Following on from Monday’s disasterclass at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the gauntlet has well and truly been thrown down for Frank Lampard’s Blues to respond. Everton have so far failed to convince on the road, but at home they’ve showed a lot more confidence and ability to perform. The next two fixtures, against a resurgent Newcastle United and this weekend’s opponent, Wolverhampton Wanderers, both take place at Goodison Park and to have a fighting chance to stave off the spectre of relegation, the team needs to take at least four points from them. Let’s examine what Sunday’s opposition are all about.
Bruno Lage has cut a fairly impressive figure since taking over the managerial vacancy at Wolves in the summer, overcoming a poor start - in which his team generally played well - to guide them up the table to a current position in eighth spot. As it stands, they are in with a decent shout of obtaining qualification for a European competition, which would represent a successful debut season for the Portuguese coach. After putting together a strong run of six wins in eight fixtures, form for the Midlanders has slipped of late, with a run of three straight losses halted last time out with a 4-0 thrashing of Watford.
Style of Play
Wolves have gone with a back three all season under Lage and will no doubt do so again on Sunday. The ex-Benfica manager prefers a 343, which he’s deployed for the past four matches, but he has occasionally put out a 352. The central defence are a well-drilled unit that are benefitting from a largely unchanging line-up: captain Conor Coady, Romain Saiss and Max Kilman lead the team in Premier League minutes played, trailing only behind the outstanding goalkeeper Jose Sa. The entire team are very disciplined in maintaining shape, staying compact in the middle and blocking passing lanes, pressing usually being limited to the defensive third of the pitch. Likewise, a preponderance of tackling is in the team’s own third, so gaps don’t tend to appear due to missed challenges. Defensively, Wolves are a tough nut to crack; they’ve conceded only 14 goals from open play in the Premier League, three from set-pieces and none whatsoever from counter-attacks.
Lage’s team retain possession well amongst their back three and within their own half, but take fewer touches in the opposition third than most teams. They progress the ball up the pitch using neat interchanges of passes, with technical midfielders Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho the chief orchestrators of play. Though possession is not a priority they are very capable of keeping the ball and moving it well with one or two touch passing. Equally, they can go direct, typically from the defence and hit accurate balls over the top, or into striker Raul Jimenez, whose hold-up play is excellent. Additionally, Wolves will look to make frequent switches to alter the focus of attacks and to wrong-foot defences. A weakness though is a seeming reluctance to take shots, a result of a general lack of penetration into dangerous areas.
The key man for Wolves this season has been goalkeeper Sa, who has been nothing short of remarkable since arriving last summer. The shot-stopper is racking up an excellent 83.8% save percentage and has conceded 9.3 less goals than would be expected considering the quality of shot faced. By comparison, Everton’s Jordan Pickford is saving only 65% of shots he’s facing and has conceded 5.1 more goals than he’d be expected to.
Jimenez is gradually recovering his form after suffering a terrible injury last season and has scored three goals from his last six Premier League starts. The Mexican is a versatile all-around forward who offers clever movement and link-up play, in addition to being a reliable finisher. Daniel Podence, whilst sometimes a frustrating player is hinting at finding an end product to all his clever movement and touches, scoring twice in his last four starts.
Wolves are equally comfortable controlling play, or conceding possession. Lampard will surely look to play on the front foot and will be hoping to pressure the visitors early, in order to get the Goodison Park crowd going. In the last meeting between the teams, back in November, Lage’s side dominated possession, but that day Everton put in a woefully passive first 45 minutes and did cause them a few difficulties with a more aggressive second half. The home side must find ways to stretch the Black Country outfit and key to this will be overloads in wide areas, which could draw out Moutinho and Neves from their normal screening duties. Neither player has pace, so quick shifts of play back inside could expose the defence. This could be an opportunity for Lampard to deploy a 4231 formation, with one of Donny van de Beek or, perhaps a first start for Dele Alli to add some creativity to the middle of the park.