Comment and Analysis @ghostgoal
Ruben Neves' positional change has helped turn Wolves' season around
Watch Wolves in action at Brighton on Super Sunday live from 4pm on Sky Sports Premier League; kick-off is at 4.30pm
Last Updated: 08/12/19 5:22pm
Wolves moved back up to fifth place in the Premier League table on Wednesday evening with a deserved 2-0 win over West Ham at Molineux. Joao Moutinho was involved in both goals and was the undoubted star of the show, but the significance of the positional change of his compatriot Ruben Neves should not be underestimated either.
Nuno Espirito Santo is often reluctant to speak about individuals so it was interesting that when asked specifically about Moutinho afterwards he chose to namecheck his midfield partner's role in the team's victory.
"One of the things I've mentioned to you before is about how we manage the game, the decision making and the timing and the tempo," said Nuno. "Ruben and Joao and the players that play in the middle have more time to decide it. They did a good job."
Neves' display was not as eye-catching as that of Moutinho. While the younger player's spectacular striking sometimes attracts greater attention nationally, regular watchers of Wolves can be in no doubt that the senior man is the standout performer.
But while Moutinho is the main man, it is Neves' change of role this season that has proven one of the key catalyst for a dramatic improvement in results since the early months of the campaign.
Six games in and Nuno's side were still looking for their first win and had needed last-gasp equalisers in two of the matches that they had managed to draw. Neves had been dropped from the team by that point and was still on the bench for the first win against Watford.
However, the moment when things really began to click again for Wolves came when Nuno opted to abandon his 3-5-2 formation and switch back to the 3-4-3 that had served the team so well in the Championship.
Ironically, Wolves' fortunes last season were turned around when Nuno made the opposite change in an attempt to become more solid. He had great success by pairing Diogo Jota with Raul Jimenez up front, but with Jota's form dipping, creativity had become a problem.
Crucially, moving back to a 3-4-3 formation allowed the Wolves boss to get the ever-reliable Matt Doherty and the vastly improved Adama Traore into the same starting line-up rather than see them sharing wing-back duties.
But the main beneficiary of the change has been Neves.
The 22-year-old Portugal international found himself being deployed in something akin to a quarter-back role when Wolves went with a three-man midfield. The idea was that by dropping deeper he would have more space to exploit his fine long-range passing.
In practice, however, Neves found himself duplicating the role of Conor Coady whose own ability to spread the play to the flanks is almost as impressive.
The situation reached its nadir in the home game against Southampton in October when only 40 per cent of his passes were being made in the opposition half. He was so deep that he found himself surplus to requirements and was withdrawn at half-time.
The statistics show that since then, Neves has moved 10 yards further up the pitch. It does not sound much but it has significantly altered his approach.
Back in the thick of the midfield action, he has been having more touches of the ball and when he does get hold of it, he is keeping things simple. His passing accuracy has jumped from 70 per cent to 84 per cent. Wolves have greater control again.
Against West Ham, 65 per cent of Neves' passes came in the visitors' half - the highest proportion in any game this season. He wasn't the one to set up the goals, but there was one delicious ball to Doherty that carved open the opposition defence.
Neves is in a position to hurt teams again.
The change has had a transformative effect on Wolves' overall creativity too. It is not just that they have not lost since then but they are having almost twice as many shots and creating almost twice as many chances. The points picked up per game has doubled.
Like any tactical change, it comes with pros and cons. Neves and the 33-year-old Moutinho are frequently being expected to compete against a trio of midfielders. That places considerable demands on a duo who have already racked up 50 appearances between them this season - not including their international commitments with Portugal.
- Get Sky Sports Premier League and another channel free
- Get a Sky Sports Day Pass for one-off payment of £9.99
But for now it is working and there are not many midfield partnerships in the Premier League that are as strong as this one.
It is a genuine partnership once again too. Moutinho passed to Neves more times than he passed to anyone else against West Ham - something that simply was not happening when his team-mate was so far behind him.
Manuel Pellegrini spoke afterwards of how the opening goal "allowed Wolves to manage the game" from that point on. In truth, it is Moutinho and Neves who are allowing that.
And they are doing it thanks to a change of system that has carried Wolves into the top six. Keep both fit and they might just be able to stay there.