Express & Star

Tim Spiers comment: Can Wolves surprise everyone yet again?

The first season was perfect, the second season surpassed everyone’s expectations – so where do Wolves and Nuno Espirito Santo go next?


There are plenty of reasons why we may be about to witness Wolves’ difficult third album, but equally there remains positivity and hope in abundance that Nuno’s boys can continue their remarkable upward trajectory, one that’s seen the club rise from the barren wasteland that is mid-table in the Championship to seventh in the Premier League and their first jaunt into Europe for 39 years.

The verdict on Wolves’ summer business will have to wait until after the August 8 deadline, with a slow market and inflated prices contributing to Jesus Callejo’s arrival from Real Madrid being the only new signing.

Wolves may have struggled to convince certain targets to join owing to a lack of guaranteed first-team football.

After all, there are few weaknesses in Nuno’s first choice XI.

Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota formed of one European football’s deadliest top-level partnerships in the second half of last season, Matt Doherty and Jonny Castro Otto proved more than capable in attack and defence down the flanks, Ruben Neves, Joao Moutinho and Leander Dendoncker complemented each other in midfield, offering steel and creativity, while behind them the back-line was the fifth best in the Premier League.

Ryan Bennett

Ryan Bennett’s place would appear to be at risk from Callejo’s arrival but if, as expected, Wolves reach the Europa League group stages, there’ll be at least 12 more fixtures before Christmas to contend with, on top of their domestic schedule.

Most managers would enlist a bigger squad to cope with the extra workload, but Nuno’s preference remains for a tight-knit group of trusted seniors who can recite his tactical instructions in their sleep.

Provided their remarkable injury record continues, it’s a philosophy that should continue to work, although fighting full throttle on two fronts in Europe and the Premier League may be a stretch.

Quality reinforcements are certainly needed in the next 10 days, with a striker to ease the burden on Jimenez being the top priority.

A midfielder with bite and/or pace would also be preferable.

Wolves could thrive on the continent. Their style of play appears well suited to European football and, while the Europa adventure is a novel notion for the club and its fans, it’s nothing new for Nuno and a big proportion of his players who have experience in the Europa League and the Champions League.

If they progress through the qualifiers, there could be some unforgettable Thursday nights ahead.

Morgan Gibbs-White (AMA)

As for the league, how do you solve a problem like breaking into the top six?

Chelsea, with an unproven new manager and a transfer ban, may be vulnerable, yet they can still call upon the likes of Tammy Abraham – a player Wolves courted for £20m a few months ago – to plug any gaps, while Manchester United, who finished nine points ahead of Nuno’s team despite a horrendous end to the campaign, have spent big.

Bridging that gap may be a step too far for now – and Wolves certainly need to overcome their woes against teams who sit deep and frustrate them – but Nuno is rightly confident there are improvements to come.

The likes of Neves (aged 22), Jota (22), Ruben Vinagre (20) and Morgan Gibbs-White (19) should all kick on given their undoubted talent, while Adama Traore and Leander Dendoncker will benefit from having had a full pre-season after signing late last summer.

If Jimenez can replicate his 2018/19 exploits, if Jota can pick up where he left off in May, Neves and Moutinho produce midfield sorcery and the defence remains organised and resolute, Wolves can once again aim for a top-10 finish. Combine that with a European run and it will have been another season of success.

The Boss

Nuno (AMA)

The fans whom Nuno Espirito Santo lives to serve have enjoyed the past two years perhaps more than any other period in their Wolves-supporting lives.

But the man himself, while not needing any excuse to celebrate passionately after goals or on the pitch at full-time, has a slightly different outlook on Wolves’ rapid rise to the top echelons of English football.

“Even my family says ‘You don’t enjoy it!’” he said recently.

“They say I should enjoy it more. They say ‘Even when you lose you shouldn’t be so down’. But how can you not be down?

“When the team doesn’t play good you go home and you say ‘Why? Why? Why? Why?’

“And you go around the ‘why’ and the ‘how’. How? It’s very hard to enjoy.”

Nuno has sacrificed personal enjoyment for diligent professionalism in the search for continued Wolves success – and his considerable task now is to build on what has been a quite remarkable two years in the long and illustrious history of this club.

While supporters are enjoying the ride, Fosun will demand more. The top six may represent an impenetrable glass ceiling in which to break, but Nuno’s task is to do just that.

The wily Portuguese boss has all the tools at his disposal but he’ll need patience too, particularly given Wolves’ extra European commitments in the coming months.

Nuno has delivered near perfection in his 24 months at Molineux and he doesn’t want to stop here.

To take that next step he’ll need all his tactical nous, especially in figuring out the conundrum of how to beat the league’s lesser sides, which was Wolves’ only apparent weakness in 2018/19.

Key Men

Raul Jimenez

Raul Jimenez (AMA)

The Mexican took the Premier League by storm last season with 13 goals.

His performances were so stellar that Wolves shelled out a club record £32million to get him on a permanent basis from Benfica, and fans are excited to see if he can replicate, or even better, what he did last term.

He is the ability to do so, no doubt, but will fatigue come into play?

Jimenez enters the season having barely had a summer break due to winning the Gold Cup with Mexico. But, on the other side of the coin, the 28-year-old’s confidence is sky-high after playing a pivotal role in leading his nation to glory.

You would back him to carry on shining.

Diogo Jota

Diogo Jota (AMA)

Jimenez’s strike partner Jota really hit his stride in the second half of last season.

The Portuguese has been the main beneficiary of Wolves’ shift from a 3-4-3 formation to 3-5-2.

Since the change, he has never looked back – and his first full campaign in the role could bring plenty of goals.

Jota is a creator as well as a scorer, but his ruthlessness in front of goal is what has defenders really fearing him now.

He only needs a yard of two space to come up with some magic.

Given the way he ended last term, he should have no trouble reaching double figures.

Ruben Neves

Ruben Neves (AMA)

Neves’ first season in the top flight was a good one.

But it is fair to say he did not shine as much as he was expected to.

He was often found playing too deep. But with the emergence of Leander Dendoncker, the 22-year-old had a bit more creative freedom and rediscovered his mojo towards the end of the term.

And as Dendoncker continues to improve, hopefully, Neves can have a greater influence in the final third.

He will be keen for his first Premier League goal from open play after his four strikes last season consisted of two free-kicks and two penalties.

Winning the Nations League with Portugal will have boosted his spirits.