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Wolves’ goals problem might not be fixed by signing a new striker

Two major issues have been evident in the opening three weeks of Wolverhampton WanderersPremier League season.

Number one: they badly need a striker.

Number two: they do not score enough goals.

Few people with an interest in Wolves’ fortunes — fans, players, coaches or the Molineux hierarchy — would dispute either assertion.

What is much less clear is whether solving one problem would automatically cure the other.

For a section of Wolves supporters, the equation is clear: integrate a fully functioning No 9 into Bruno Lage’s stylish team and the goals will begin to flow.

For others, the lack of attacking potency in the first three games has a more complicated explanation.

Wolves are working hard on two fronts to solve problem number one.

They are locked in negotiations to try to sign a new central striker while simultaneously attempting to light a fire under Raul Jimenez’s form, which for the last year has only occasionally bubbled up beyond a gentle simmer.

Lage will want two viable options for the No 9 role if he is to oversee a successful campaign so, with only one new face expected in the position before next week’s transfer deadline, getting Jimenez back to something approaching his best will be just as important as completing a deal for the right new addition.

But the idea that revitalising Jimenez or recruiting someone else will be a silver bullet to cure all of Wolves’ goalscoring ills might be a little simplistic.

When it comes to efforts on goal, Wolves are not found wanting.

Their average of 14 shots per 90 minutes is the sixth highest in the Premier League across the first three rounds of games. Yet those shots resulted in defeats at Leeds and Tottenham, and a goalless home draw with Fulham.

The five clubs above them in the list are all members of the division’s “Big Six”. When ranked among “the rest” Lage’s side are the most prolific shooters.

But a shot and a chance are not necessarily the same thing.

In Wolves’ case, it requires a deeper analysis to assess whether they are creating enough good chances for Jimenez — or a new alternative — to convert.

Opta credit Wolves with just three “big chances” — defined by the statistics provider as a chance from which a player should “reasonably be expected to score” — which ranks them joint fourth lowest in the division.

Big Chances – Premier League 2022-23

It is the first clear evidence that, while Wolves’ shot volume is high, the quality of their chances is low.

And how about expected goals, the modern football statistic of which some fans remain sceptical but which the coaching fraternity has largely embraced as an accurate benchmark of teams’ creative prowess?

Again, Wolves find themselves in the Premier League’s bottom five with a non-penalty xG total of just 2.6 across their three games.

When compared with other clubs from outside the league’s established “Big Six” the differences are clear.

Leeds United, Brentford, Crystal Palace, Fulham and Brighton have all had fewer shots than Wolves in the opening three rounds of games, yet all five have managed more than Wolves’ single goal and, tellingly, have higher xG numbers, suggesting the difference is down to more than poor finishing.

Shot distance might help explain why Wolves’ high volume of attempts on goal has not translated into more success.

Lage’s side have the highest average shot distance in the division at 19.2m, clearly making it less likely that their efforts on goal will beat Premier League goalkeepers.

In simple terms, Wolves have not been progressing the ball close enough to goal before trying their luck.

A look at shot maps for Wolves and five of their rivals shows a clear difference. Wolves’ shot map from the opening three games reveals a higher volume of shots outside the box and fewer high-quality chances near the opponents’ goal compared to Leeds, Brentford, Palace, Fulham and Brighton.

Fulham have had two shots per game fewer than Wolves but more high-quality chances closer to goal.

The same has happened for Leeds, with three of their four goals coming from inside the six-yard box.

Brentford have had even fewer shots on average but found the net eight times, thanks to high-quality chances.

And the same applies, to a lesser degree, to Brighton.

Crystal Palace offer perhaps the clearest comparison.

So, despite having one of the classiest collections of midfield players in the league, Wolves are misfiring in the final third of the pitch and it is a trend that dates back further than the new campaign.

Wolves have found themselves in “xG deficit” for most of the last two seasons, with the gap between their xG for and xG against growing wider since the pattern was briefly reversed at the beginning of last season.

So while Lage’s side regularly find themselves in good forward positions, the data suggests that better decision-making is required to turn promising positions into clear chances.

Lage will hope that an effective No 9 will make a significant difference, not just to chance conversion but also to chance creation.

A striker linking play and making positive movements will, inevitably, make decisions easier for Pedro Neto, Daniel Podence, Goncalo Guedes and Adama Traore when it comes to which passes and crosses to make.

But while strikers are clearly needed, it seems fanciful to suggest they could solve Wolves’ problems alone.

(Top photo: Gonçalo Guedes; by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

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