Wolverhampton Wanderers – Burnley: Wolves’ wing-play defeats uninspiring Burnley (1-0)
Burnley’s disappointing start to the season continued as their long-ball game and passive defence came up short against Wolves’ wing-focused attack.
Wolverhampton Wanderers came into the game on the back of a respectable draw against Manchester City, and a win away at West Ham thanks to a late Adama Traoré goal. Burnley on the other hand were still looking for their first win of the campaign. Last season Sean Dyche’s Burnley side boasted one of the best defensive records in the Premier League. In contrast, this time they had already conceded nine goals in their opening four league games.
Despite Traoré’s aforementioned scoring exploits against West Ham, he had to settle for a place on the bench against Burnley. His manager, Nuno Espírito Santo, has said that Traoré still has work to do in order to adapt to Wolves’ way of playing. Instead, the Portuguese coach named an unchanged lineup, with Hélder Costa and Diogo Jota preferred over Traoré for the wide-forward positions behind Raúl Jiménez in their 3-4-3. Behind them was the usual high-quality midfield pairing of Rúben Neves and João Moutinho.
Burnley lined up in a 4-4-2, with manager Sean Dyche making three changes from the team that was swept aside by Manchester United in the previous matchday. Ashley Barnes and Sam Vokes came in as the two strikers, in place of Ashley Westwood and Chris Wood, meaning Jeff Hendrick dropped into midfield alongside Jack Cork. Furthermore, eighteen-year-old Dwight McNeil made way for Johann Berg Guðmundsson’s return from injury.
Team shapes when Burnley was in possession.
Wolves battle Burnley’s directness
Burnley’s attacking strategy in this game will be familiar to any Premier League viewer in recent years. They relied heavily on long balls to the strikers Barnes and Vokes, with the wingers in their 4-4-2 staying fairly narrow to try and help pick up second balls. If Burnley were able to win these long-balls, they are then looking to shift the ball wide and create crossing opportunities as quickly as possible.
It is not the most complex approach, but it is still something that any opponent of theirs need to be able to deal with. Letting Burnley win crucial aerial duels means letting them make easy space-gain into their opponent’s half, and dangerous situations can follow.
This is something Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho would have had in mind in Burnley’s previous game, where he used Marouane Fellaini as a defensive midfielder to ensure that United could dominate these duels, allowing them to control Burnley’s main attacking threat.
Wolves’ success was also based on this foundation. The three centre-backs in the 5-4-1 defensive shape – Ryan Bennett, Conor Coady and Willy Boly – won most of the key aerial duels against Burnley’s forwards, especially early on.
Furthermore, with central-midfielders Neves and Moutinho in front of them sweeping up the loose balls, Wolves were able to start counter-attacks, feeding Costa and Jota who were staying in relatively advanced positions against Burnley’s direct attack.
Wolves: 3-4-3 with wing-focus
When they had the ball, Wolves attacked in their customary 3-4-3 formation. They were able to establish some stability in possession with the security offered by the back three and Neves and Moutinho in front of them.
Wolves’ right wing-back Doherty pushed Guðmundsson very deep at times with his forward runs, forcing Burnley into something resembling a back five. On the other side, Lennon wasn’t always tracking Wolves’ left wing-back Jonny in this way. He would sometimes stay narrower and closer to his other midfielders, trying to prevent passes into Jota between the lines.
Meanwhile, Wolves’ wide centre-backs, Bennett and Boly, would split into very wide positions, with Neves and Moutinho dropping interchangeably into the gaps between them and the middle centre-back Coady. Due to Burnley’s wingers being pushed back by Wolves’ wing-backs as mentioned, Bennett and Boly had plenty of time on the ball in these wide areas to try and launch attacks from.
The situation in Wolves’ possession phase
Wolves’ attacking approach is nicely summed up by three chances created by them in quick succession around the half-hour mark. Firstly, they were very keen to use long diagonal passes to the opposite wing-back, especially from left-to-right, aimed at Doherty. In this case however, it was a long switch to Jonny on the left. He fed Jota, who fired a low cross into Jiménez who forced a save from Hart.
Some seconds later, the ball was on the right with Costa. He found Doherty, who made an inside cut, and fired in another low cross. Jonny’s shot was blocked on the line. This kind of ‘underlapping’ and position swapping between the wing-backs and wide-forwards is another prominent feature of Wolves’ attack.
The third feature to be highlighted is Neves’ playmaking and passing range, which Wolves depend upon a lot around the box. This was demonstrated in the final part of this sequence, where he crossed from deep to create another chance for Doherty, which is saved.
Wolves score, Burnley struggle to create threat
When the goal eventually came for Wolves in the 61st minute, it resulted from one of the sources described above. Again, Costa drifted wide, and Doherty underlapped him into the space created inside. He gave another low cutback to Jiménez, who managed to finish this time around.
After going behind, Burnley continued to look toothless. There were some scenes where they attempted to press higher, but Wolves’ possession game remained stable and increasingly they found space for passes into the feet of the wide-forwards against a tiring Burnley defence.
Adama Traoré made a substitute appearance and showed promise again with his explosive and unpredictable dribbling, and served as an outlet for Wolves to force Burnley back into their own half.
In attack, Burnley struggled to create from open play, and seemed to lack ideas that did not involve a long-ball to the striker, a strategy that Wolves had been controlling well all day. In fact, Burney’s only shot inside the box after Wolves’ goal came from a set piece.
Given the opportunities Wolves had, and Burnley’s inability to threaten from open play, it can be said that the 1-0 scoreline flattered Sean Dyche’s team. Had the home side been more clinical, the scoreline could have been higher.
Burnley’s defensive weakness represents a problem for Dyche, as their strong defensive record was a cornerstone of their play last season, and they definitely are not compensating for it at the other end by creating and scoring.
As for Wolves, so far they are showing themselves to be what many people thought they would: a well-organised side both in and out of possession, with talented players who belong at Premier League level.