Wolves have been the surprise package this season, sitting eighth and just six points shy of fourth-placed West Ham with two games in hand – so what is driving their bid for Champions League qualification?
Their total of 34 points is eight more than at the same stage last season. In fact, their 10 wins from 22 games played represents their most wins at this stage of a top-division season for 51 years – since recording 10 wins in 1970/71 under Bill McGarry – and that Wolves side went on to finish fourth.
Wolves’ standout strength has been their watertight defence. Their 17 goals conceded is bettered only by Manchester City this season and no other side in the division has conceded fewer goals from open play than Wolves’ 10 to date.
At this stage last term, Wolves had conceded almost double the number of goals (31). Defensively, this is their joint-best season in the top tier ever. The last time they were this watertight was 83 years ago in 1938/39, when they went on to become Division One runners-up.
Only Manchester City have conceded fewer goals from set-pieces and Gabriel’s goal for Arsenal on Thursday night was the first goal Wolves have conceded from a corner in the Premier League this season.
Wolves’ forte has been preventing goals from being scored, outperforming their ‘expected goals against’ (xGa) coefficient more than any other Premier League side.
They currently have an xGa of 28.1, meaning, as a team, Bruno Lage’s side have prevented 11 extra goals from being scored. This is more than double the amount of next-best Chelsea, who have a differential of five.
This metric is related to the quality of chance the opposition has in front of goal, so while you could argue Wolves’ 11 goals prevented may be dependent on the opposition’s inability to score, credit must be given to Wolves’ defensive unit in stopping these shots from going in.
In addition, Wolves’ defensive actions of tackles, clearances and interceptions averages at 49.7 per game – only Leicester (50.2) have registered more in the Premier League this season.
Goalkeeper Jose Sa has arguably been one of the bargains of the season. The £6.8m buy from Olympiakos last summer has the best save percentage in the PL this season, saving 80.2 per cent of his shots faced.
He has conceded just 17 goals from 86 shots on target faced. By comparison, former Wolves stopper Rui Patricio had a 66 per cent save percentage last term. Factoring ‘keepers to start 10 or more Premier League games in a campaign, the last ‘keeper to finish a season with a save ratio of more than 80 per cent was David de Gea in 2017/18 with an 80.3 per cent save percentage.
Sa has prevented an extra 4.5 goals from being conceded – only Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsdale has stopped more Premier League goals from being scored this season (5.2). The Portuguese has also saved 51 shots from inside the box this term – only De Gea betters that statistic.
Another huge contributor to Wolves’ impressive defensive stats has been the consistent performances of their regular back three: Max Kilman, Conor Coady and Romain Saiss. All three had started every league game this season prior to Saiss’ call-up by Morocco for the recent Africa Cup of Nations. The trio cost Wolves a grand total of just £6m in the transfer market.
Lage’s side have certainly hit a purple patch in the Premier League, winning four of their last six games. They have conceded only five goals in their last 11 games, with just one goal conceded from open play in these last 11. Most impressively, they have achieved this feat despite playing all the current top-six sides. In the 11 games they have played against current top-half sides this season, they have conceded just six goals – the best record in the division.
Wolves’ Achilles heel this term has been scoring goals – only Norwich and Burnley have scored fewer than their 19 registered in the Premier League. The 1-0 defeat against Arsenal on Thursday was the 11th time in 22 games Wolves had failed to score in the league this season – only Norwich have failed to score in more.
However, when they do score, they make it count. Despite their low return of 19 goals, Lage’s side have managed to accrue 34 points, averaging 1.8 points per goal – the highest points-per-goal ratio of any Premier League side this campaign.
If Wolves can maintain defensive solidity and attacking efficiency, they could end up in Europe’s elite competition for the first time in 62 years – dating back to when they reached the European Cup quarter-finals under Stan Cullis in 1959/60.