On the face of it, Wolves’ game against Southampton on Monday was typical. Nuno Espirito Santo’s side went in goalless at the interval, having failed to score in the first half for the 60th time in 85 attempts. They fell behind then rallied late on to secure a draw.
So far, so normal.
But this was a very different evening for Wolves, a very different performance. For one, there was no Conor Coady, for the first time since a win at Burton Albion over three years ago. More remarkably, there was no back three for the first time ever under Nuno.
The result was that watching Wolves felt different, it was different. The build-up play was unrecognisable without the captain’s raking balls from the back. They appeared curiously vulnerable, as if Willy Boly and Max Kilman could not quite adjust for the fact that there was no cover. Wing-backs were now full-backs for the night.
But supporters will have noted too that Wolves attacked with greater numbers and greater purpose as a result. When the wide defenders raced forwards, they were joined not only by the front three but by midfield runners. Bodies were in the box. It was more expansive.
Twenty shots rained in on the Southampton goal, the most that Wolves have mustered in any Premier League game this calendar year. They registered their highest expected-goals total of the season, having had more touches in the box than any previous game too.
In fact, you have to go back almost two years to find the last time that Wolves had more shots in the first half of a Premier League game at Molineux than this. Never, since their return to the Premier League, have they had more shots on target. It was just different.
The progress under Nuno has been constant. Promoted as champions in his first season, qualification for Europe in his second. Last year, they sustained that seventh place even while reaching the quarter-finals of the Europa League. He has done a superb job.
Such is football, however, there is always someone wondering whether he might be doing even better. Perhaps Wolves could have been more ambitious, still. Is there more to come?
It is natural that fans will always want more but it is a mindset that has been encouraged by Wolves’ owners with their talk of breaking into the top four. For the first time, there is a growing sense that it might require a change of approach to help make it happen.
The prospect of formation change seemed unfathomable but with one selection against Southampton, Nuno himself has opened up the possibilities. The debate begins in earnest.
For three long years, the system, one that was established within days of Nuno’s arrival, honed during that first pre-season, has been the foundation of the side’s success. The players’ knowledge of their roles within that system helped give Wolves their edge.
While it was Coady’s absence that sparked the rethink on Monday, two factors had already contributed to a shift in thinking regarding the wisdom of being wedded to a back three.
The first was that the changes to personnel had already robbed Wolves of some rhythm. The partnerships between Matt Doherty and Adama Traore on the right, and, to a lesser extent, Jonny Otto and Diogo Joto on the left, were no longer there. Fluidity was lost.
The second was that the improvements, among existing players and thanks to the arrival of new recruits, underlined the fact that Wolves are a team packed with top-half talent. Giving them the freedom to play a more open game might just be rewarded with better results.
Jota, of course, has become the poster boy for this argument. Nuno has been quick to wish his compatriot well following his stunning start to life at Liverpool but the player’s swift impact has been intriguing, nevertheless. Jota had been on the fringes at Molineux.
He scored on his Premier League debut for Liverpool and has adapted with such speed that his performances cannot be explained simply by Jurgen Klopp’s coaching. It happened too soon. No doubt, Jota was buoyed by a move to the champions. He is at an age where an upsurge in form might be expected too.
But perhaps there is something else at play.
The more likely explanation is surely that he is playing in a more attacking team, with runners around him and greater chances as a result. If Jota could go to Liverpool and shine then why not Raul Jimenez or Adama Traore? Why not Pedro Neto or Daniel Podence? Are Wolves unlocking the full potential of their forwards?
For all the exciting talent at Wolves, theirs is a controlled game. It is why the 4-0 defeat to West Ham earlier this season was such a shock – only their fourth in three seasons by more than two goals. Nuno’s approach limits the number of chances – for both teams.
In the Premier League last season, the total number of expected goals in Wolves matches was the lowest of any team in the competition. It is why they are always in their games against the very best. It is why they so rarely overwhelm the opposition, however poor, winning even fewer games by three clear goals than the small number that they have lost.
Is there now an argument for Wolves being more expansive? The switch to 4-3-3 accommodates Joao Moutinho again, having found himself on the bench for the previous three matches. That can only be a good thing. Coady, meanwhile, showed on England duty against Denmark, when he featured in a four-man defence following Harry Maguire’s red card, that the system need not be anathema to him.
Abandon the caution of a five-man defence and Newcastle might have been beaten last month rather than allowed to equalise late on. Be more bold and Leicester may not have escaped with a 1-0 win.
Against Southampton, Nuno made a particularly attacking substitution in withdrawing midfielder Ruben Neves to bring on Pedro Neto, who soon scored the equaliser. Wolves ended up playing something approaching a 4-2-4 formation during the latter stages.
“We finished the game very strongly, on the front foot, pressing, creating, creating huge problems for Southampton and good chances,” said Nuno afterwards.
Could that be the template for the future when chasing games? The manager continues to speak of not being so predictable so maybe it is an option. But do not expect anything quite so drastic when Wolves return to action away to Arsenal on Sunday evening.
Nuno is instinctively risk averse. In his one season in charge of Porto, the team lost only twice in the league but five goalless draws cost him the title. He concluded a recent video walkthrough of some of Wolves’ best bits on Sky Sports with a wince, before saying: “You only pick the good ones. We talk more about the bad ones than the good ones.”
That is his nature and it has taken Wolves to heights not seen in two generations. What is fascinating now is whether, having been forced into a change through necessity, Nuno has seen enough in this new shape to convince him that it is an option for his team in the future.
“What I think is that we have a very good foundation that will allow us to grow in our game,” he said after the Southampton game. “It has been many, many games with the same lines and the same shape. The reaction was good. The adaptation to it was very good. It requires character and belief and the boys did that so I am very proud of them.”
Maybe the next step under Nuno could be the most exciting yet.