A new head coach was installed three months ago. Now we know what he has to work with.
The attempts to strengthen the squad in the final days of the transfer window ended with last-minute failures but, judged over a summer, Wolves have a capable squad. Whether it will be enough to bring the expected progress is another issue entirely.
The three key areas supporters wanted strengthening were clear. A top central defender should have been a priority 12 months ago but another window has come and gone without that being genuinely addressed.
It is sad that Joao Moutinho’s best days are gone. The half a yard lost and occasional misplaced pass are evidence that the player who arrived at his peak back in 2018 will turn 35 next week. One of the greatest players ever to wear a Wolves shirt, Moutinho deserves to be protected rather than flogged in these latter days of his career. He has much still to offer but only if used properly.
The continued failure to effectively replace Diogo Jota is what may haunt Wolves. Goals are the current problem. A team can create as many chances as they want but only by genuinely working the goalkeeper will they score. The Diogo Jota/Raul Jimenez partnership always ensured that even if the goals were not coming, the opposition was being kept honest.
Much has been trumpeted about Wolves’ 57 shots in three Premier League games this season, but in none of those fixtures has the opposing keeper been busy. There have been a couple of big saves but no man-of-the-match heroics in the opposing goal. Jimenez is understandably a shadow of his pre-injured self, Adama Traore is not a finisher and Trincao is still adjusting to the Premier League. Pedro Neto’s continued absence is a huge blow. And nobody, bar the chairman perhaps, thinks Fabio Silva is the answer.
Wolves tried to address some of these issues and were prepared to invest more money. A deal was agreed with Renato Sanches – a Jorges Mendes client – and his club Lille, but when a medical report suggested a two-month delay before the player could even resume training no right-minded club would have proceeded.
The move for another Lille player, Sven Botman, broke down because Wolves’ substantial valuation was £5million short of the £30m the French club was seeking. Some would argue that £5m represents a relatively small amount to haggle over when the squad needed strengthening, but there will always be a cut-off point in negotiations.
Similarly, Cardiff City’s valuation of Kieffer Moore made no sense given his complete lack of pedigree at this level.
With Marseille target Boubacar Kamara it was different. He was a reluctant target and his agent, Bruno Satin, pulled the player out of talks with Wolves, having set his sights higher.
Circumstances conspired against Wolves, but there would be more sympathy had the recruitment attempts not resembled a mad trolley dash around the aisles with five minutes to go before the tills shut.
Last week Bruno Lage was talking about signing more ‘top players’, but any suggestion he is unhappy with the situation is misplaced. Fosun have given him an opportunity he would not have been offered elsewhere in the Premier League and he knows it.
Lage was brought here to work in a more collaborative manner than Nuno Espirito Santo. Crucially, the head coach has retained the services of both Ruben Neves and Adama Traore, which looked very unlikely at the start of this summer.
Accusations that the club is too influenced by Mendes, inadvertently failing to build relationships and offer enough of an ear elsewhere, will be inevitable after that window. The recruitment department will disagree, but there are enough agencies out there who think otherwise.
Jeff Shi has no problem with this. “When you have a good agent and a not-so-good agent, who will you pick?” he said, during the club’s Ask Wolves series back in May. “When you have already had some kind of experience for first-class seats, you will not go back to economic seats.” The ownership is comfortable with this strategy.
Fosun certainly do not stand accused of failing to invest during their time here. Wolves have had to work under Uefa’s FFP restrictions as a result of qualifying for the Europa League, meaning for the 2021/22 season the club must post an aggregate break-even result for the financial years ending 2019, 2020 and 2021. The club is yet to post its 2021 accounts, but that is immaterial as any spending this summer would have fallen outside of that period. When enquiring this week, Wolves answered clearly that FFP is not having an impact on current spending.
The club wants to become sustainable and progressive, generating its own income rather than taking the fortunes provided by Fosun in the early years. The team is still developing as a Premier League member. It could be argued that had it not been so successful in the first three seasons, fans may have been a bit more forgiving this summer.
Some frustration has undoubtedly emanated from ticket price rises and other commercial ventures, although the club is hamstrung by the size of the stadium.
Trying to increase revenues within such a prohibitive capacity is an unenviable task. The commercial operation has worked hard to raise funds, significantly, but it will always fall short when compared to stadia geared towards the modern-day match experience.
With no plans to redevelop the archaic Steve Bull Stand, Wolves will lag further behind the ‘Big Six’, and even clubs like Leicester City, who recently announced their own impressive stadium expansion. Going forward, the stadium issue is a major problem. The extra delay in reopening the temporary Graham Hughes Stand has added a slapstick element to the week; the final bad news domino to fall, leaving some supporters exasperated.
Fosun possibly find themselves hostage to their early ambitions. The bold pronouncements about wanting to win the Premier League have been reined in. But you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, so inevitably doubts have emerged.
Trust is at the heart of this. Shi spoke about patience during those Ask Wolves interviews, suggesting a 20-year plan represents a more realistic scale, rather than previous 10-year aims. “I’ve learnt time is our friend, so don’t push, don’t be too anxious,” he added. “Try to take the time, but make something very solid, very stable, and then the nice times will come.”
That series covered most aspects of the running of the club in more detail than any other Premier League club’s board would consider. Despite what some critics say, there has been no lying or deceit in the way the club has behaved since. There were no lavish spending promises or grand targets. Some of the more pragmatic answers did not go down well, as the club sought to outline its plans.
There was plenty of scepticism when Fosun first came to the club. Trust was built up spectacularly, right up until the pandemic derailed an incredible domestic and European season towards the business end of 2019/20. A series of recent setbacks – some out of the club’s hands and some its own fault – have eroded faith within some sections of the support.
What happens on the pitch between now and the end of the season will perhaps sharpen minds further, but that ambition to succeed remains even if a more circumspect outlook appears to be the order of the day. Fosun want Wolves to get back into Europe, distant though that target now appears.
The investment conglomerate has not lost interest, but they will realise soon enough if the summer strategy has been a success or not.