By Dean Gregory
Aston Villa vs Wolves
After snatching a point from Newcastle, Villa are now in the relegation danger zone only on goal difference. They next welcome Wolves to Villa Park knowing that any result could lift them up the table, but also that a win, especially against Wolves, would be a huge morale boost.
Wolves currently occupy 6th and will be hoping to break into the top four – two wins since the restart and a potential stab at Champions’ League football will provide the wind in their sails.
Can Villa lift their head above the water?
Aston Villa – L L D L D
Wolves – W W D W W
Dean Smith on injuries
“Guilbert’s available for Saturday. I decided not to take him, Drinkwater and Lansbury [to Newcastle]. They are pushing for the squad, but needed to stay at Bodymoor to do some extra work and get up to speed thanks to the injuries they’ve had.
“[McGinn] is getting there that’s for sure. It’s amiss from me to expect him to be at the levels he was. It’s a bit like Harry Kane at Tottenham. Six months out of the game is a long time.
“They have to get that match sharpness and that’s what John is working hard to do. He’s put in some half-decent performances, but we all know the levels he was at before. It’s hard to judge that to where he is now as he’s had six months out. We’ve got no time to do otherwise.
“What I can manage is whether he’s playing too much and manage that time. He’ll be the first one to tell us if he’s unfit. The good news is that the break – or the injury – he had before, he doesn’t feel it at all now.
“It’s just about expanding that lung capacity and working the legs at the moment, getting that touch and feel back.”
Nuno Espirito Santo on summer heat
“It’s about taking decisions, and I think we can be versatile enough to adapt. We have to be really careful with the choices and decisions that we make as it’s a tough period for football players.
“And Wednesday was very, very hot. It was terribly hot to play football, so both teams were very brave for their efforts.
“It’s going to get worse, too, as the days go by. It is very demanding on the players and you could see it – both teams were giving everything they have, and it was tough.”
Wolves are not a team that is married to one particular idea, and they regularly start with either a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2 depending on the opponent. A variety of players are used, but the regulars tend to be Raúl Jiménez and Diogo Jota up front, Ruben Neves and Joáo Moutinho in midfield and Conor Coady and Romain Saiss in defence.
Their average possession across the season has been 48.1% and their pass success evens out at 78.9%, but this does not tell the whole story. Wolves’ ability to adapt means that against teams higher in the league they can play on the counter, while against lower teams they can dominate.
One of the most notable traits of their playing style is the pace they have in the squad, particularly on their right side. It is not exclusive, but they are known to consistently attack down the right flank, using the potent axis of Adama Traoré and Ruben Neves to beat midfields and get forward fast. The reliable Raul Jiménez is a solid target man who scores and assists often.
Their attack is consistent and rarely wasteful – 44 goals from 47.21 xG is a result of only occasional under-performance. Their defence has conceded 31 goals from an xGA of 33.69, which again is consistent and rarely over-performs.
It seems that Wolves are a tactically adept team that will likely have Villa’s number. They are where they are because they do exactly what needs to be done. This regularly makes them a thorn in the side of the league’s elite, although it also means they don’t always beat the teams they are expected to blow away as convincingly as they should. Perhaps the key to beating them is to break the usual mold a little, and be willing to zig when you would usually zag.
One to Watch
It may have been Villa that brought Adama Traoré to England, but it is Wolves who have managed to unlock his undoubted potential. He is the chief provider in this Wolves side with nine assists to his name, and four goals to boot. He still likes to beat his man at every opportunity, with 5.1 dribbles completed each game, but he has clearly added more strings to his bow.
He is starting to look like the player he is often touted as, and will give Villa’s left flank a lot to think about if he plays.
Aston Villa 3-2 Wolves – 14-12-2003
Juan Pablo Angel scored twice and Gareth Barry once the last time Villa beat Wolves at home in the Premier League. It seems bad, but it is mostly because Wolves spent so much time away from the top flight.
Wolves 2-1 Aston Villa – 10-11-2019
Trézéguet bagged a 90th minute consolation goal in this match, and Wolves led for the majority of it – however, neither team really left with much to brag about after this dull affair.
How it Could Play Out
Since returning to the Premier League two seasons ago, Wolves have established themselves as a team that belongs. They continue to do so, even if they don’t exactly set the league alight. Somewhere along the way, they seem to have sparked a rivalry with Villa that never used to be there.
As a result, this game now carries the air of a derby match around it, even though really, it barely is one. The increased importance in a derby match means that all logic and form normally goes out of the window, but that’s normally down to the home crowd’s hostility.
The key will be Villa’s midfield and defence being able to defend as a solid unit. They conceded against Newcastle when the entire back line was dragged over to the left, leaving Ezri Konsa isolated and having to deal with two attackers on his own. The threat of the pacey Adama Traoré risks pulling the defence apart in exactly the same way, and Wolves will likely not waste any opportunity this presents.
At the back, Wolves fans talk about how much of an injustice it is that Mings has been capped whereas Coady has not, but the stats do not back them up. Mings is part of a defence that as a whole has not been inspiring. This means his failings are highlighted more often and he finds himself under significantly more pressure. Despite this, his 6.65 overall rating on WhoScored exceeds Coady’s 6.51, and his overall defensive contributions, particularly clearances and blocks (5.7 and 1.7 per game respectively) outclass Coady’s (2.1 and 0.7). Mings works harder, and actually copes better overall.
Coady is the apparent weak link in a strong defensive unit. He is notably bad at aerial duels which means he would be vulnerable against a strong target man like Davies, and an aerial specialist like Samatta. Both of them at once would spell a difficult evening for Coady.
Incidentally, looking up the top speeds recorded in the league this season, it would be reasonable to assume Traoré would be somewhere near the top. According to a table presented by TalkSport using data from Opta shortly before lockdown however, Traoré does not appear in the top ten.
Perhaps even stranger, at number nine clocking a top speed of 36.91km/h is Bjorn Engels. Who would have expected that?
Aston Villa 1-2 Wolves
The odds are against Villa here. Predicting anything other than a win for Wolves would be wishful thinking. However, that does not mean Villa doesn’t stand a chance. They know how valuable a win would be, and Wolves are far from invincible. A little tactical nuance from Smith might be all that is needed.
Villa will go into this as the underdog, that’s for sure. Certainly missing out on a home crowd, doesn’t help particularly in this match. The remaining fixture list is not favourable either – survival will require improvement and good fortune in equal doses. Bear in mind, however, that they are now only in the relegation spots on goal difference and are the only team in the bottom four to have earned any points at all since the restart. It is not over yet.