Monday, October 3, 2022

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Lage must quickly find answers in attack as Wolves continue to miss

It was supposed to be a taunt. “Erling Haaland, he scored more than you,” Manchester City fans replied at Molineux on Saturday. It would have been crueler to point out that Aleksandar Mitrovic scored twice as many goals as Wolverhampton Wanderers, Ivan Toney, Rodrigo, Alexis Mac Allister and Wilfried Zaha all scored more. Or, indeed, to note that every top-flight team except West Ham have done so.

Some of the more damning stats may not fit easily into a chant. Kevin de Bruyne was Molineux’s co-top scorer in the Premier League last season. Since April 3, City have scored twice as many league goals at the historic home of Wolves as Wolves themselves. On Saturday, the replacement striker who started was Daniel Podence, whose 226 career league games have yielded just 29 goals. This equates to one in every 7.79, though his ratio for wolves, one in 8.25, is even worse.

What’s most worrying for Wolves isn’t that they failed to score against City on Saturday, especially as they played for an hour with 10 men.

It’s that they don’t score against anyone else either: they average less than a goal a game under Bruno Lage, just like they did in Nuno Espirito Santo’s last season. . They seem to have acquired a unique distinction as the most technically accomplished and non-scoring team in football.

It’s partly a tale of doom, the first part of chimerical recruitment, but the wolves’ lingering helplessness begins to feel like a riddle Lage can’t solve.

He arrived with a reputation as a manager whose Benfica was so attacking that he scored 103 league goals in a season, inherited a defensive squad and, for much of his first year, made it one of the most frugal teams in Europe. He exiled Conor Coady to change form, remove a centre-back and try to make Wolves more progressive.

Only a few parts of the plan work. Wolves had the third-fewest shots and second-lowest expected goals last season. They are now seventh in shots, but only two clubs have fewer shots on target. Their expected goals are fourth lowest, but still more than double their actual goal tally. Their random conversion rate, with only three hits out of 82, is 3.6%.

And if that’s any indication of how a disproportionate number (38) of their attempts come from long range – otherwise known as Ruben Neves territory – there’s too little of a clear cut chance. Which, as their seven opponents so far include four potential bottom-half finishers in Leeds, Fulham, Bournemouth and Southampton, doesn’t offer much encouragement.

A two-year malaise in front of goal shows how any successful scoring strategy revolved around Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota. The Portuguese is long gone. The Mexican was first sidelined by a fractured skull and has since become a shadow of his former self. Wolves never compensated.

There is a disconnect between Lage and the club in the transfer market. Forwards have become an afterthought: A late move on deadline day for injury-prone giant Sasa Kalajdzic bought a player who later suffered an injury on his debut.

The subsequent signing of Diego Costa means they have acquired a player who is out of form. They can note that Fabio Silva has seven goals on loan at Anderlecht. He was supposed to be part of Wolves’ succession planning but, for now, he’s their £35million flop.

But much of Wolves’ spending has gone to other parts of the squad. Resources may not have been distributed appropriately. In Nelson Semedo, they have a £37million second-choice right-back. This summer, some £65million has been committed to talented technicians Matheus Nunes and Goncalo Guedes. Nunes had been described as one of the best players in the world by Pep Guardiola months before his arrival; he may be designed to produce a profit, but the midfielder is an infrequent finisher.

He is not alone in this case. Wolves can accumulate forwards who simply don’t score: players as different as Podence and Adama Traore rarely find the net. Perhaps only Pedro Neto of their winger group seems capable of pulling a double figure. For all of Wolves’ classes in possession, Neto is their only player in the top 38 in shot-creating actions or top 40 in expected assists this season.

Much of their possession is elegant yet harmless.

But while that lack of creativity raises questions about whether outsourcing too much of their recruiting to Jorge Mendes has brought the power a team needs, rather than an assortment of gifted passers who can deliver all but the goal, others surround Lage himself.

A beaten dog expression can bet his frustration, but he hasn’t been able to make Wolves any more entertaining than they were under Nuno, trade toughness-based safety principles for more football exciting. He is always looking for a formula to find goals. He received support from fans in the stadium, less on social media, and while that is often the case, the fact is that he was in charge of 45 league games and in 35 of them the Wolves have scored no goals or one.

But this was supposed to be the season when his wolves were brighter and bolder. And instead, so far they have only outclassed one club in the Premier and Football leagues. In the unlikely event that they face Gillingham, Wolves could at least say they scored more than them.

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