deep, your midfielders need to track the runs of opponents around the box. If not, any cutback or crosses would be dangerous as your opponent gets space to shoot. Disappointingly Fulham’s defensive line retreated but their midfielders switched off. It was unnecessary to stay that deep as only Jota was around the six-yard box. As a result, Dendoncker’s delayed run freed himself and he scored the winner.
Wolves have all but secured 7th place after this comfortable win against Fulham. They could have scoresheet the first goal earlier but Dendoncker’s attempt was denied by the woodwork. Fulham were not able to do any harm or stop Wolves’ attack. They need to play with courage and sometimes you have to gamble by playing through the lines more often. This is proof that possession is not everything. You can make many passes but they are useless if you cannot move your opponents. Wolves deserved all three points in this match.