In a tight game at Elland Road between Leeds United and Wolverhampton Wanderers, two of the Premier League's great tactical minds, Marcelo Bielsa and Nuno Espirito Santo, faced each other for the first time.
For the duration of the first half, Leeds’ unrelenting intensity in attack and in the press threatened to overwhelm Wolves, who played the role of the immovable object in the path of the unstoppable force.
However, Wolves, experienced in the art of managing games and forcing results due to the long stint without defensive rock Willy Boly last season, were well prepared to deal with the task in front of them.
After absorbing the pressure from Leeds with a solid defensive showing but struggling to progress the ball out past the halfway line in the first 45 minutes, Wolves in the second half played with a greater level of confidence, not squandering possession in midfield and attack as easily, moving the ball forwards with greater efficiency and threatening the young Leeds ‘keeper Illan Meslier frequently.
While Leeds’ finishing was sub-par, Wolves’ forwards looked far more threatening upon reaching the Leeds third, and it seemed only a matter of time before the Leeds net would be rippling.
Here are some of the key takeaways from the match, with statistics provided by www.whoscored.com, www.premierleague.com, Wolves' social media feeds, and @StatmanJoey, @SkySportsStatto and @TimSpiers on Twitter:
Leeds dominant in possession and ruthless in the press
At full time, Leeds had managed 67% possession of the ball, limiting Wolves to just 33%, and had made 596 passes overall, more than double Wolves’ total of 285. Leeds were also more effective at winning the ball back high up the pitch, allowing an average of only 3 passes per defensive action while Wolves allowed 5. This meant that Wolves’ ability to put a string of passes together and progress the ball by passing it was severely limited.
This led to 77% of the game being played in the Wolves third and the middle third, while the ball was only in the Leeds third 23% of the time, limiting Wolves’ ability to take shots.
As well as keeping the ball in areas of the pitch which threatened Wolves, Leeds got the ball out wide and crossed towards frontman Patrick Bamford with astounding frequency, attempting 37 crosses in total, far superior to Wolves’ 10.
While Wolves were strong enough defensively to prevent Leeds from taking a shot within the 6-yard box, all of Leeds’ shots were within the penalty area. This highlighted their well-drilled nature and their ability to move the ball into dangerous areas and take shots from positions more statistically likely to result in a goal. Wolves, meanwhile, varied their shots, taking 1 inside the 6-yard box, 3 shots inside the penalty area and 3 from outside of it.
Max Kilman: future star
In only his sixth appearance in the competition, Max Kilman was man of the match for the first time in his Premier League career, and deservedly so. Despite a quiet start, Kilman grew into the game and hardly put a foot wrong.
Against Leeds, Kilman achieved 100% success rates for his aerial duels, ground duels and dribbles. He blocked a shot, cut out a pass, gained possession 8 times, made 5 clearances, assisted a goal and Wolves kept a clean sheet – from a defender, not much more can be asked, especially against a team as intense and relentless as Leeds.
He was similarly excellent in his first league appearance of the season at home to Fulham, the club whose academy he once belonged to. He made 5 clearances and 56 passes (2 of them key passes) with a 95% completion rate as well as managing a 100% tackle success rate.
Kilman’s experience of playing in tight spaces from his futsal days, combined with valuable minutes in the 2019/20 campaign have translated into an impressive level of defensive awareness and capacity for quick thinking. The improvement from his full senior debut in the 4-0 home victory over FC Pyunik Yerevan in the third round of UEFA Europa League qualifying last August is visible and it is remarkable. His confidence has improved drastically, allowing his brilliant technical abilities to shine through.
Kilman’s dedication to his craft and to becoming an elite centre-back is exemplary – Adama Traore strikes fear into the hearts of defenders across the Premier League, but to Kilman he is a training partner. Wolves captain Conor Coady has revealed that the pair train one-on-one together frequently, with Kilman’s hulking 6-foot-4 frame and Traore’s electric pace providing an interesting challenge for each player.
Training with one of the fastest and most dangerous forwards in the game right now is evidently working wonders for Kilman’s confidence. Next to Traore, most other forwards present far less of a problem to him. Clearly, the best is still yet to come from the young defender. His potential for future improvement is exciting to contemplate.
Kilman has fully repaid Wolves for the faith they have put in him since his summer 2018 arrival from fifth-division Maidenhead United, and his excellent performances so far this season have prompted the club’s management to reward him with a new five-year contract.
Leander Dendoncker: midfield enforcer
There has been a vast difference in the quality of Wolves' defensive performances this season between matches started by Leander Dendoncker and those for which he has been on the bench. In the three games he has started, Wolves haven't conceded a goal. When he has not been in the starting line-up, Wolves have conceded seven times in two games.
After the 4-0 humiliation away at West Ham and the physical domination of midfield that it saw from Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek, there was a general sense that Dendoncker had been sorely missed in the centre of midfield, and a realisation that the degree of physicality that he brings to the Wolves midfield could not be replicated in a midfield pairing of Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho.
The Neves-Moutinho pairing had been started twice, in the West Ham game as well as in the home defeat to Manchester City. Against City, Dendoncker was only brought on in the 78th minute with the score line at 0-2, with Wolves chasing the game and the damage already done. His chances of impacting the result were minimal by that point.
In the season opener against Sheffield United when he was paired with Moutinho, and against Fulham when he was paired with Neves, his high work rate and tireless running were constantly visible. He was able to break up opposition attacking play and allow Wolves’ two midfield conductors to control the tempo and orchestrate the attack effectively, knowing that they had reliable cover alongside them in case possession was lost.
Dendoncker’s stamina proved key in dealing with the intensity of the Leeds press and attacking threat, as did his aerial ability – he won 10 aerial duels, 7 more than anyone else on the pitch, and lost none. Combined with an exceptional defensive performance from Moutinho who managed 5 successful tackles – first among all players on the pitch – the possibility of effective central attacks from Leeds was extinguished.
Leeds lost possession frequently in the middle of the park, and only 20% of their attacking movements came through the centre. Dendoncker provides an exceptional degree of strength and stability in midfield, and as a result has to be one of the first names on Nuno’s team sheet going ahead.
Wolves forwards versatile and adaptable
Despite starting three forwards, with Wolves expected to play the majority of the match in a 3-4-3, the formation in the opening stages appeared to be a makeshift 3-5-2, with Pedro Neto dropping into central midfield to provide a numerical advantage in that region.
However, after it became apparent that the Leeds attacks would come predominantly down the wings, Neto shifted wide as did Daniel Podence, dropping into an ultra-defensive 5-4-1 for most of the remainder of the first half.
This allowed the possibility of a counterattack due to the two rapid wingers playing in wide midfield, but focused on their defensive duties in light of the high positioning of Leeds’ attacking full-backs (essentially wing-backs most of the time).
Given that Wolves were playing without a natural left wing-back and that Romain Saiss was having to plug the gap by playing out of position, it was too easy for Leeds to overwhelm their right/Wolves’ left by sending Luke Ayling and Helder Costa to double up on him. With Neto playing deeper, this threat was reduced throughout Leeds’ greatest periods of dominance.
In the second half, Neto played in something more akin to Diogo Jota’s role, often positioned the furthest forward of all Wolves’ attackers and relying on his pace to progress as far up the pitch as possible to either win a free kick or a throw.
Although he did sometimes go down a little too easily and on occasion squandered possession needlessly, his running diverted the attention of Bielsa’s men, allowing the Wolves defenders and midfielders a bit of time to catch their breath and reset.
As the game progressed into its closing stages and as Wolves looked to hold onto their slim advantage, Neto pushed even higher, carrying the ball towards the corner flag. He slowed the pace of the game down despite being heavily outnumbered, and attempted to either win a corner or to win a throw near the corner flag. At the very least he aimed to wind the clock down for a few more seconds.
While Neto did not have a hand in the goal and his overall contributions may have slipped under the radar a little, he was vital from a tactical standpoint and was a true asset to his team.
Podence also shifted around between different positions, as did Raul Jimenez. Podence started the match as a second striker, moving to right midfield as the first half progressed and eventually played as a right forward/attacking midfielder through the second half.
Meanwhile Jimenez didn’t change his main position so frequently, but as centre-forwards go he was incredibly mobile, dropping into the midfield often to help shore things up, and could regularly be found in any part of Wolves’ attacking line, wherever the situation required him to be.
This improved level of mobility and positional fluidity has been a key feature of the Wolves attack this season, and it could be evidence of a planned long-term move towards a rotating front three with attacking full-backs/wing-backs, something resembling the system employed by Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool.
Wolves effective playing it long
Both teams played long balls frequently. Wolves’ ratio of long balls to all other types of pass was 1:3.13, while Leeds’ was 1:8.77. This would suggest that Wolves were pressed well and were forced to aimlessly launch the ball upfield often, however, this was not the case.
Nuno knew that the possession was going to be dominated by Leeds and that they would control the speed of the game, so he set his team out to attack only when the circumstances were favourable.
In Kilman, Moutinho, Coady and Romain Saiss Wolves were able to use four outfielders with excellent long-range passing ability. This allowed multiple options for accurate lobbed balls over the top to cut out the danger posed by Leeds' pressing.
One such pass, from Kilman on the left of the Wolves defence, found Jimenez in the right half-space. Due to the length of the pass, Jimenez was granted a few precious seconds to reset himself after he just missed the first bounce of the ball, then he was able to use his brilliant individual skill to work himself into a goalscoring position, his shot finding the bottom corner after a heavy deflection off the head of Kalvin Phillips.
Meanwhile, because Bielsa emphasises holding possession as well as winning possession back as soon as it is lost, it could be argued that many of the Leeds long balls were forced by individual moments of pressure by the Wolves players, rather than being used deliberately as a result of Leeds’ game plan.
Moments of brilliance from Romain Saiss
Saiss came up with what was easily the best attempt of the game: a beautifully struck low shot from the edge of the penalty area, which beat Meslier and glided into the far bottom corner. Such an exquisite first touch and shot are far from common, and it would have gone down as one of the better goals of Saiss’ career had the video assistant referee (VAR) not disallowed it for a marginal offside call against Podence after a lengthy period of deliberation.
Another key contribution from Saiss came in the final moments before half-time. Coady and Podence combined to get the ball to Neto on the right-side touchline, who played a perfectly-weighted long-range through ball to the onrushing Dendoncker, who picked the ball up on the edge of the box, dribbled to the byline and played a looping cross over the top of the goal to Saiss, who instead of attempting a shot, selflessly volleyed a low cross to Podence, who couldn’t quite beat Meslier.
This combination of Dendoncker and Saiss shows their enduring value in the core of this Wolves team. Both thrived last season after being slotted into the back three as a result of Boly’s ankle injury and Ryan Bennett’s worsening form, and previously both had played different roles in the midfield depending on what was needed in the circumstances.
Not only are they model professionals, they are ideal utility men, doing whatever task is put in front of them effectively and to a high standard. Both have earned and fully deserve their places in the Wolves starting XI.
Nuno has claimed the first victory in this clash of strategic geniuses. However, with both Wolves and Leeds seemingly in the top flight to stay, along with their managers, Bielsa will be looking to even the score when the two meet again at Molineux in February, laying the foundations of what could become a fascinating rivalry.