week after Rayan Aït-Nouri illuminated his Wolves debut by scoring the opening goal in the 2-0 win over Crystal Palace, Nuno Espírito Santo is still being asked about his new 19-year-old wing-back. “Everyone focused on his goal but there are things he can improve,” the manager says. “The hardest thing in football – for a player or a team – is to establish yourself, to sustain a high level over and over again.”
Nuno knows. So does Brendan Rodgers. The continuous improvement at Wolves and Leicester in recent years is, along with Aston Villa’s revival, the main reason the Midlands is once again a powerhouse in English football.
The clubs’ duel on Sunday will not attract the same attention as Liverpool’s meeting with Manchester City but it probably has more relevance to the title race than, say, last week’s low-brow tête-à-tête between Manchester United and Arsenal. Wolves and Leicester have grown wiser and stronger thanks to more shrewd recruitment and coaching, despite the loss of key players.
Both clubs needed to evolve this season. They needed greater squad depth and a wider playing repertoire. Nuno has been trying to make his team “more dominant and more unpredictable” so they can control matches more often from the opposing half rather than by ceding ground and counterattacking.
Leicester went through a comparable, though not identical, process after the title triumph in 2016 and Rodgers has advanced it impressively.
While his tactical intelligence has gained plaudits, along with the slick interplay he fosters, the toughness of his team, the sheer pressure they exert, is sometimes overlooked. Last season they won more tackles than anyone else in the Premier League and this season the intensity of their play has risen despite the absence of Wilfred Ndidi and Ricardo Pereira, two of their most dynamic players.
“I said to our sports science people at the end of last season that we need to get better physically,” says Rodgers. “We needed to run harder and run quicker. We have succeeded in doing that for most of this season.”
The exception was against West Ham last month, when Leicester surprisingly lost 3-0 and, at times, seemed to be bullied. “There was a bit of complacency after the win at Manchester City, we just didn’t run as hard against West Ham, and even against Aston Villa [a 1-0 home defeat the following week],” says Rodgers, whose side soon regained their mojo and go into Sunday’s match on the back of five straight wins, albeit three of them coming in the Europa League.
Their most recent victory, a 4-0 against Braga on Thursday, featured some glorious one-touch moves and a couple of outstanding personal performances – from James Maddison’s irrepressible mischief-making to the insouciant Wesley Fofana, who is emerging as one of the Premier League signings of the season. But what pleased Rodgers most was his team’s physicality. “We lost a couple of games but we have responded with some fantastic football and a great mentality,” he says.
We’ve got a good balance between pressing and being a little deeper in our block
The intensity has to be sensibly applied. Leicester cannot attack from start to finish, especially in this condensed season and with Europa League fixtures on top of a domestic schedule. They showed at City, Arsenal and Leeds that they can absorb blows before striking in bursts, thanks to their nous and strategic introductions from the bench.
“We’ve got a good balance between pressing and being a little deeper in our block,” says Rodgers. “That’s partly because of the players that we are missing but also because of the lack of recovery time this season. You can’t press for the whole 90 minutes.”
Nuno is trying to nurture a similar balance. One of the quirks of this season is that Wolves, like Leicester, were chastened by West Ham, who thrashed them 4-0 in September. “That was an important moment in our season,” says Nuno, who claimed he did not need to “lose it” with his players after the match because they knew they had been too loose in the game: “We have been working together for four years, the players have developed a critical spirit.”
Adama Traoré has not started any of Wolves’ four matches since then, all won. Instead, a front trio of Daniel Podence, Raúl Jiménez and Pedro Neto have thrived, moving and linking in inventive ways while staying tight. The connection between Traoré and Jiménez was one of the most destructive in the Premier League last season but has not been needed as often this campaign because Wolves have developed more options, though Traoré remains an exceptional weapon to have.
Wolves and Leicester cancelled each other out last season, with both their meetings ending goalless. It would not be a surprise if they negated each other again on Sunday, even though they have even more strengths than before. Not many other teams will be able to subdue either of them this season.