Prior to the enforced break, Wolverhampton Wanderers had played over 50 matches in all competitions in 2019/20.
Despite Nuno Espirito Santo having a fairly small squad (compared to others), the Premier League outfit were going strong on numerous fronts. However, the three-month layoff provided Nuno and his men the chance to regroup and prepare for the season run-in.
As has been the case with the opening games since the resumption of football in England’s top division, it has taken teams a while to find their feet and adjust.
This was the case for one team on Saturday evening, but it wasn’t Wolves. West Ham, who are fighting to avoid the drop, were expected to make a quick start and look to get at the away side, but instead it was Nuno’s men who effortlessly controlled the early tempo of the game. Fizzing the ball around with real purpose, not only did each player look prepared for playing in these unique conditions, they also looked sharp and focused.
Despite their incisive passing, they struggled to really get in behind the Hammers backline and failed to create many clearcut goalscoring opportunities in the first half. While the likes of Ruben Neves, Joao Moutinho and Leander Dendoncker are all very talented footballers, they do not specialise in making forward runs, dragging defenders out wide and creating space.
As a result, West Ham were comfortable when sitting in their shape, with Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota struggling to really find any space to operate in.
Nuno needed to make a change to bring the best out of his star men.
The key? Width.
Jonny and Matt Doherty weren’t able to get forward and support attacks as much as Nuno would have liked and, as a result, he needed to bring on a player who could stretch the Hammers’ defence and bring the centre backs out of their fixed positions.
With his side still struggling to break down the hosts, Nuno opted to bring on both Pedro Neto and Adama Traore.
And these substitutions changed the direction of the game.
Most notably, Traore immediately drifted out as far on to the touchline as possible, using the full width of the pitch. As he received the ball on 72 minutes, he used his speed to quickly shift the ball and breeze past his opponent before standing up a perfect cross. Jimenez was waiting in the middle to powerfully head the ball home and give his side the lead.
It was another Traore-Jimenez combination that worked to perfection.
The Spaniard was at the heart of it again for the second goal, finding space and feeding Doherty, who then whipped the ball in for Neto to sensationally volley home.
Traore’s ability to know when to stay wide and when to come in-field to receive the ball underlines his understanding of the game, while his speed and power is like no other. His ability to shift the ball and glide past his opponent in the blink of an eye makes him simply impossible to stop in his tracks, and his decision-making once again highlights the fact that he really has taken his game to new heights.
In a game of fine margins and few chances, it was Traore who once again showed why he is so crucial to Nuno and this Wolves team. The winger’s performances in the remaining games will be key in his side’s push for European football.