By Dean Gregory
Wolves vs Aston Villa
Last week saw Villa fall to a sickening late defeat to current league leaders Liverpool, but despite this, plenty of positives were taken from the performance. Hopefully, that positivity will put them in good stead for their next opponents, Wolves.
Wolves sit two points ahead of Villa in 12th on a run of three draws in a row. Villa come into this match on a run of two losses, but both of those came against the best the league has to offer.
Wolves though have only lost twice in the league this season, which is on par with Manchester City. The question is do Villa have the cutting edge in attack to threaten that statistic?
With the increased pressure of a perceived “derby”, who will return to winning ways?
Wolves – W W D D D
Aston Villa – D W W L L
Dean Smith on the importance of a win
“I think with a win we could leapfrog about six or seven clubs, such is the compactness of the table from sixth all the way down to 17th.
“It is a really tight league and I think we have been very competitive in each game we have played. We will continue to be that and hopefully give Wolves a challenge.
“It wasn’t nice, the first international period, which we went into on the back of a controversial defeat at Crystal Palace. The next one we entered having won 5-1 at Norwich.
“Hopefully, we can learn from the last one. I am sure it won’t be a 5-1 but hopefully we can get a win.”
Nuno Espírito Santo on congested Christmas fixture list
“It is absurd and ridiculous. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing against, it’s about us. The players have to compete and we will. But it’s tough, it’s dangerous. Forty-five hours – it’s impossible to play another game.
“People who decide this don’t have the consciousness of the physical impact for the players during a game. To play again 45 hours after playing … nobody is ready for that. Tell me one time when that has happened.
“Don’t tell me about Amazon and Sky. Someone tell me why Wolves are playing like this. Look and protect the players, these are protagonists. Broadcasters need players. People go to the stadiums to see players.
“I will ask for an explanation, but who am I? Nobody can understand it, I would like someone to explain to me why.”
Wolves typically line up in a 3-5-2 formation with Raúl Jiménez partnered up front with either Patrick Cutrone or Diogo Jota. Ruben Neves pulls the strings in midfield, while Jonny Otto and our old friend Adama Traoré provide the width. The midfield is packed out with strong and technical players to control the game.
When the situation requires it, Nuno has no problem switching his team around as evidenced in their last match against Arsenal. Wolves started with a 3-4-3 formation in that match, with the intention of responding to Arsenal’s more possessive game and hitting them on the counter with pace.
This tactic worked reasonably well – they maintained a pass success rate of 80% and had 24 shots, limiting Arsenal to only 10. However, only eight of those shots were on target, and most of them were speculative shots with an xG below 0.10. The overall xG of 1.51 from that many shots shows how they can end up taking any opportunity they see, regardless of its quality.
In their previous two matches against Newcastle and Southampton, in which they used their usual 3-5-2, they had 13 and 14 shots respectively, putting five of those on target in both games. Against Newcastle these resulted in a more respectable xG of 1.93, showing much higher quality chances.
Wolves like to attack at pace via the wings, and are notably dangerous on the counter. They will likely relish the opportunity to play against a Villa side that likes to push forward – Villa should be wary of leaving too much space behind.
However, Wolves’ overall pass success of 76.9% suggests Villa could see a number of chances to intercept the ball and retain possession, which would certainly play into their hands too.
One to watch
Portugese veteran João Moutinho was Wolves’ marquee signing upon their return to the Premier League, and he has been a solid midfield general for them ever since. His two assists, 1.7 key passes and 1.6 interceptions per game are relatively modest numbers, but it is his vast experience and calmness on the ball that he brings most to his team. Wolves’ midfield is much stronger with him in it.
Wolves 2-3 Aston Villa – 21st January 2012
A penalty from Darren Bent and a Robbie Keane brace snatched victory in the last Premier League game contested between these two sides.
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How it could play out
Against Liverpool, Villa showed they have the strength in depth to not completely fall to bits as a team in the absence of Grealish, something which was a glaring problem last season. With the news that Jack is 50-50 to be fit in time for Wolves, this is great to see. Villa no longer suffer from an over-reliance on a single player, which underlines the real success of the hectic summer window.
Wolves have an injury concern of their own in the form of defender Willy Boly, who has statistically been their best player so far this season. One of their notable strengths is their aerial dominance, and with 4.9 duels won per game, Boly was a massive part of this. Without him, Wolves are undoubtedly weaker as a whole.
One thing of note is that in all three of their last 1-1 draws, the opposition scored first and Wolves came from behind to snatch a point. This is in stark contrast to Villa, who often go ahead in the first half only to get worn down in the second.
In order to win this, Villa will have to learn from their mistakes; smarter substitutions and higher levels of concentration should help prevent the usual second half drop.
There are some that see this game as a major local derby. If that mindset is held by the players on the pitch, then the typical derby mentality may kick in; in these kinds of match, the status quo tends to go out of the window. Perhaps Villa will keep the intensity up until the final whistle? Of course, the flip-side would be no slow start for Wolves this time.
In terms of confidence coming into this match, Villa could be boosted by the League Cup victory over Wolves that came between the Man City and Liverpool games. Granted, both sides fielded reserve teams, but the overall superior quality of Villa’s second string was evident throughout. The first team will go into this with the belief that the same applies to them, too.
Villa will have to bounce back from a disheartening loss last time out, but the quality of their opposition this week is much lower than Liverpool. They held their own with a defensive masterclass up until the 87th minute, so there is little doubt they have to capability to do it again if necessary. Their attacking prowess will have many more opportunities to shine this time too, and with 13.3 shots per game so far in the league, they will craft their share of chances.
This will be a match between two teams, arguably rivals, with playing styles that actively work against each other. One thing is for sure – it will be interesting.
Wolves 1-2 Aston Villa
Confidence is rife throughout Villa at the moment. After two encouraging performances against the best the league has to offer, they will relish the chance to face an opponent closer to their level. Wolves will not make it easy for them, however.
Considering Wolves have drawn seven of their 11 games so far this season, a Villa win would be against the odds. Villa have shown enough defensive resilience to add to Wolves’ draw tally, but I’m going for a surprise draw.