Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: External factors are a real test for Wolves boss Nuno

“Fortunately the international breaks are over now, until March.”

Nuno Espirito Santo the head coach / manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers. (AMA)
Nuno Espirito Santo the head coach / manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers. (AMA)

The vast majority of supporters despair at them, but there are few who loathe the hiatus caused by international football more than Wolves head coach Nuno Espirito Santo.

For a man so wedded to the training ground, it is hugely dispiriting to see his players disappear over the hill for a week and-a-half or more. To stage international fixtures during a global pandemic is hugely irresponsible, as they become little more than super-spreader events.

The latest round of meaningless games cost Conor Coady his 84-game Premier League unbroken run while Romain Saiss contracted Covid-19. Pity the member of staff who had to break that news to the head coach.

International breaks have had a consequential impact on Nuno’s Wolves in the Premier League. In 2018/19 Wolves came back from two autumn breaks and lost badly at home to Watford and Huddersfield, precipitating a significant change in formation for the remainder of the season.

On Monday night, different circumstances forced another change of formation. At no stage during Nuno’s tenure has a back four ever been on the agenda but here, against Southampton, he named Nelson Semedo, Max Kilman, Willy Boly and Rayan Ait Nouri in defence. It freed up an extra midfielder, with the intention of stopping Southampton’s central pressing game. And to some degree it worked.

There was enough uncertainty in the opening stages to question the wisdom of a back four but by the end Wolves were well on top. Analysing one game in isolation can be a futile exercise but the smile on Nuno’s face at full-time – “Happy, and very proud of the boys”, he beamed – suggests he saw enough in the performance that could give Wolves more options as the season progresses.

A back four may not be preferred going forward, but it should not be written off. It may have been more instructive to see the more experienced Marcal selected on the left, instead of Rayan Ait Nouri, especially as gaps appeared down Wolves’ left late on that could have been more costly.

During games where untested strategies are employed the absentees are felt most of all. It seems a long time since Jonny was available and his dependability down the left continues to be missed.

Further forward, another omission has been felt recently, too, although Diogo Jota can no longer be selected. It is Raul Jimenez who has suffered most from Jota’s departure. Quite often their relationship appeared telepathic and, with Jota prospering at Liverpool, the Wolves talisman has struggled to recapture the form of, say, that wonderful victory at Spurs last season just before the first lockdown.

The most exhilarating passage of Monday’s draw came between the 70th and 85th minutes. Switching to 4-2-3-1, Wolves found a way of getting Jimenez, Pedro Neto, Daniel Podence and Adama Traore on the pitch together. It provided a tantalising glimpse of how potent Wolves can be on the front foot, with all three players behind Jimenez capable of interchanging positions freely. Nuno talks about the shape of the team rather than formations, and it was clear that the overall identity of the team was not lost in these moments.

It was during this 15-minute spell of attacking zest that another stark reminder of absentees came to mind. How the Molineux crowd would have loved to see Wolves on the front foot like this, roaring the players on from the stands. There is no question that the team suffers in the sterile atmosphere of lockdown life, particularly on these night matches.

This week’s announcement that Wolverhampton will be in tier three with no immediate prospect of a return of supporters has been met with dismay.

It is unthinkable that Wolves will have to play the entire campaign without their supporters, but with the tier system likely to remain in place until at least April it is difficult to imagine anything like a full capacity Molineux being reached this season.

If such an outcome materialises then the season becomes little more than a training exercise.

From the moment the first ball was kicked in the 2020/21 campaign there has been a sense that Wolves are a team in transition. Perhaps supporters can live with that if they are not there to see them play. After all, where is the joy of hitting new heights if the people who matter cannot witness the success?

In ideal times, Wolves will develop into a top six contender over the coming months and fans will have another European campaign to savour next season. But the world we occupy now is far removed from the norms we crave. There are far too many unknowns on and off the pitch to look too far ahead.

“The situation we are in now, with so many things in the air, it is so difficult to be clear and have plans,” said Nuno, after the Southampton match. Football is about dreams but is hard to be anything other than pragmatic amidst such uncertainty.

The Emirates Stadium will be off limits to fans tomorrow, but the coming weeks will see Wolves travel to face opposition in venues where home supporters are permitted through the turnstiles. That will not be pleasant for those still excluded at Molineux, while Wolves’ opponents can enjoy a form of home advantage once more.

Nuno has had to cope with many external factors out of his control as he tries to take the team forward this season, and this will present just one more hurdle to overcome.

Top Stories

More from the Express & Star

UK & International News