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Can goal-shy Wolves claim European place through their exemplary defensive record?

The Independent logo The Independent 21/01/2022 Karl Matchett
GettyImages-1364845309.jpg © Getty Images GettyImages-1364845309.jpg

Saturday, 3pm matches don’t always feature teams in the spotlight, those creating the biggest stories, so it’s a change of pace this weekend. Newcastle - and all the money and mayhem that comes with them right now - are in action at the same time as Manchester United host West Ham, both those sides fighting it out for a Champions League or Europa League spot.

And so are Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Bruno Lage’s side haven’t yet taken too much focus in the wider Premier League picture, but perhaps they are about to. They have won only one fewer than Man United, lost only the same as Arsenal and West Ham - and conceded fewer than all of them.

Of course, that’s only half the story with Wolves so far this season, as they’ve also scored fewer than all those sides - fewer than everybody bar Burnley and Norwich, two of the league’s bottom three.

Defences win titles, so the saying goes, but of course Wolves aren’t challenging there any time soon. But what about a return to European action? They qualified for continental competition under Nuno Espirito Santo, reaching the Europa quarter-finals in 2019/20, and are very much in the running to do so again this term under Lage. Wolves head into the weekend trip to Brentford in eighth place in the table, six points off the Hammers in fourth, but with two matches in hand.

The problem so far is, of course, goalscoring.

Much was made of the always threatening-seeming Adama Traore and the fact he had no goals or assists, up until last week. Their top scorers have just four apiece so far this term: Raul Jimenez - one goal since before Christmas - and Hwang Hee-Chan - none since October.

The boss, in his debut campaign in England, has already explained that he hopes for an upturn in fortunes in the final third. Wolves don’t score many and create very few shooting chances. They have the second-lowest shots per game tally in the top flight, the second-lowest accurate crosses per game and are on course to score just 32 goals this season. Break down the shooting chances further and it’s not as though they are all close-range sitters, either: Wolves are bottom-three for shots from inside the penalty box, but a heady 16th in the league for long-rangers. And while they’re certainly not making enough chances to score, their actual chance-taking is poor too - they’re underperforming their xG by more than five goals so far this term, the biggest underperformance in the Premier League, unsurprisingly.

But, crucially for their form, their placing in the league table and potential ambitions for this season, they don’t allow chances against them either.

The bottom line is only 15 goals conceded, with just Manchester City seeing fewer - they are on course to allow only 28 all season.

Unsusprisingly, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea concede the fewest shots per game in the league this season - but then it’s Wolves. The system is built to prevent chances at all, crowding out the zone in front of the penalty box and frustrating the supposedly bigger, better teams who they face, working hard and positionally excellent.

Nobody has scored three against them in a single game this season, in any competition. Chelsea didn’t score at all, nor did Man United. Man City managed one, from the penalty spot, while Liverpool needed a stoppage-time winner. It gives enormous confidence that they have a plan in place for the difficult matches, one they know works.

Wolves’ away form is relatively strong this season and they’ll head to the Brentford Community Stadium with plenty of confidence of getting a result. After all, it’s not long since they did exactly that at Old Trafford.

But the biggest test - or opportunity, depending on your perspective - comes in the next few weeks ahead.

Following this fixture, they will face Arsenal, Tottenham, Leicester and West Ham in a row, all teams around them and aiming for European places of their own.

If Lage’s side emerge from that run of games with the defence still looking resilient and points still being clocked up on the board, there’s every reason for them to feel that at least one of the major managerial changes made across the Premier League’s brighter lights this season might end the campaign crushed and unfulfilled, denied by the old gold and a consistent, defensive masterclass.

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