Interview: Nuno opens up on his winning Wolves philosophy
Even for a beard-stroking philosopher who needs little excuse to wax lyrical about tactics, Nuno Espirito Santo is on great form.
The Wolves chief is discussing his team’s “idea”, as he perpetually and endearingly dubs it, trying to explain to a gathering of journalists during an extensive and fascinating interview at Compton Park how a change from 3-4-3 to 3-5-2 last season inspired the team to finish seventh and reach the FA Cup semi-finals.
Different formation? Yes, but also the same “idea”. And that’s why it worked.
“It’s not about the shape though,” Nuno mused. “More than any tactical issue you have to have an idea.
“What is an idea? It is something you must see and understand. You can see our idea, correct? But you can’t feel it. It’s something you can see or observe. But us, we understand it and feel it. It’s totally different.
“We have a shape which is very hard to break, our shape is what maintains us as a team. We felt there were moments in the first games (of 2018/19) where we started to lose control of the game because our shape was bringing us too low in the pitch.
“We had 3-4-3 – three lines, correct? We just added an extra line with an extra body so we had three, Ruben (Neves) – so it’s another line – and two more lines.
“Having one more line gives you the capacity to go higher on the pitch and all the tactical aspects is to basically have one more line.
“Why is it hard to break? Because it’s organised, the players know the lines of the ball, they know each other. The levels of communication are more accurate. I did many things (in my career), I didn’t always play 3-4-3, 3-5-2. I play 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 many times but the idea never changes.
“I always look at the way I want to be in the game, even if I don’t have the ball I can be in control of the game, my defensive process has to be organised and strong enough to control the game. How do I do that? By creating trigger points on where I want to recover the ball.
“You have to have an idea, if you don’t have an idea and don’t feel it you could go around changing system all over again looking for what? One idea.”
Whereas some managers will change their formation and tactics depends on the opponent – including against Wolves on many occasions last year – Nuno thinks differently. "We go the other way,” he explained. “Let’s build an idea, something creates an identity that everyone knows – not only us. It’s like a puzzle.
“Okay, you’re going to play 4-4-2, that suits us, okay, you’re going to play 4-3-3 with more width, we have to adapt. We have a shape which is able to adapt. We are never going to achieve to build something to compete against everything, we are going to have problems but when the problems come let’s find a solution.”
So formations and tactics can change, but the basic principles of controlling the game with and without the ball remains the same.
Ever the theorist, Nuno illustrated the ideology in his own theological manner.
“It is like Coca Cola,” he began. “They never change the recipe. Diet, full sugar, no caffeine, maybe, but the recipe is always there.
“It is the most important thing, an identity. When things don’t go so well, what are you gonna grab to? Stick to it.”
Drilling that theory into his players via repetitive training sessions and consistent messages means that having less time on the training ground in the coming weeks, owing to more matches with Wolves playing in the Europa League, shouldn’t be a problem.
“Of course – that’s the only way to do it,” Nuno enthused. “If you are inside four competitions and you are still building and adjusting and testing and always going around these things, it will be very hard to compete in the way we want to compete.
“You already have to have something really strong, an identity. This is what I think is more important, the identity. Everybody knows how we play, everybody can see.
“The way the players believe in what you say and propose – it is always about that. You can have the brightest of ideas you can imagine, if you’re players don’t believe – pah.”
Wolves have endured frustration in the transfer market this summer, with no new additions yet moving to Molineux after the early-summer captures of two loanees from last season, Raul Jimenez and Leander Dendoncker at £32million and £12m respectively.
While it’s clear that new signings are needed, Nuno also points out that he expects his young and burgeoning squad to improve, especially given the way Wolves train with such a tight-knit group with every player getting plenty of attention from the coaching staff.
He didn’t name names, but Nuno will surely be thinking of the likes of Ruben Neves (aged 22), Diogo Jota (22), Morgan Gibbs-White (19) and Ruben Vinagre (20) among others.
When asked if his players will be better off for having completed a full year in the Premier League, Nuno replied: “I truly believe that.
“That is the way we are working now. We started this season trying to develop, trying to improve. We are not going back trying to repeat the same things we did last pre-season. It doesn’t make sense.
“After two years of working we are the same people, we know everything. We have to go and look for better solutions, trying to anticipate. I will not give you clues but football is going to change. The football you see now and are reflecting on this season, I will not say next season, but in two seasons time, is going to change.
“I will not tell you, but there are normal effects of when teams sit, they affect naturally the rest of football. If you consider that. I am already telling you too many things. This is what we are trying to anticipate.
“All the managers are quite clear on how they want their teams to play, and how to perform. What I am trying to build and improve is, I know, I suspect it is going to change.
“What creates me more problems? This situation, that is what we are working on now. And this way we will get better.
“Hopefully by improving the player individually, we are improving the team. So I expect, I will not say all, but 95 per cent of the squad will maintain the same standards and try to avoid champagne effect. You know what is champagne effect? You go up then you go down. This is what we must avoid.
“We know that especially the offensive players, who base their game on more than talent, they are like this (up and down). So this is what we will try to avoid. We want the players to keep their standards and do well.”
It’s clear that no stone is left unturned by Nuno and his extensive backroom team, who analyse, analyse and then analyse again every single aspect of their players’ performances in training and in matches.
Nutrition, fitness, health, nothing is left to chance.
And then on matchdays everyone knows their roles inside out.
“It is a lot like chess,” Nuno said. “I think all the managers, for sure, we have to anticipate. The best way, it is chess.
“I tried to put myself inside the other managers’ heads. It is a good exercise. If I played against Wolves, what would I do? It is a good, good exercise.”
Does he ever win? “Never”, a grinning Nuno answers.
Wolves have enjoyed two years of astronomical growth since Nuno stepped inside Molineux on June 1, 2017.
The head coach enjoys godlike status amongst an adoring fanbase, who trust him unequivocally. They sing his name, they wear t-shirts with his smiling face on, they daub graffiti of his image around the city. He has delivered everything they ever wanted from him – and far more besides. And this could just be the start.
“I came here on day one, just trying and I haven’t changed since then – just trying, trying, trying,” Nuno continued.
“Working and trying to improve – trying to find the best way to do it. It’s not only me.
“Look at the team. I remember the team from the beginning but in that moment I could not predict (the success) – I did not even think about it.
“It’s been a very good two years and we are very, very proud. We feel that we did something good but it doesn’t stop, it doesn’t stop.
“Look at these boys going home (pointing to players in the car park, they are going to sleep. He is tired after this morning for sure. But the moment he wakes up what he did in the morning doesn’t mean anything. Because he arrives here again at 4.30pm and I will demand more things from him.
“I care of course if he did good or bad in the morning – but he has to do it again in the afternoon. If he does bad in the afternoon he will go home disappointed and so when you reflect in one year’s time, I don’t live like that, I live day-by-day. Trying always to improve.
“Whenever I go around Wolverhampton I feel the appreciation of the people. This is the most important thing – not only for me – but for the players, for the staff. This is what we work for. We work to give joy to the fans. If the fans are not happy, what’s the point?”