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Gary O'Neil exclusive interview: Wolves boss talks tactics, the role of the coach and how he has his team scoring again

Gary O'Neil on why he has had to be flexible about his Wolves vision and the challenge of getting the best from Hee-Chan Hwang and Matheus Cunha. Watch West Ham vs Wolves live on Sky Sports Premier League from 1pm on Sunday; kick-off 2pm

Gary O’Neil is just weighing up where to watch West Ham's game against Freiburg. He is leaning towards staying late in the office because of the analysis tool available. Are the hours always like this? He looks shocked. “Every day,” he tells Sky Sports.

Maybe it will not always be like this but O'Neil is a man in a hurry at Wolves. "The club is in transition," he says. "It still needs a lot of work to get it pointing in the direction we want. I love that work. I absolutely love it. But there is a lot to do at the moment."

Appointed just days before the start of the season following Julen Lopetegui's departure and with the club having to make an £80m profit in the summer, the circumstances were challenging. But Wolves are now closer to the top six than the relegation zone.

"You look at the noise that was around the place when I was coming in. Obviously, I was aware of the huge profit that the club had to make in the summer window. When you take a step back, we have got it to a really good spot. But we have to keep pushing."

O'Neil's attention to detail, something many became aware of during his appearance on Monday Night Football earlier this season, has been the key. His modern approach to coaching has seen a significant shift in emphasis at the club's training ground.

"When I played, nobody told me where to stand apart from at a corner or a goal kick. It was play centre-midfield and good luck. It is different now. Instead of letting the lads move where they want, you tell them which movements will help them best.

"There is so much analysis available now and with the level of intelligence of coaches like Pep Guardiola, Roberto De Zerbi, Mikel Arteta and Jurgen Klopp, they are all unbelievably good. They can watch a game and see the movements that will cause problems."

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This was the sort of detail that sporting director Matt Hobbs wanted for Wolves and why he was so impressed when O'Neil presented his vision during the interview process. Just as importantly, he has been adaptable enough to adjust personnel and formation since then.

"It has changed quite a bit from where I thought it would be. You sit in the interview room and you deliver your ideals and you tell them how it is going to work and then you arrive and you realise this player cannot actually do that but he is really good at this.

"It is constantly evolving. It is never just my way. We are always looking at ways to maximise what this group can do. Even this morning in training, I was seeing things and maybe I wanted it to look like this but that is not going to work so we need to tweak it."

Most of the surprises have been pleasant ones. So many players have improved. O'Neil takes satisfaction from the form of Mario Lemina. "Everyone I speak to says to me, 'How good is Mario? Mario is fantastic.'" But he is one of a number who have taken a step forward.

Hee-Chan Hwang, not even in the team at the start of the season but now rewarded with a new contract, is the standout performer with eight goals. Pedro Neto registered seven assists before picking up an injury in October. Matheus Cunha now has five goals.

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Toti Gomes came in for that win over Manchester City and has started every game since, winning his first Portugal cap last month. Wolves play West Ham on Sunday. In this fixture last season, Bruno Lage moved Ruben Neves to centre-back rather than start him.

"I did not know that," says O'Neil. "That surprises me. He has very good attributes. He had to wait his time but he is such a good pro. It is an incredible journey for him but I hope we have not hit the end of it because there is plenty of potential there for him to improve.

"I am just pleased for the individuals. Channy to be getting the goals and his new contract, Mario to be getting recognition for the work he does. So many getting praise from outside. That gives me satisfaction that I am able to help, even if it just a small percentage."

O'Neil is doing it his way but in a sense it has been a restoration at Wolves. There was a time not so long ago when Molineux sang of playing five at the back and having pace in attack. The club moved in a different direction for a period but both have returned.

The system is more fluid now. "Toti can play left-back as well." The left-footed Max Kilman plays on the right because it allows Wolves "to be flexible getting to a five easier if Max is on that side" as it helps keep the veteran Craig Dawson in the middle in either setup.

Pace in attack? Wolves now rank fifth in the Premier League for direct attacks, much higher than in the previous three seasons. It suits ball carriers such as Neto and Cunha. "We do a lot of work on it. That is our first thought when we win the ball back. Can we score?"

O'Neil adds: "We worked on it today, funnily enough, because I felt we had slipped away from it in recent games where we won it back and focused on keeping it straight away. It should not be that way. 'Can we score? No. OK. Let's keep the ball.' That is the order."

Wolves rank fifth in the Premier League for direct attacks this season
Image: Wolves rank fifth in the Premier League for direct attacks this season

Wolves needed a more dynamic approach. They were the lowest scorers in the Premier League last season. With much of the same players, O'Neil has turned that around. They have scored in every single game since the opening weekend of the season.

"I understand the questions I was asked around the goals. People were 100 per cent right to ask those questions because the group had not scored a lot of goals. We were looking at a group of players who had not registered the numbers at this level, really."

Hwang now has as many league goals this season as he managed in the previous three campaigns combined. Cunha has more in four games than in the whole of last season. Neto has more assists in 10 appearances under O'Neil than in his previous 60 matches.

The manager is cautious. "There are 22 games left and we need to score in them too. We need Channy to get another eight." His understanding of statistics is savvy enough to appreciate that Hwang's spectacular conversion rate is not sustainable for long.

"We have to get him into those positions more often," he explains. "If he is scoring one out of two chances at the moment and that is likely to drop to one in four in the future, then that means we need to be able to get him into those positions twice as often."

Movement and positioning. They have been the secrets to turning around this misfiring attack. Those prescribed patterns popularised by the Premier League's best coaches had been largely absent at Wolves. O'Neil has completely changed that thinking.

"When I arrived, I spoke to the players a lot about what they did before. It was always really random and they were free within a loose structure to do what they wanted. That is great. It can cause the opposition problems because you have freedom to move.

"The problem with it is that it is really difficult to know where the ball is going." O'Neil has drilled the players to know what to expect. "Channy knows now that when Max has the ball, Max is going to be looking for this and this so the ball might end up here," he explains.

"And if it ends up here, he need to be ready for this. It is a little more structured. Nowhere near as structured as where I want it to be eventually, but structured enough to give people the opportunity to understand where they need to be on the pitch.

"That has been big for Channy because a lot of his goals have come from situations that we have talked about. Because of how hard he works and how well he takes on detail, he has benefited from it." Hwang recently made a point of thanking the staff for their help.

There is still room for independent thinking. Cunha, for example, still roams, completing the second most dribbles in the Premier League this season. "You need the lads to find their own solutions sometimes. But it is important and it is how the game is going."

Matheus Cunha ranks second in the Premier League for completed dribbles this season
Image: Matheus Cunha ranks second in the Premier League for completed dribbles this season

O'Neil has needed his team to think on their feet at times. At Bournemouth, his team had been briefly caught out by Alex Scott's positioning in midfield. Against Nottingham Forest, the opposition went with five at the back when he had prepared for four.

Wolves found it tough to break Forest down and were pleased with a point in the end. They also beat Burnley prior to that but a feature of their season has been that the best displays have come against stronger sides. Against others, it has been more of a struggle.

"I understand from the outside it is, 'This is Burnley, we were cutting through Tottenham and Liverpool…' I understand that. But the others in the stadium have not watched Burnley's other games. Tottenham and Liverpool pressed us. I knew it would look different.

"We don't get to practise that as much because nobody does that to us, really. Seventy or 80 per cent of games are teams coming up against us and trying to get after Wolves. We have done unbelievably well in those games. How often do we face a low block?"

He was heartened that Wolves found a fine equaliser against Forest. "A lot of teams would have seen them break away in the 65th minute, made it two and it is a disaster." Indeed, the muted reaction to four points from two games highlights the rising expectations.

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A team that was tipped for relegation has shown glimpses of real potential under O'Neil that suggests room for further improvement. There will be limited funds available in the January transfer window due the financial restrictions but there are some glaring gaps to fill.

Neto, for example, is perhaps the only natural wide player within the squad. "The Nottingham Forest game was crying out for it. It is really hard to play through a back five so to only have one winger at the club and to have him injured made it hard."

There are other options. "Pablo (Sarabia) between the lines. Cunha coming deep and receiving. Channy a threat in behind. But in terms of people who want to be out wide, take people on and be direct, Pedro is the only one really comfortable. We are short in that area."

It is something O'Neil hopes to address in January. "The club will do its best to help and move things around and try to improve the depth in certain areas that we feel we are short in." But what is the longer-term vision? O'Neil has a three-year contract, after all.

He prefers to focus on the next game but it is something that he has thought about. There is optimism about what lies ahead for Wolves.

"This season was all about making some sort of progress and then hopefully in the summer and towards next season, especially with the summer transfer window and having a block of time with the lads in pre-season, that will be really beneficial to everyone.

"That is not me trying to buy time because I know I get 90 minutes every Saturday to earn the next week. I know that is how it works.

"But I am excited about where the club can go."

And with that, Gary O'Neil is back to work

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