Last summer Wolverhampton Wanderers changed course. In essence they set off in pursuit of Brighton and Hove Albion, and last night’s events in Sussex suggested they have made up ground at an impressive rate.
Think back to last April, when Julen Lopetegui’s Wolves capitulated to an embarrassing 6-0 defeat at the Amex Stadium. Last night there was no such mental weakness on display.
Think back only to August, when Gary O’Neil’s side has their defensive weaknesses exploited ruthlessly in a 4-1 loss at Molineux. There was no such tactical naivety this time around.
Brighton remain the model for Wolves to emulate, and they are not alone among non-big-six sides seeking to mirror the model that has brought success to the south coast. But on the evidence of their latest meeting with Roberto De Zerbi’s side, they have already eaten significantly into Brighton’s advantage.
Since the start of Matchday 15 on December 5, only Liverpool (17) have picked up more Premier League points than Wolves, who have collected 14 from seven games, including four wins and just one defeat.
And while off the field they have tried to follow many of the examples set by last night’s opponents, on it they have gone about things in a subtly different way.
Last night brought a further example of the extremes of De Zerbi’s approach — relentless risk-taking, non-negotiable playing from the back and total commitment to high-tempo, attacking football.
For his part, O’Neil has enjoyed an impressive start to his time at Molineux through a more flexible, nuanced approach.
The former Bournemouth boss arrived for his second crack at Premier League management with a firm idea of how he wanted his new side to play — high pressing, energetic, expansive football.
But his first clash with last night’s opponents in that 4-1 reverse in his first home game at the helm did more than any other game to shift his thinking and bring about the Wolves side who are now looking up the Premier League table rather than down.
“I did learn a lot about the group and I think maybe it was a little bit on me, that game, because it was the first home game in charge of a new club and against Brighton, maybe without knowing the group so well, it would have been a more sensible option to sit behind the ball and let Brighton dominate the ball and try to hit them on the counter attack.
“But then as a new manager of a big club, you want to show what you want to be and where you want to take the group and maybe I got caught a little bit in trying to be aggressive because that’s what I thought we would do this season.
“Since then we have still managed to find ways to be aggressive just from a slightly more controlled base.
“But when I’ve watched the game back we had some unbelievable chances. It was never a, never a 4-1 game.”
Expected goals — the statistical tool that estimates how many goals teams would be expected to score based on the quality of the chances created — supports O’Neil’s assessment of their August meeting with De Zerbi’s side.
Brighton won the game on xG but by the slimmest of margins, 2.2 versus 2.1, as Wolves paid for missed first-half chances.
Yet still, their high defensive line became so high early in the second half they were picked off three times in the 10 minutes after half time.
Last night Wolves edged the xG battle 1.4-1.3 but, thanks to a more measured gameplan with and without the ball, they gained a point for their efforts and, with some better decisions in front of goal, could have achieved even more.
And all the time, there were reminders that their off-field structure has shifted significantly towards the one used at Brighton — away from the reliance on super-agent Jorge Mendes to furnish them with players and towards lower-cost, wider-netted approach to recruitment.
Tommy Doyle, picked up from Manchester City in an innovative summer deal, was one of the stars of the evening with a clever, committed midfield display Craig Dawson, a man at the opposite end of his career, was towering again at the back.
Picking up players from a wider range of sources is working out well.
There remains much more ground to make up before Wolves can consider themselves Brighton’s equal and they are not the only club seeking to copy the Amex blueprint.
But they made their desire clear last summer and massive strides have already been made.
“In the summer it will be a good opportunity for us to sit down, take stock of how we’ve done and how we think we can improve things and what it looks like moving forward,” said O’Neil.
“Obviously the main driver of that will always be the financial situation and what we’re able to do in the markets.
“It’s important that you do have a real focus on the short term because if you mess that up, then the long term ends up being down to somebody else because the manager is normally long gone if you mess up the short term.
“But there is loads of good work going on with the academy.
“It is important not to get too carried away with this season because we’ve been done very, very well with injuries so far and we’ve managed to have a lot of our key players available for a lot of games.
“It doesn’t take much to set us back at this moment, numbers wise, So we’re delighted with where we are.
“Would I love us to finish in the European places this season? Of course. But as a longer term question, it’s definitely where the club are trying to get to.
“This season was going to be a bit of a transition away from how it was done before here and how we’re looking to move it to where it needs to be done now financially.
“Moving into next season, we have some incredibly talented players so keeping hold of them, firstly, is important, and then just trying to add to that and constantly build.”
(Top image: Jack Thomas – WWFC/Wolves via Getty Images)