olves deserve plenty of credit for the way they composed themselves at Arsenal on Sunday. Fifteen minutes into the game at the Emirates, their striker Raúl Jiménez was stretchered off and taken to hospital following a clash of heads with David Luiz. It emerged later that Jiménez had suffered a fractured skull. He quickly underwent surgery, which, thankfully, was successful.
The incident overshadowed the game, but play resumed after 10 minutes and the Wolves players recovered well to win 2-1 thanks to from Pedro Neto and Daniel Podence. Coming off a 1-0 defeat at Leicester and a 1-1 draw at home to Southampton, it was important for Wolves to pick up three points and keep their push for a top-four finish on track.
Jiménez says he hopes “to return to the pitch soon” but Wolves face a gruelling time without their star striker. When they visit Anfield on Sunday night, it will be the first time Jiménez has not been in the matchday squad since he arrived at the club from Benfica in 2018, a run of 86 games – which is some feat for the 29-year-old.
It has been a long time since Nuno Espírito Santo prepared for a big game without his star forward. Liverpool have been gutted by injury too – three of their four first-choice defenders are sidelined – but the absence of Jiménez is a huge dent to Nuno’s plans. Since joining the club before the 2018-19 season, Jiménez has scored 34 goals in the league – more than any other Wolves player. Over the same period, his current Wolves teammates have scored 41 league goals between them, which further highlights his importance.
Jiménez scored a third of the club’s goals in the league last season, but there is more to his game than putting the ball in the net. The Mexico international is adept at bringing his teammates into play, using his strength on the ball to hold off opponents and create goalscoring opportunities for others. He has set up 13 league goals for Wolves; only João Moutinho has more assists (14) since Jiménez joined the club and 12 of those have been from set-pieces, whereas all 13 of Jimenez’s have come from open play.
Wolves made do without Jiménez for most of the game against Arsenal on Sunday night, but Nuno needs to form a long-term solution. At the Emirates, their big-money summer signing, Fábio Silva, replaced Jiménez to lead the attack. The 18-year-old struggled and was withdrawn after 78 minutes, with Nuno deciding to bring on a centre-back and defend their 2-1 lead. Even though Silva did not have much of an impact, his support cast of Neto, Podence and Adama Traoré all excelled in Wolves’ newly adopted 4-2-3-1 setup.
Silva was Wolves’ record signing when he joined the club from Porto in the summer for £37m, but Nuno has done his best to ease the teenager into the team. He is yet to start a game for Wolves in the league. If Nuno wishes to continue with a 4-2-3-1 system, he is likely to pick Silva up front with Neto, Podence and Traoré in support.
However, he has a few other options. With Conor Coady fit again following a spell out due to Covid-19 protocols, the Wolves boss could revert to a three-man backline and select two of Traoré, Neto or Podence in attack. Wolves finished the game on Sunday in a 3-5-2 formation, with Neto and Traoré the two forwards after Podence had been replaced by Rúben Neves towards the end as Nuno sought to bulk out the midfield and frustrate Arsenal.
Fortunately for Nuno, Neto and Podence have begun to find some goalscoring form. In fact, the two Portuguese forwards have scored Wolves’ last four league goals (two apiece). They have often found opportunities by running beyond Jiménez and benefiting from his hold-up play and flick-ons. That should not be too much of an issue provided Nuno plays to their strengths. Both Neto and Podence are willing to carry the ball, take players on and get shots off. The main issue is the lack of aerial presence without Jiménez. The striker has won more aerial duels in the league this season (15) than Neto and Podence combined (nine). But, this is where Traoré – who has won 16 aerial duels – can help. Nuno has that additional option in attack if needs must.
A trip to Anfield is hardly the ideal time to experiment with a new system to cover the absence of your prized striker, but Nuno has been backed into a corner and needs to find an answer. Given their good goalscoring form of late, though, setting the team up with Neto and Podence in attack in a 3-5-2, with Traoré, Silva and Vitinha ready to come on off the bench, may be the way forward for Wolves.