Dave Porter gives his thoughts on wolves pre-season
It was billed as one of the most significant summer windows for Wolves with change at the forefront of everyone’s mind. It was expected by many following a diabolical end to the previous campaign, that by the time pre-season began, the team would look very different to the one that fell out of European contention and would lose a costly £4m positional bonus. There were therefore more than a few surprised fans onlooking either in the Benidorm heat or via an expensive stream, as Wolves started the first game of pre-season against freshly relegated Alaves, still able to sing about the ownership of their most prized asset, Ruben Neves.
Whilst there were new faces in the form of Nathan Collins from Burnley and the return of Morgan Gibbs-White, the Wolves line up felt more familiar than many would have expected. Neves being in the squad felt like a miracle in itself given his post Liverpool comments at the end of last season, but his retention in the squad, at least for the time being, is probably the same reason as to why the remainder of the team was largely unchanged. Neves had to be the catalyst for squad movement and with his departure postponed or at least delayed, it was a case of as you were for Bruno Lage. There has been much conversation regarding Wolves transfer policy and inaction which is a long and progressing story in itself, with likely late twists and turns still to come. The change has at this stage, one week out from the start of the premier league season, not been on the expected scale at least in terms of personnel. On the field however, whilst the team had the same names and faces, things were very different.
Pre-season has been a mixture of genuine first team friendlies, practice matches and one game probably being more comparable to a WWE royal rumble. Game time was needed to ensure that all of the attendee’s that had managed to board the plane, received minutes under the belt. Others outside of Lage’s plans were left at home with their cheese on toast and spaghetti hoops. Three games were clearly prioritised by Lage and it was in the comprehensive victories against Alaves and Benfica and the subsequent draw against Sporting Club Portugal, that we can most accurately assess the intentions and dilemmas of Bruno Lage for the coming season.
So what has pre-season told us, what conclusions can be drawn and who have been the winners and losers of the trips to Spain and Portugal.
Tolerance for the vast majority of fans to five at the back has all but gone. Wolves have used the formation in various guises for the best part of five years and achieved their best results in recent memory in doing so, but the football has gradually deteriorated and goals and even chances have been in very short supply. Shape and discipline have been part of the clubs DNA since Nuno joined the club, but many would say that it creates a ceiling in terms of success that Wolves had arguably already exceeded.
The purchase of Collins from Burnley had already given advance notice of the likely change to a back four and whilst the tall blonde haired version of Max Killman was not in the original starting eleven along with his footballing doppelganger, pre-season has been almost exclusively played with four at the back. Whilst this was also the case in last summer’s pre-season at times, it would be a remarkable change of face for Lage to now revert back.
It seems that four at the back is here to stay as long as the results in the premier league maintain the required quality. Whilst this part of the formation is solidified, there are other considerations, (although they are more limited now than they were against Alaves owing to Raul’s injury), further up the field. 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 and a forced hand of 4-6-0 have all been piloted and it is likely the false nine 4-3-3 will be the choice at Elland Road. Once Raul returns or a replacement striker is finally sourced, it is expected that Lage will favour a back four, a trusted double pivot of Neves and Moutinho, a trio of tricky attacking players will then be deployed behind the focal point front man. Try and put this into a terrace chant!
The change in formation has opened doors for some and very firmly closed them on others. The biggest loser in the shift in formation is to the talismanic Captain and current England International Conor Coady.
Coady is a splendid footballer with possession of a fantastically underrated passing range. He reads the game well and does a lot of work that the casual observer may not notice in blocking passing lanes and over the top exploitation. He has been absolutely pivotal to the Wolves revolution. It is very hard however to make a case for Coady to play in a back four. He is tall but gives inches away to all of the other central defensive candidates. He is not slow but suspect that he comes last in a speed race. He also prefers to back away and protect rather than come forward and press as most natural central defenders do. He doesn’t have these fundamentals because he isn’t a centre half. He is a midfielder turned sweeper, he needs to be able to face the game, he needs time and to be able to use his positional acumen. Coady is not happy when he is drawn forward pressing up the pitch, you only need to recall how Michael Antonio has historically exploited bringing Coady out from his defensive bunker. Coady does not want to be turned, he does not want to be running backwards towards his goal with the ball behind him, he does not want to be out of position and the cold reality is that he will probably not be part of the Wolves line up in a back four.
So what do you do with your Captain who will be desperate to play not only because of his obvious love of the club but as he prepares for a World Cup Winter. If Coady is not playing regularly then it won’t matter how entertaining or good for morale he is, he will not be going to Qatar. So, is there a chance of an exit for Coady before the season starts? That seems the obvious solution with previous links to Newcastle with a good fee attached for an English international at his peak previously being mooted. The answer however will likely be no. The facts are that Wolves know they have a very effective and established premier league team when it plays five at the back. It is the ejector seat formation should the first few games not put the required points on the board.
Last season started with zero points after three games but those games were Leicester away, Manchester United and Tottenham. They are losable games in any season. Compare that to this year’s openers of Leeds away, Fulham at home and Tottenham away, where the minimum yield for most would be at least four points. A stuttering start to the season or one that yields very few points would put Lage, who does not have as much currency in the bank this season than he had last, under real pressure and a temptation to go to something more tried and tested and return to a back five.
There has been talk of a pick and mix approach depending on opponent but is that realistic? Lage looks like he wants his side to press high up the pitch which is at odds to a team employing a deep lying sweeper role. Can a team really shift its mindset from game to game so readily? Coady will no doubt work and try and force his way into the side but the likely outcome from here is that the change of formation will cost Coady the captaincy, his place in the team and a world cup position. He hasn’t done anything wrong, he isn’t suddenly a bad player. His attributes simply do not fit unless something goes quite badly wrong in early season results.
Lage has been looking for cover in all positions from his very first press conference last year. Two players competing for every position is his mantra. Lage as such is probably more frustrated at his board than the apoplectic fanbase, that the season is about to begin with Wolves having two strikers on their books, one of whom is injured and the other playing in the Belgian league with R.S.C. Anderlecht. Fans were already upset with the lack of recruitment even before sending record signing Fabio Silva out on loan owing to the paltry goals scored last season. To then leave the team with only one fit striker who himself was struggling to rebuild his life, let alone footballing form felt a risk and one that almost inevitably has come to pass.
Raul is out for a few weeks, the definition of ‘few’ depends on whose Instagram you follow but certainly will miss some of the early games. As yet there is no replacement but even if one is brought in, it is less than a week before the beginning of the season and they would unlikely feature in a starting eleven straight away. It is the nightmare scenario for Lage and the club who have rolled the dice and lost quite spectacularly. The only position at the club where there is no like for like replacement at all was at centre forward. His loss will cause a change of formation and one less attacking option on the field with Dendonker the likely replacement. Wolves need to sort this one and fast. They look quite foolish at the current time and it’s something that the fanbase has not be shy in highlighting.
Despite heavy interest, Morgan remains a Wolves player and has started every major friendly no matter what formation has been applied. He is clearly in Lage’s plans and it would be a massive surprise if he were not in the opening line up against Leeds.
Gibbs-White had a super season in the championship and has done well in the pre-season games looking lively and creative. There is a lot of promise here however there are still some concerns. We should not be looking at Gibbs-White through the same lens we used to. One of our own, youthful future talent. What we need to assess is Morgan Gibbs-White the £30m+ rated forward.
You will find few arguments that Alaves were a very poor side recently relegated to the Spanish second division. Besiktas are a decent team but they were horrifically undercooked particularly in defence. Gibbs-White’s performances have been good but not spectacular. The only major test has been against Sporting in which Morgan did pretty much what Morgan has always done. It was ok, tidy enough, but there wasn’t much on display that would convince a neutral that this is the sensation of last year’s Championship. It felt more like a slightly matured Gibbs-White of the one that left Wolves and not the one fresh from dominating the lower league.
If Gibbs-White wasn’t ‘like a new signing’ but actually was a new signing, that had cost £30m in the summer, the jury would still be out on his contributions over pre-season. He has done enough to warrant a starting place and he has promise but delivery must follow against superior opposition to the ones he has faced. He must show that he is more than a flat track bully.
It looks more and more like the King of the Wolves midfield will at least start the season in old gold and hopefully contracts will be signed and we get one more year at least of what FIFA players would refer to as prime Neves. This is a man who has developed a swagger on the field and a look that says World Star. The longer hair and more pronounced beard, even the body shape is showing that Ruben Neves the rising star, the wonderkid is no more and he is about to hit his very best years. The contract needs to be signed even if only an extension for a year because the club cannot lose one of the likely best players in world football for comparative peanuts. He is also the first domino that needs to fall if the team is to be rebuilt and time has moved on, leaving little opportunity to replace him. Ruben Neves the footballer is fabulous to see again in a Wolves shirt, Ruben Neves the conundrum carries on.
Talking of wonderkids, Rayan appears to get better every game as does his pirouettes to game ratio. He really does look like he could be something particularly special. Exceptional going forward and seems to have toughened up and worked on his defensive game. His skills are dazzling, his pace superb and his link up with Pedro Neto on the left hand side looks to be the primary attack. The left hand side throughout pre-season has looked electric. Wolves have three fullbacks all of an excellent calibre. Keeping one of Ait-Nouri, Jonny or Semedo out of the team when all are fit is going to be extremely difficult. What a talent. If one of the bigger clubs were wise they would be putting £50m offers on the table this window, as there is no doubt he will go to the very top.
So direct, so fast, so skilful, Oh Pedro how we have missed you. Neves to Neto is eerily similar to the link up play with Diogo Jota. The run from Neto tracking onto Neves’s seven iron onto the green was straight from the Neves/Jota playbook. The comparisons between the two players are obvious and whilst Jota is achieving more at the moment, Neto’s ceiling looks higher. He is the crown jewels of the Wolves line up, he needed a good pre-season to get fitness and confidence back, he has had a very good one indeed.
Pre-season has taught us that the attacking midfielder, the number 10 that most fans said we needed, was already at the club and already wearing number 10! Wolves have simply not had a formation that accommodated an attacking midfielder. The formational change whether in a false nine or behind the striker suits Podence down to the ground. He can create, he has unbelievable close control, he can run in behind. Raul’s injury is going to restrict Podence a little, but the formational changes of pre-season are going to unlock Podence Version 2.0.
Whilst not really challenged in any of the friendlies, he has everything in his game to be England’s best defender. Looks comfortable in a back four but it is too early to confirm that as the opposition have seldom tested. The early signs are that he and Collins have the ability and attributes to form a very solid partnership in central defence. Kilman’s pre-season was pretty standard save for ten sensational seconds. Kilman isn’t in the team to conjure moments of peak Maradona of course but knowing that your centre backs are capable of 70 yard runs, cutbacks and wrong foot finishes off the post gives assurance that they are something really rather special.
Wolves have only signed one player of note so far during the transfer window, so it would be remiss to not give a first impression of Nathan Collins.
He is yet to be really tested defensively and has conceded a clumsy penalty. The early indicators are however good and the biggest compliment you could probably pay him is that he would feature in most fans preferred first eleven. Some would argue with justification that he makes that selection not on anything shown in pre-season in particular, but owing largely to the other options not being overly appealing.
It’s hard not to be excited however, Collins and Killman are both similar in styles and complimentary in footing and positioning. Both seem comfortable to bring the ball forward as evidenced by each player having scored ridiculous goals, marching through entire teams defences in recent months. More than that though, they are comfortable to press much higher up the pitch and back themselves to be able to either win the ball or regain position. Both are deceptively quick and offer something aerially in either box.
Collins looks like an astute piece of business from the club, perhaps the only thing that has gone to plan off the field so far this summer.
Bruno Lage will be satisfied with the playing side of pre-season. He had key objectives to achieve.
- Change the formation
- Create more chances and improve the product
- Press Higher
It is hard to argue that Lage has not achieved on all three of those objectives. Whilst pre-season has gone as well as could be expected, there remain some concerns. Sporting aside, the opposition has either been poor or made to look poor. It is hard to say which one of those is accurate at this time. The back four has come under very little pressure and will certainly have to survive much greater tests in the weeks to come.
The product was much better, the football was entertaining and goals were scored. The facts however are that no premier league goals have been added to the squad from last season and top scorer Raul will begin the season side-lined through injury.
The high press was evident and effective, goals will be scored through achieving possession high up the pitch. This combined with a back four will however leave us exposed to goals against, of the type we are probably not used to seeing. It exposes us to counter attacks, long balls and most worryingly opposition pace. Something that a deep positioned Coady has historically largely prevented.
Off the field Lage will be privately concerned. He enters the season without a recognised centre forward and with the vast majority of the team being those acquired by the previous management . The fixtures are favourable on paper but points must go on the board early. They will need to start the season quickly. The first 6 games will need to yield at least 10 points before back to back games with Liverpool and Manchester City. Failure to hit this type of target will likely see either Lage return to a back five or return to the job centre. Overall Lage will be happy that everything he could control with pre-season went well. Everything out of his control however really did look like there was no control at all.
ARTICLE BY DAVE PORTER
Wolverhampton born, East Sussex based supporter. Old enough to have seen the descent to the bottom, young enough to not have experienced the days my friend. Not many Wolves fans to celebrate or commiserate with round these parts, so had to find an outlet to discuss the enormous highs, crushing lows and share the frustrations that only come with following Wolves.