Premier League

Wolves have bigger problems than strain of the Europa League

 • by Will Evans
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Wolverhampton Wanderers rode into the current Premier League season on a wave of optimism.

The club exceeded all expectations by qualifying for the Europa League during their debut campaign back in the top flight and some even thought they could make a run at the top six this term.

However, a worrying run of results has left supporters questioning whether a combination of European football and ‘second season syndrome’ could see Wolves sucked into an unexpected relegation. 

The notion that Nuno Espírito Santo’s side could be considered potential candidates for the drop would have seemed laughable just a couple of months ago. 

Fresh from a seventh-place finish last term, Wolves hit the ground running in the Europa League qualifying rounds – eliminating Northern Irish opponents Crusaders before convincingly beating Armenian minnows Pyunik 8-0 on aggregate.

Wolves were expected to win those early matches, but knocking out Serie A side Torino in the final stage of qualification was regarded as an impressive victory against a strong team from one of Europe’s most reputable leagues.

Those results formed part of an unbeaten August, but three defeats from three games in the last month have set alarm bells ringing around Molineux.

It would be easy to put that down to the fickle nature of pundits and fans alike, and simply dismiss concerns about the team’s form as a typical overreaction to a handful of losses. 

But the statistics from Wolves’ opening five Premier League games do suggest that their winless start to the domestic campaign may be down to a number of worrying issues that weren’t evident in their performances last season.  

Perhaps the most obvious concern is that Nuno’s men have only been creating an average of 0.8 big chances per 90 minutes played this season – less than half of the 1.66 that they created per 90 in 2018/19. 

They’ve become increasingly shot-shy too, with their average of ten attempts on goal per 90 the fourth lowest in the Premier League this season (as is their number of shots on target). 

Such impotence in front of goal may originate from poor delivery from wide areas – despite completing the sixth most dribbles in the top flight this season (11 per 90), Wolves’ cross completion is only better than two other teams in 2019/20 at 3.2 per 90.

Winger Adama Traoré in action for Wolves

Wanderers’ problems don’t stop there, though. They’ve attempted and completed fewer passes in the final third per 90 than last season and they’re inside the Premier League’s bottom seven for both statistics. 

They’ve also lost the second most defensive duels (64.8 per 90) and have been equally unimpressive when it comes to completed tackles (nine per 90).

Wolves are looking weaker across the board and the suggestion from all quarters will be that their inferior performances are a by-product of the additional strain that Europa League football brings.

Those extra fixtures may end up stretching a squad that only saw Pedro Neto, Patrick Cutrone and Jesús Vallejo added in the summer, but it seems unlikely that Wolves are struggling with those extra matches at such an early point in the campaign. 

If anything Nuno’s squad should be closer to their peak fitness than their Premier League rivals at this stage of the season, having played competitive football since the tail end of July. 

A more likely explanation is the combination of a tricky opening fixture list (Wolves have already played Manchester United, Leicester City, Chelsea and Everton) and opponents wising up to some of the tactical surprises that Wanderers sprung throughout 2018/19. 

After all we’ve seen in the past how promoted teams can be caught out in their second season, most notably with George Burley’s Ipswich Town around the turn of the century.

The Tractor Boys took the top flight by storm immediately after winning promotion and finished fifth in 2000/01 to qualify for the UEFA Cup, but got relegated the following year and have never returned to the Premier League. 

Such a fate is unlikely to befall Wolves with the quality in their squad and the resources at their disposal if the team needs strengthening in January.

But Wanderers’ early-season form hints at a year of struggle for the West Midlands side, after the initial joy of their first year back at the top table of English football. 

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