Tactics: How did Wolves end Man United’s unbeaten run?

Choices, choices. In a weekend filled with exciting games across Europe, there is plenty of opportunities to analyse. Every game seemed to be an action-packed multiple goal thriller, and those that weren’t were intriguing tactically, such as the 3-4-2-1 versus 4-4-2 diamond in the Liverpool – Chelsea match or Luigi Delneri’s switches to beat Cagliari with Juventus. However, the game we’ll look at today is one that would have received much more attention on any other weekend: then-20th placed Wolves’ 2-1 win over the unbeaten league leaders Manchester United.


The major tactical points to note were the pressing and formation of Wolves. Lining up in a slightly lopsided 4-2-3-1 meant Wolves always had an extra man in those central areas which, combined with the pressing, made it difficult for Man United to build anything, instead opting for long balls that were easily cut out by Richard Stearman and Christophe Berra.

The main problem United had when trying to pass from the back was the positioning of Jamie O’Hara, who lingered around the deepest midfielder before stepping up to meet one of the centre-backs. Although both are decent with the ball, neither Nemanja Vidic or Jonny Evans have the ability to step out of defence like the injured Rio Ferdinand so, unable to pass it on to the midfield, that first ball out of defence suffered, cutting them off from the rest of the team and forcing them into hoofs.

A by-product of Wolves’ pressing is their apparent reputation for violent play, however physical football was rarely necessary on Saturday. Wolves’ players were rushing out to meet United’s then shepherding them into tighter gaps, having forced them into dribbling by hassling their teammates too.

Wayne Rooney was so cut off from the play that he was coming a lot deeper than Jamie O’Hara despite nominally being a forward, but rarely did so when it was appropriate, bursting forward when he probably should have provided a shorter option to help out the passing in the centre, with the whole team impressively moving up the pitch as a unit. Karl Henry, the poster boy for Wolves’ usual nasty nature, was arguably the best player on the pitch, pressing well and positioning himself well to hoover up anything played behind the rest of his midfield.

In the second half, Kevin Foley replaced O’Hara and, as a more defensive player, played deeper, creating a 4-3-3/4-5-1 that made it even more difficult for United to play through.


Initially, Wolves were winning the ball back around the half-way line and knocking it back for their goalkeeper to punt long towards the front four, but as the game went on and they grew in confidence they gradually became more impressive going forward.

The first change was the Wolves players coming deeper to get the ball, knocking it about between the defence and drawing United up the pitch, before rolling it back to Wayne Hennessey to hit long again, catching United off guard. Eventually this became too troublesome for United, who pressed less, opting to stay back rather than open up space for Wolves’ front four, which just let Wolves play a standard possession-based game.

The front four were all great and fairly fluid. O’Hara and Matt Jarvis were regularly interchanging their positions while Kevin Doyle was coming short. Michael Carrick was struggling to deal with this the most, having been dragged up the pitch by Nenad Milijas, he would then have to run back to meet O’Hara only to then pick up Jarvis and was mercifully replaced at half-time by Paul Scholes.

Having said this, neither of Wolves’ goals came from open play. The Midlands club appeared to have the same plan for almost every free-kick or corner: to hit it short. It is obviously difficult to change something that is practiced over and over again in the space of a match, but just pulling an extra man back would have done United the world of good defensively.

Man United poor

We can praise Wolves as much as we like, but ultimately the top-placed team should be beating the bottom-placed one regardless of how well the latter plays. It’s been mentioned a lot during United’s unbeaten run that they often haven’t been convincing, particularly away from home, nicknamed the “Crap Invincibles”, and it’s easy to say this result has been a long time coming.

The direct football wasn’t helping of course, but there were several things you would expect from a typical United team that weren’t happening at all.

The lack of organisation during set-pieces has already been mentioned, yet the main surprises were when United were attacking. Whenever someone in a white shirt picked the ball up out wide, one of the forward would pull into the channels while the winger and full-back would move into that same space, putting three players in close proximity. This isn’t necessarily a problem: it makes intricate passing moves to get past players easier and potentially opens up space in the centre, but United didn’t take advantage of either – rarely making the runs in the open space and, instead of passing between them, regularly knocking it back into that troublesome central midfield area.

Ryan Giggs and Nani are the only players that come out of this game looking any good, and the former was particularly underused; Giggs for the positions he was taking up – the amount of times he peeled off Ronald Zubar and cut across the penalty area unnoticed by both the Wolves’ defence and his teammates must of been both joyful and frustrating for United fans – and Nani for his sheer talent.

This could be the wake up call needed for United to step it up a gear this season, but it mostly highlights the problems that they have had all season that shouldn’t go ignored even if they win the league, which they most likely will. Perhaps that’s why it hasn’t had huge amounts of attention: it just not that big a shock.

Author Details

Joshua Askew

Owner of and writer for HoldingMidfield.com. Josh also sub-edits for FootballItaliano.co.uk and has contributed for various other websites.

19 thoughts on “Tactics: How did Wolves end Man United’s unbeaten run?

  1. A by-product of Wolves’ pressing is their deserved reputation for violent play

    What a stupid comment, take a look at the fair play league, talk about sour grapes

  2. “A by-product of Wolves’ pressing is their deserved reputation for violent play”

    “Karl Henry, the poster boy for Wolves’ usual nasty nature”

    Deserved/usual how so? I think you need to check the disciplinary table on the Premier League website before making wide sweeping remarks like that.

    Get off the bandwagon. That media “story” (read: witch hunt) died a death ages ago.

  3. “The Midlands club appeared to have the same plan for almost every free-kick or corner: to hit it short…..It is obviously difficult to change something that is practiced over and over again in the space of a match”

    I can’t be bothered to go over the “violent play” comment but the above is just a joke. Wolves scored two goals, one from a corner kick that was taken short and the other from a free kick hit deep into the box. So clearly it wasn’t that difficult to change.

  4. If Giggs was wearing a gold shirt, he would have been sent off for that hack OFF the ball at Doyle.
    No doubt Man U fans didn’t see it!!
    Not to mention Scholes desperate attempt to punch the ball into the net, the bloody cheat!!

  5. 1) I’m not a Man United fan so there’s no sour grapes.

    2) The fair play league is a joke because English referees are far too lenient.

    3) The free-kick comment was about Man United’s defending not Wolves attacking.

    4) Giggs should have been carded for his “challenge”, and Rooney should have been carded far sooner but neither have much to do with tactics.

    5) I did say they didn’t need to foul in this match.

    6) I think Wolves foul more than is acceptable, so I’m not apologising for the comments.

    1. “6) I think Wolves foul more than is acceptable, so I’m not apologising for the comments.”

      More than acceptable compared with who? How do you go about explaining Man City or Arsenal’s discipline this year and the other half in the Premier League thus far? Its the league that’s dirty if anything and not Wolves. You could start a diatribe about inconsistent refereeing but I’ve lost count of the number of times that Wolves have been on the side that didn’t get decisions that should have been given and wrongly punished for ones that have. I’m sure fans of other clubs would say similar about their team but I don’t watch them week in week out and so can’t make a judgement really (and I don’t think edited highlights ala MOTD can really be a basis to form such a strong opinion.)

      If it is in fact that Wolves have “changed” their violent tendencies for the better as this season has progressed…. (which I don’t really think they have) then they should be applauded rather than ridiculed as some club who don’t have enough talent to be in the Premier League so instead kick chunks out of players and set out to injure them as is inferred by your post.

      In any case, don’t apologise for your comments. Its your opinion. Its a blog. But if you have a problem with fans of clubs being “precious” (as your colleague Neil so succinctly put it) then don’t make sweeping remarks without having the facts to back them up. Or do you also write for the Daily Mail?

  6. We ran a story a few weeks ago praising Wolves and their football and there were complaints about that so I’m not sure it’s possible to win here.

    The obvious solution is not to bother posting articles about them at all but that would probably lead to cries of lack of coverage.

    Just another example of football fans being precious I guess.

    1. Oh come on. After a statement like that, who is being precious?

      Josh’s analysis was excellent, if a bit unfair about Wolves’ reputation. Particularly impressed with the part about Ned sitting deep and stretching poor Carrick.

      Everyone wants to have a go at Wolves because they always get in and defend high up the pitch. But Barca and Dortmund do it too and I don’t see anyone criticizing them for it.

      There is a little-used system in basketball, the full-court press, that looks very similar to this approach of defending from the front.

      Take Nolan Richardson’s famous “40 Minutes of Hell” for example, or the work of his protege Mike Anderson with UAB and now Missouri, and the success that Dr. Tom Davis enjoyed at Iowa.

      The court is 94 feet, so the standard defense extends to 30. Full-court press extends to 94 and forces ball-handlers to make decisions where they normally wouldn’t. It leads to easy baskets. Some of them are even stylish. But always demoralizing.

      It works. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

      1. I wasn’t being precious, merely pointing out a fact that anyone reading our comments section can see.

        Anyway, I agree with you on Wolves and their tactics. They did it very effectively when they beat my own Manchester City early in the season and it takes very high levels of fitness to sustain such a plan for 90 minutes. McCarthy is a good manager who is well aware of his squad’s limitations, and he deserves huge credit for the position Wolves find themselves in (the Premier League I mean, not the relegation zone).

        We see the pressing at Eastlands on a one man scale via Carlos Tevez and I love it.

  7. “Just another example of football fans being precious I guess.”


    Grow up you clown.

    Your collegue accused Wolves’ players of being violent, and was quite rightly criticised for what was an ill-informed attack that was always likely to offend. I’d also like to add that I think his follow up post was a laughable attempt to justify his words.

    You’ve made yourselves look like a right pair of idiots quite frankly, and I certainly won’t be visiting this website again.

    1. Telling me to grow up immediately followed by ‘you clown’ is delicious irony, good job.

      Thanks for your feedback anyway and hopefully you find a site better suited to your tastes.

  8. As always people are getting a little carried away, I for one enjoyed reading the article, it gives an insight into the side of the game we hadn’t considered given how deliriously happy we all were during and after the match.

    I echo the comments on Karl Henry, the poor lad has had a lot of criticism and bar the Wigan game it is completely unjustified.

    I would describe us as being hard working and combative I think nasty takes it too far, the last nasty Wolves player I remember was Kevin Muscat, now that was nasty!!

    Anyway a good read, ill keep my eye out for similar posts.

  9. I am not sure where this ‘backpage’ outfit is based or whether there is some kind of national collective media bias but the inaccurate and frankly scandalous (non) reporting of Midlands clubs in general and Wolves in particular does the game no favours at all.

    Violent Wolves? Unbelievable. Karl Henry did one stupid tackle at Wigan for which he was rightly castigated for. That aside Wolves are one of the fairset sides in the league. Witness Matt Jarvis’ lack of diving for one thing. Fabregas kick on Ward at Molineux was a straight red – virtually ignored by the media. As for ‘direct football’ a) what is wrong with that and b) Wolves scored the goal in the PL last season that occurred after most successive passes which was David Jones v Spurs at Molineux. A fact completely ignored by the national media.

    This stereotyped lazy reporting has to stop. Its got to the stage now where a pretty lame joke on Twitter about West Ham not fielding their strongest team for the rest of the season was changed to Wolves by the Guardian for fear of offending media darlings the happy Hammers. Remind me which city they are from again?


  10. oh and the disciplinary league may include’ lenient referees” interpretations but Wolves are 10th in it. Thank you.

  11. This was a poor analysis, I was at the game and can say that Wolves were not playing a 4-2-3-1 formation in the first half. They were playing a 4-5-1 in both halves.

    Just because players make certain runs, or find themselves in particular parts of the pitch because of their movement, doesn’t mean the inherent shape of the team is different.

    If you line up in a 4-5-1 doesn’t mean you will ALWAYS remain in the part of the pitch you were assigned to. For instance, you mentioned Giggs made inside runs…does that mean he was playing off the striker?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *