Wolverhampton Wanderers and the art of defending
Wolverhampton Wanderers are in dreamland. Their fans will be loving life back in the big-time, rightly so. Nuno Espirito Santo's team play some lovely, free-flowing football, particularly on the counter-attack.
After spending such huge amounts of money, that's the least you'd expect. Joao Moutinho, Ruben Neves and Raul Jiminez; just three of an absurdly talented midfield and front-line on display at Molineux Stadium. The Midlands side currently sits in seventh place in the Premier League table. They've only lost once.
What makes them so good, you ask? For all their attacking prowess, that's not the main factor. The bulk of the credit should go to the most underrated defensive unit in football. The Wolves back line and goalkeeper have been simply sensational. The art of defending certainly isn't lost on Espirito Santo.
Where else to start but the man in between the sticks? Rui Patricio is an elite level goalkeeper. Aged 30, he had spent all his career with Sporting CP in the Portuguese league. However, his new gaffer and countryman persuaded the shot-stopper to make the move to the Black Country. In his eight Premier League outings, he has made an impressive 28 saves, while helping keep four clean-sheets.
They say defensive consistency is key. Wolves have started each game with the same back five. The three centre-halves, Jonathan Castro Otto aka Jonny, Conor Coady and Ryan Bennett. On the flanks, Matt Doherty and Willy Boly have been equally solid. The familiarity, the organisation, the knowing where your teammates will be. It all plays a part.
Perhaps the most important thing is the system. Their leader, Espirito Santo, allows each and every player in the XI to express themselves. He's a careful risk-taker. His defenders are allowed to play out from the back, but first and foremost, they have to do their defensive duties. Coady is their leader. The 25-year-old barks orders to the others, he gets them organised, fired up and ready to do the dirty work.
Sure, the fact that they play in a three makes things easier, having that extra body back there helps, but it's still supremely tough to keep clean sheets in the Premier League. Over their last six outings, Wolves have conceded just twice. One goal at home to Manchester City, the other away to Manchester United. The Wanderers earned draws in both those outings. For a newly-promoted side, that's pretty outstanding.
Perhaps the star-of-the-show thus far has been Doherty. I know for a fact the 26-year-old is extremely popular amongst Fantasy Football players right now, largely due to his match-winning contribution last time out. Again, he's another reaping the rewards of playing in a back-five. He is given the freedom to bomb forward and join in on the attack, as is Boly on the other side.
Only Liverpool (3), Chelsea (5) and Manchester City (3) have conceded less than Wolves (6) this term. Those are the three title contenders. Wolves have comfortably been the best-of-the-rest. They're not getting the praise they deserve. Espirito Santo isn't either. I'm starting to see why he has been touted for the Manchester United job...
I see Wolves as the new Chelsea. They keep it tight at the back, while having real quality up top that is more than capable of getting them a goal or two. That mixture of raw talent, hard work and belief is certainly serving them well and all starts with having a solid back-line.