Matt Maher: Why the two most crucial signings were already there for Wolves and Aston Villa
The transfer deadline might still be more than a fortnight away, yet there can be little disputing Villa and Wolves have already struck their most important deals of the window.
In the space of 48 hours earlier this week, both clubs secured the futures of men central to their long-term ambitions.
Nuno Espirito Santo and Jack Grealish signing new contracts answered the two biggest questions which had hovered over West Midlands football since the end of last season.
In that respect, it was also great news for a region which for some time now has failed to punch its sporting weight and existed in the shadow of London and the north west.
The narrative has become predictable and tiresome. The moment any manager or player shows any sign of being better than the average, they become touted for a move away. Nuno was linked with Arsenal after Unai Emery’s departure last November, while there has been talk of Grealish leaving Villa ever since he first broke on to the scene more than five years ago.
Perhaps now, after the events of this week, things might be about to change.
The circumstances of both deals were different and obviously Nuno, as a head coach, has the ability to influence events at Molineux more than Grealish the player can at Villa Park. There is plenty of common ground, however, in terms of what each man means to his respective club.
Villa chief executive Christian Purslow has previously described Grealish as the ‘heart and soul’ of the club, words Wolves chairman Jeff Shi came close to echoing on Sunday when calling Nuno the club’s ‘special one’ as his new contract was announced.
In that regard, the biggest impact of both deals will be felt in the dressing room. Comfortably the biggest factor in Wolves’ transformation from Championship also-rans to Champions League place challengers, Nuno has also been the glue holding everything together since first walking through the doors of Compton Park three years ago.
Seeing him commit his future to Wolves means key players including Ruben Neves, Raul Jimenez and Willy Boly are more likely to do the same.
By the same token, Grealish’s new deal will help persuade others whose careers are on an upward trajectory – John McGinn, Tyrone Mings and Douglas Luiz to name just three – that Villa is the place to be. It will also help the club’s recruitment efforts.
“Jack is a big pull for any player,” admitted boss Dean Smith, who revealed Ollie Watkins and Matty Cash, Villa’s first two signings of the current window, had both enquired about Grealish’s future before putting pen to paper.
It was a future which was uncertain at best right up until last Saturday morning, when a FaceTime conversation with one of the club’s two billionaire owners, Nassef Sawiris, convinced Grealish to commit once more to Villa.
Nuno’s future had, admittedly, begun to look a little clearer from the moment Wolves broke their transfer record with the £35million capture of Fabio Silva from Porto earlier this month.
Prior to that, however, the head coach had, like Grealish, sought assurances over his club’s ambitions, after a season when Wolves came close but didn’t quite manage to crack the Premier League top six.
Just like Sawiris with Grealish, Wolves’ owners Fosun showed a statement of intent by convincing Nuno to stay in post.
The caveat, for both clubs, is they must now deliver on that promise. Wolves are obviously much closer to breaking into the Premier League’s elite, though in some respects that makes the chance of progress, particularly during the current campaign, that much harder.
Fun as last season undoubtedly was, a second successive seventh-placed finish left an impression the existing squad had travelled about as far as it could.
Those inside the club clearly felt the same, judging by a window which has already seen one surprise departure in the shape of Matt Doherty, together with the arrival of Silva, Fernando Marcal and Vitinha. The sense Wolves needed to further evolve as a team was, meanwhile, further demonstrated by the increased attacking intent shown in Monday’s 2-0 win at Sheffield United.
Reading too much into opening-day performances can be dangerous but there is no question the display at Bramall Lane was encouraging.
Villa do not begin their top-flight campaign until next Monday when they host the Blades in their first Premier League fixture since relegation was avoided on a nerve-shredding afternoon at West Ham back in July.
Had Villa dropped back down to the Championship there would have been no hope of keeping Grealish. Survival, coupled with a depressed transfer market due to the coronavirus pandemic, were huge factors in his decision to stay.
Yet it was the words of Sawiris, together with those of Smith and Purslow, which held the greatest sway.
Clearly, Villa cannot afford another 17th-placed finish after that, though there is growing optimism they can push further up the table this term following the deals for Watkins, Cash and in particular their ambitious move for Arsenal goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez. Neither is Lyon winger Bertrand Traore likely to be the last arrival before the window shuts next month.
For Villa, the jump from relegation battle to mid-table security might prove easier than the one Wolves are attempting, though the long-term goals of both clubs lie in the top four.
Ultimately, only time will reveal the significance of the past few days. For now, it is merely proof Wolves and Villa are serious in their aims.