Wolves head coach Nuno Espirito Santo deserves much of the credit for navigating Wolves’ path to the Premier League, writes Adam Bate.
There are words emblazoned on the walls of the gym on the right as you go in. Weaved among the wolf heads are key messages. Protect the team. Be brave. Stay humble. The artwork at Wolves’ Compton Park training ground is by a friend of young defender Kortney Hause, but the man who commissioned it is the club’s manager, Nuno Espirito Santo.
There have been times during the course of a sensational season in which the word humble would not have been the one that the opposition would have opted for when thinking of Nuno. Certainly not those in the Bristol City directors’ box or on the touchline at Cardiff. The former Portuguese goalkeeper has brought passion and aggression to his role.
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But humble has nevertheless been the watchword at Wolves, a mantra repeated after every game. One game at a time. Keep improving. From other lips they would have been mere clichés but Nuno delivered them with steely purpose. His team started well with wins over pre-season favourites Middlesbrough, Derby County and Hull and never really stopped.
Wolves were a little further back in the betting because not many knew what to expect of the new man at Molineux. Nuno’s experience at Porto and Valencia was encouraging but his friendship with Jorge Mendes, an advisor to the club’s Chinese owners Fosun, appeared more significant. Previous appointments, most notably Walter Zenga, did not inspire faith.
Instead, it has been a record-breaking success. Wolves have picked up more points than any other club in the Football League this season. In fact, they have more points than the club has ever achieved in a single season in England’s top two divisions. They have the most goals in the Championship and the most clean sheets. The 100-point barrier will surely be broken.
There is no doubt that Nuno has been given the right tools with which to do the job. In Ruben Neves, the club-record £15.8m signing from Porto last summer, Wolves have a 21-year-old talent who would not look out of place within any team in the Premier League. At this level, he has stood out like the sorest of thumbs. An oasis in the Championship desert.
Amid the muck, it was Neves who delivered what the reporter on the local Wolverhampton newspaper has come to refer to as the “filth” with his raking passes. Amid the nettles, it was Neves who produced the stinging shots that goalkeepers could not stop – scoring six times from outside the penalty box, two more than anyone else in England’s top two divisions.
In his deep-lying role, Neves has controlled games and killed teams from the centre circle. Ahead of him, the array of talent has been too much for the rest. Diogo Jota’s right foot. Diogo Jota’s left foot. Ivan Cavaleiro and Helder Costa weaving wonders on the wing. At the back, Willy Boly, a Rolls-Royce of a defender, has seldom seemed in need of third gear.
Watch all of Ruben Neves' sensational strikes for Wolves this season
Of course, these are the players that the owners of Championship rivals had in mind when questioning how Wolves were able to afford such quality within the constraints of Financial Fair Play. The complaint that Wolves are not paying their players enough money is a slightly unusual one and the Football League have reiterated that no rules have been broken.
The debate over Mendes’ influence is not over. But it is the so-called super-agent’s very first client who has had the biggest impact at Molineux so far. Firstly, it is the buy-in that Nuno has managed to get from the star signings. Despite talk of being in the shop window for a quick sale, it has never felt that way for fans – the commitment shown has been total.
If there were doubts about how Wolves would fare in the winter months those were emphatically dispelled as they went unbeaten throughout November and December. When opponents allowed Wolves to play, they played. When teams tried to stifle them, they ground it out. Neves and Jota, in particular, took the knocks and kept getting up for more.
“It all comes from the manager and the standards that he sets daily,” former Wolves captain Keith Andrews told Sky Sports. “Just because money has been spent that doesn’t guarantee you success, it really doesn’t. He has really got the best from these players and it is not easy to get that amount of new players clicking with a new system.”
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Wolves 1-0 Middlesbrough
The significance of beating much-fancied Middlesbrough on the opening day should not be underestimated. Leo Bonatini’s winning goal set the tone for the season and gave belief to the Wolves players that Nuno’s methods would work in the Championship.
Wolves 2-0 Aston Villa
A dominant performance against their West Midlands rivals took Wolves to the top of the Championship in October thanks to second-half goals from Diogo Jota and Bonatini. The victory came in front of the biggest crowd seen at Molineux in 36 years.
Bristol City 1-2 Wolves
Wolves ended 2017 in style with a dramatic win over in-form Bristol City at Ashton Gate despite being a goal and a man down after an hour. Ryan Bennett’s last-gasp winner was the moment that many of the club’s supporters became convinced this was their year.
Middlesbrough 1-2 Wolves
Defeats in the previous two away games against Fulham and Villa had some wondering whether Wolves had problems against the strongest sides, but this win at Middlesbrough alleviated those fears. Nuno’s men won the match despite finishing it with nine men.
Cardiff 0-1 Wolves
Cardiff still entertained hopes of catching Wolves before this top-of-the-table clash but they all but ended in dramatic fashion on this Friday night. Ruben Neves gave the visitors the lead before Cardiff wasted two chances to equalise from the penalty spot in stoppage time.
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That is the second key point. Wolves’ success this season has been built on much more than these individuals. Boly has been brilliant but Wolves still picked up 19 points in the nine games without him – title-winning form. Nuno’s team have kept seven clean sheets in their 10 games without Neves in all competitions – one of them coming away to Manchester City.
Wolves picked up back-to-back wins over Burton and Middlesbrough when Jota was injured, the latter of those victories coming despite having to play the final 20 minutes with nine men. Neves was one of the two sent off. Matt Doherty was the other and it is his energy at wing-back that is emblematic of the improvements under Nuno all over the pitch.
Conor Coady has been transformed into a sweeper, his passing range and leadership skills making him many people’s pick for the club’s player of the year award as well as the PFA team of the year berth that he has already secured. John Ruddy made that team too, while Ryan Bennett, his fellow free transfer from Norwich, has arguably been even better.
Barry Douglas, a little known Scot plucked from Turkish football, has produced 14 assists from left wing-back with Wolves’ 3-4-3 formation central to their success. Nuno had his players schooled in the system from the start of pre-season and his taken them all the way to the Premier League by posing problems others cannot solve.
Watch Benik Afobe's goal in Wolves' 2-0 win over Birmingham at Molineux
“We changed formation about four times within the game because we just could not get close enough to them,” Derby boss Gary Rowett told Sky Sports after seeing his side comprehensively beaten 2-0 at Molineux on Wednesday. “When you open up against them they are exceptional. They just pick you off.
“They are the best team that has been in this division for a long time. Tactically, whenever you get dragged out of an area they try to exploit it. Both midfielders don’t play in the middle. They had nobody in the middle of the park so our two sitters were sitting on their own and protecting nothing so it causes you a problem.”
All of which serves to highlight that this was not merely a case of putting players out on the pitch and expecting the quality to tell. This was a tactical triumph. A team triumph. So when it was put to Nuno after that win over Derby that Neves and Jota were the ones taking Wolves to the next level, there was no surprise that his response included a familiar word.
“No, no,” he told Sky Sports. “They are helping a lot but it is all about the team, it is all about the squad. We have to stay humble. This is football. My interpretation of football is to stay humble, work hard and things will come.” Promotion has indeed come to Wolves and the Championship title will surely follow. As Nuno himself might say, the pack is back.
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