Wolverhampton Wanderers will be looking to build upon the pre-international break victory over Fulham with a win against Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United in the Premier League on Monday night.
Despite taking away precious hours on the training ground, the international break has benefited Wolves – key players such as Conor Coady, Adama Traore and Rui Patricio among others have had the chance to boost their confidence with brilliant performances for their respective countries, while left wing-back Fernando Marcal has had a golden opportunity to recover from the calf injury he picked up early on in last month’s defeat to Manchester City.
Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo has revealed that Marcal is back to full fitness, which will likely allow utility man Romain Saiss to shift into his preferred position at left centre-back while Max Kilman is expected to drop to the bench.
The pair exchanged roles frequently against Fulham and did a fine job filling in for the injured Marcal and Jonny Castro Otto while Wolves’ regular substitute left wing-back Ruben Vinagre was in Athens finalising a move to Olympiacos.
The inclusion of Marcal in the squad should allow Wolves to regain the defensive stability and assuredness shown in the season opener – a 2-0 victory away at Sheffield United.
Leeds under Bielsa are tactically unique in the Premier League, usually lining up in a 4-1-4-1, but usually looking to build up through a 3-3-1-3, with Kalvin Phillips dropping deep between the two centre-backs who then move wider, giving the full-backs license to push higher up the pitch, either cutting into the centre of midfield or staying wide in wing-back roles depending on the needs of the situation.
The two central attacking midfielders then make alternating runs, staggering the midfield to improve the passing options for other players and to help move the ball out to the wings. Ideally either can play as the attacking or defensive player, aiding the team’s fluidity, though if a naturally more offense-minded player such as Rodrigo were to play in the midfield he would play rigidly as the 1 in the 3-3-1-3, behind striker Patrick Bamford and the two wingers.
When one of the wingers receives the ball, Leeds’ central players often drift towards his side of the pitch, rapidly creating a numerical overload and consequently dragging the opposition defence and midfield across the pitch with them. The aim is then to switch the play to the opposite winger, now with more space to operate in. Maintaining positional discipline even when faced with superior numbers on one side will be key to Wolves neutralising this strategy.
With his full-backs positioned higher, Bielsa knows that his team is vulnerable to rapid transitions and counterattacks down the wing, so Leeds look to press high and retrieve the ball quickly after losing it. If given time to reset, Leeds typically defend in a tight 4-1-4-1 which eliminates the wide defensive spaces.
Tactics and formation
As Leeds are most vulnerable in the transition, the wide counterattacking style that has served Wolves so well since the start of Nuno’s reign will likely be the most effective means of scoring goals in this match. A quick long ball out to the flanks quickly after possession is recovered, either to one of the wing-backs or one of the wingers, should allow Wolves to take full advantage of the gaps behind the Leeds full-backs. The pace of Traore, Pedro Neto and Daniel Podence will be vital in creating scoring opportunities in this space.
With Leeds tending to leave the central regions vacant in favour of attacking from wide, it would make sense for Nuno to play a pairing in central midfield, either of Ruben Neves and Leander Dendoncker, or of Neves and Joao Moutinho.
While the Neves-Moutinho pairing would allow a more rapid and precise progression of the ball out to the wings from either side of central midfield, Moutinho’s lack of pace and physicality could be singled out as a weakness to be targeted by a Leeds side which is very intense and aggressive in the press. As a result, a pairing of Neves and Dendoncker seems more likely.
With Dendoncker a more hardcore endurance runner and proficient in breaking up attacks, he is ideally suited to winning the ball back quickly. He could be used for the majority of the game, until the Leeds midfielders tire and Moutinho can be brought on to provide midfield stability towards the end of the match.
When Leeds attempt to overload one side while attacking, Wolves will likely have to form a back five, with the wing-backs dropping alongside the centre-backs. The wing-back and wide centre-back on the overloaded side will be able to double up on the winger, with that side’s central midfielder helping by cutting off passing channels.
Conor Coady will then be able to shift towards the overloaded side, with the opposite side’s wing-back one-on-one with the Leeds winger and the other wide centre-back waiting to provide cover should the wing-back be bypassed. This match should be an interesting test of Marcal and Nelson Semedo’s defensive capabilities.
An unchanged back three of Willy Boly, Coady and Saiss should start, in front of Patricio in goal.
Predicted line-up: 3-4-3:
Patricio; Boly, Coady, Saiss; Semedo, Neves, Dendoncker, Marcal; Neto, Jimenez, Podence.
Much of the game will likely be played in the Wolves half, with Leeds attacking and pressing hard for the duration of the game. With the form Patrick Bamford has been in recently, scoring three goals and assisting two in the opening four matches of this Premier League campaign – a goal contribution for every 62 minutes he spent on the pitch – it is hard to imagine that he will fail to score or assist.
As long as Wolves maintain defensive solidity, they will remain in the game. If not, it could become a very high-scoring affair, as shown when Leeds put three goals past Liverpool in their season opener. The tendency of Leeds to press high means that a display of classic Nuno counterattacking football could be in store, with Wolves looking to score the majority of their goals on the break.
Wolves can win this game, but their defence will have to be rock-solid, and the forwards will have to regain some of the telepathic understanding that has seemed to be lacking all too often this season.