It’s a well-known fact in the modern era of Premier League football; all top teams are built upon a solid defence.
Be it Arsenal’s famous five, Jose Mourinho’s initial Chelsea backline or Man United’s 2007/08 double-winning defence, the importance of solidarity and unity at the back end of the pitch cannot be overlooked. Taking one look at the expenditure of both Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp over the past 18 months can show just how much clubs are willing to pay to create this unity, though in the depths of the West Midlands, Nuno Espirito Santo has taken a different yet equally rewarding approach.
Since taking over at the club, the Portuguese manager has favoured a 3-4-3 formation. Matt Doherty has been an ever-present at right-back and centre-halves Willy Boly and Ryan Bennett have occupied the centrally defensive roles. Last season’s left-back Barry Douglas has been replaced this year by the versatile Jonny, who has been recalled to the Spain squad following his impact at Molineux. European Championship winner Rui Patricio has come in between the sticks, a significant step up in class from John Ruddy, but it is the transformation of one player from midfielder to centre-back that has had the biggest impact on this Wolves defence; Conor Coady.
Coady hasn’t had the easiest route to becoming an established Premier League footballer. Despite being an England and Liverpool youth captain all the way to U20 level, he struggled to make the breakthrough at Anfield during a time of turbulence at the club. Signed by Championship side Huddersfield Town in 2014 following a year-long loan at Sheffield United, the Scouser moved to Wolves just one season later and was an ever-present in the club’s midfield until the summer of 2016. Enter Nuno Espirito Santo.
The 3-4-3 formation favoured by the current Wolves manager requires a different sort of centre-back to play in the middle. The player must be good on the ball, able to cover both the left and right side and must possess the ability to read the game better than most. Upon arriving at Wolves, Santo gave this responsibility to the man who would also captain the club during their title-winning season; Coady.
As a former midfielder, his ability and composure on the ball has enabled Santo to employ his favoured possession-based style at the club, with the number 16 always looking for a pass before finding row Z. Coady’s importance to Wolves cannot be overlooked and it was no surprise to see him included in the Championship team of the season. It is surely just a matter of time before Gareth Southgate gives the 25-year-old an opportunity to get his first taste of the senior England setup.
The need to create a defensive unit that can be exactly that, a unit, has been key to Wolves’ current impressive defensive record. Against Crystal Palace on Saturday, Santo named an unchanged starting XI for the 8th consecutive game in a row; a Premier League record for the start of the season. Defensively, only wingbacks Matt Doherty (699) and Jonny (701) haven’t played all 720 minutes of Premier League football. Doherty, the club’s longest serving player, is enjoying a purple patch. With three contributions in his last four games, the Irishman is proving to be as good in attacking positions as he has been defensively.
As previously mentioned, only Jonny, currently on-loan from Atletico Madrid, did not feature for the club in the Championship last season. The current Wolves defence knows how to play alongside each other. With £15 million-man Ruben Neves sat in front, the unit has come through the Championship together and are now taking the Premier League by storm. After keeping another clean sheet away to Palace, the club have kept four clean sheets in their last five games. Jonny (21), Neves (18) and Boly (17) all feature in the top 20 in the division for tackles and Patricio has made an impressive 29 saves.
Despite spending just over £10 million on his favoured back five, Santo’s Wolves possess the fourth best defensive record in the League. Rui Patricio, a free signing from Sporting Lisbon, has kept four clean sheets and is only matched or bettered in that regard by three of the four most expensive goalkeepers in history; Ederson (5), Alisson (5) and Kepa (4). When you consider the Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City backlines cost in excess of £540 million, the work done by Santo so far this season must be applauded. In fact, his defensive record compared to other newly promoted sides in recent years could not be any more different.
After eight games, Wolves have only conceded six goals. You have to go back to the 2005/06 season to see the last time a newly promoted side (Wigan) had a better record at this stage (5 conceded). Currently, Wolves are conceding one goal every 120 minutes. If they were to continue this form over the course of the season, the club will concede less than 30 goals. Ok, that seems unlikely, however since 2010/11 season the only newly promoted sides to concede less than 50 goals were Newcastle last season (47) and Crystal Palace in 2013/14 (48).
The work done by Santo must be applauded. If Wolves can continue this solidity for the whole season, the club are well on course to put together the greatest defensive showing by any newly promoted side in Premier League history.