Hat-trick hero Diego Jota is likely to take the vast majority of the headlines, and for sure he put in an impressive performance but the men at the heart of this display were midfielders Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves.
Everyone knows the value of passing at the top of world football. With the exception of Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid, every single elite side on the planet is wholly invested in playing passing football. Sure, some of them want faster, more direct passing than others. But since Pep Guardiola’s 2008 revolution the focus on passing and possession has been emphasised.
This has resulted in slight technicians like Luka Modric becoming world conquering forces at the heart of midfield. Even Sergio Busquets would have been considered too unathletic to play midfield a decade ago (football’s stylistic 10 year challenge) but is now arguably the finest midfielder there is. Toni Kroos can barely sprint 10 yards without getting tired or bored, and Manchester City dominate England by playing two slight no. 10’s (David and Bernardo Silva) in central midfield. All of this is possible because of passing.
It’s easy to look at the elite level of the game and conclude that passing belongs there, but lower down the totem pole it only brings problems. Look at Fulham, a delightful passing side that get cornholed by anyone and everyone they come across.
But Wolves today have shown once again that putting your faith in passing works, even for a smaller side. Nuno Espirito Santo started with Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho in midfield as he has done most of the season, but this time he put Leander Dendoncker in midfield with them to provide energy.
With Dendoncker creating a lot of dynamic movement and providing defensive cover, Moutinho and Neves were suddenly freed up to do their thing. As a result Wolves scored four goals for the first time this season, and their Portuguese pass masters were at the heart of all their goals (even though Leicester had more possession, Wolves had the precision).
No player has registered more assists for Wolves in the Premier League this season than João Moutinho (4).
At the double today. 🎯 pic.twitter.com/VWgdsOe9gn
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 19, 2019
For the first goal saw Moutinho out wide after a corner. He received a nice pass to give him half a yard of space with which to send in an absolute beauty of a cross. This thing was Beckham-esque and evaded every Leicester defender and headed to the back-post where Diogo Jota caught Danny Simpson out with a late run and tidy finish.
The second goal was more straightforward in that it was a corner. Moutinho stepped up and lifted a beautiful cross into the box, out of the reach of Kasper Schmeichel and perfectly weighted onto the head of Ryan Bennett for the Englishman to score his first Premier League goal for Wolves. 2-0 and Moutinho becomes the first Wolves player to notch two assists in one Premier League game for seven years!
Leicester started the second half like a house on fire, and their pressure pushed the Foxes forward and drew them level. Now Wolves needed to regain control of the game, and with a passing midfield there’s two ways this can happen: they slow it down and control the game via possession, or they create a goal with an incisive pass.
04′: ⚽ Diogo Jota
12′: ⚽ Ryan Bennett
47′: ⚽ Demarai Gray
51′: ⚽ Conor Coady (o.g.)
64′: ⚽ Diogo Jota
87′: ⚽ Wes Morgan
90′: ⚽ Diogo Jota
An absolute thriller at Molineux! pic.twitter.com/1Gt9ZPcufu
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) January 19, 2019
Wolves ended up doing the latter. A Leicester attack was rebuffed and with the Foxes fully committed to attack, Ruben Neves spotted Diogo Jota running 1v1 against Wes Morgan. He launched a stunning pass fully 40 yards into the sky, landing perfectly in Jota’s path. The Portuguese controlled the ball and thumped it home to give Wolves another lead.
But all the passers in the world can’t help you defend set-pieces, and Leicester exploited that fact to draw level 3-3 with just three minutes left of the 90 minutes. Wes Morgan’s one moment of redemption! But of course, Wolves’ Portuguese pass masters couldn’t leave it there.
It was deep into stoppage time when Ruben Neves picked the ball up in midfield. Leicester didn’t learn from the third goal and left the young midfielder in space. Neves took his time and once again carved the Foxes apart with ruthless excellence. His pass tore through about three players and left Raul Jiménez with the simple job of squaring for Diogo Jota to slide the ball home for his hat-trick!
Only two Portuguese players have scored hat-tricks in the Premier League:
🇵🇹 Cristiano Ronaldo
🇵🇹 Diogo Jota
Not bad company for Jota. pic.twitter.com/8ZhZGBA2HV
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 19, 2019
Jota’s hat-trick was understandably the main focus (he is the first Portuguese player to score a Premier League hat-trick since Cristiano Ronaldo) as everyone piled onto him. But it was Ruben Neves who created the goal, albeit he didn’t get the assist, just as he did Wolves’ third goal; just as Joao Moutinho did Wolves’ first two goals. Nuno Espirito Santo’s Portuguese passing powerhouses were the difference between defeat and victory for Wolves, proving that passing is versatile and can be as brilliantly effective at any level of football.