Football Features

How Wolves have quietly climbed back into the ‘best of the rest’ driving seat

By CJ Smith

Published: 10:22, 28 November 2019

Last season’s ‘best of the rest’ and playing in European competition for the first time since the 1980/81 season, expectations surrounding Wolves couldn’t have been higher this summer.

But as is often the case, adapting to the rigours of European football was a slow process – Nuno Espirito Santo’s men failed to win in each of their first six Premier League games of the season and a September which started with defeats to Everton (2-3), Chelsea (2-5) and Braga (0-1) left the Midlands club seriously worrying what their campaign had in store.

But, as such, that loss to Braga turned out to be rock bottom, with Wolves losing just one of their 13 games across all competitions since, taking 16 points from a possible 21 in the Premier League and climbing all the way up to fifth in the table.

But with Sheffield United stealing the show, Mauricio Pochettino leaving Spurs and the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Everton all struggling, it feels like this Wolves revival has gone totally under the radar. So, just how did it happen?

Keep your head down

Chelsea, Everton and now Arsenal. There aren’t many “big” jobs left in the Premier League that Nuno hasn’t been linked with – and rightly so, according to Braga manager and compatriot Ricardo Sa Pinto.

“There is no doubt Nuno is one of the leading Portuguese managers today,” he said ahead of Braga’s second Europa League meeting with Wolves. “He has done an outstanding job. Firstly he took Wolves from the Championship to the Premier League.

“Now he has Wolves sitting fifth in the Premier League and playing in the Europa League. So it is fair enough if other teams are interested in his services.

“I have a great friend at Arsenal as Unai Emery has been my friend for a long time. If Nuno goes to Arsenal I would be sad – because it means Unai would have left. But what we all know is all coaches need positive results and great campaigns.”

To his credit, throughout the various links to other clubs, Nuno has kept his head down and focused on the job at hand.

“No comments, it doesn’t mean anything. Nothing, I am here speaking with you,” he said when linked with the Chelsea job last season, while he has also batted away links with Unai Emery’s position in an effort to remain respectful.

Locking down talent

Sure, at 33, Joao Moutinho isn’t going to be a part of Wolves’ long-term future, but right now he’s one of their most important players.

The Portugal international has completed more passes (541), created more chances (24) and made more tackles (44) than any other Wolves player in the Premier League so far this season and is rolling back the years in every sense of the term.

At his age, Moutinho would have little resale value, but losing him at the end of the season and having to quickly find someone to replace him would have been a disaster. He’s already shown there’s plenty left in the tank, so much so that he’s now tied down until 2022.

“It’s terrific news. In the time he’s been here, everyone has been able to see he’s a top player,” said Wolves’ sporting director Kevin Thelwell upon the announcement of the new deal.

“Top performances on the pitch, top professionalism off the pitch. He has an amazing mentality and has made a really big impression on everyone at the football club.”

Moutinho has won major silverware at club and international level and if Wolves are to continue down this path and fulfil their ambitions, his mentality and experience will be incredibly important.

Defensive solidity

With the likes of Moutinho and Ruben Neves pulling the strings and Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota linking up in attack, we all know just how dazzling Wolves can be as a footballing side. However, what was crippling them during the early stages of the season was their leaky defence.

Wolves kept just one clean sheet from their opening five Premier League games this season and conceded a total of 10 goals – including three against Everton and five against Chelsea. However, since then, they’ve reduced their goals conceded per game from two down to 0.75.

During that time, they’ve also increased their tackles, interceptions and blocks per game to 18.25, 11.88 and four respectively, up from 16.2, 10.8 and 3.8 respectively during the first five games of the season.

Nuno highlighted Wolves’ defensive resilience as one of the key factors in their recent 2-1 win away at Bournemouth and it’s quite obvious this is something that has been worked at on the training ground in recent months.

As the old saying goes, “Offence wins games but Defence wins championships”.