After operating with a 4-5-1 for virtually the entire second half of the 2009-10 season, Mick McCarthy returned to his tried and trusted 4-4-2 for the new season. There was always the sense that McCarthy had begrudgingly abandoned his stock formation but change it he did and survival was the vindication of a bit of flexibility from a notoriously stubborn man. However, it would appear that the real cause for optimism regarding Wolves’ fortunes in any individual game comes not from whether they operate with a four or five man midfield but whether the opposition does.
Wolves’ victory over Stoke on the opening day was fairly convincing. McCarthy’s advice to his players that they should get the ball down and play rather than get sucked into Stoke’s direct football proved spot on. The Guardian chalkboard analysis shows that no Stoke player managed more than 16 completed passes in the entire match. In contrast, not one of the Wolves midfield four or indeed either of the full-backs completed less than 25 passes (Steven Fletcher made 15 passes in 49 minutes too).
The really telling factor, however, is the contrast between Wolves’ centre-backs and full-backs. Of course, it is common for full-backs (for Arsene Wenger, the modern-day playmakers) to have more possession than centre-backs but in this instance the contrast is particularly marked. Christophe Berra attempted just 4 passes in the game but even this was positively adventurous in comparison to Jody Craddock’s paltry 3 passes. Meanwhile, Wolves right-back Kevin Foley attempted and completed more passes than any player on the pitch:
By playing two forwards in Ricardo Fuller and Kenwyne Jones (later Mama Sidibe), Stoke ensured that Berra and Craddock would be engaged in man-marking duties. These would prove to be one-on-one battles the like of which suit two physical defenders of limited ball-playing abilities. Stoke’s formation also meant that they would rely on the front two to provide the goal threat, playing Matthew Etherington surprisingly deep – often tracking back to double up on Matt Jarvis. This had the knock-on effect of meaning that the men given real space in the Wolves team were their full-backs, the aforementioned Foley and Stephen Ward. Both players have significant experience playing in midfield (in Ward’s case even as a striker) and so are relatively comfortable on the ball. In other words, Stoke played completely into Wolves’ hands.
Although the personnel has changed at times, it is noticeable that Wolves have long been more comfortable when operating against 4-4-2 whatever formation they play. Perhaps the best example comes in the 2009-10 results against the top five. Eight defeats out of eight against Chelsea, Man Utd, Arsenal (just) and Man City but two deserved wins against Spurs. Is it a coincidence that Spurs were the only side to consistently deploy two out-and-out strikers? Berra and Craddock were excellent in both those wins – heading, blocking and clearing the ball for fun. However, they were rarely faced with the difficult decision of whether to drop off or get close to the man playing in the hole. They seldom had the ball at their feet with an obligation to build the attack.
Against Stoke on Saturday, Wolves looked a very capable Premiership side. The centre-backs relished the physical battle while the full-backs and midfield passed the ball impressively. The real challenge will come when the opposition does not play so obviously to their strengths – when the full-backs are closed down, we see the striker(s) drop off deeper and the midfield two are outnumbered. Everton away next up could prove a more revealing test.