Since their promotion to the Premier League for the 2018/19 Wolverhampton Wanderers have established themselves a solid top-flight side. The highs of their journey so far include European qualification under Nuno Espirito Santo and an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, but have Wolves been on the most discreet of downward spirals?
When the club finally landed their man in Julen Lopetegui after months of trying, there was a real sense that his appointment and that of Unai Emery at Aston Villa were a watershed moment for the Premier League. Ordinary fans could point to two struggling teams with world-class managers and say look how far the Premier League had come since the relatively recent days of Alan Pardew and co.
But things never really took off the same way at Wolves as they did for their Midland rivals, they ended up finishing 13th, having flirted with the relegation battle for much of the season. Now question marks about Financial Fair Play (FFP), strange signings and a mass exodus have all got a sense of dread around the upcoming campaign for Wolves. Let’s have a look at a few reasons they could potentially struggle this season.
It seems bizarre that a man once heralded as one of the best managers in Europe could end up being perceived as part of the problem at a club like Wolves, but then again Lopetegui’s career has never followed a predictable path. From being sacked just before taking Spain to the 2018 World Cup to being fired the day after losing El Clasico 5-1 from the job which had cost him his role with the Spanish national team.
The issue doesn’t lie with Lopetegui’s management skills for Wolves, instead, it’s with the air of uncertainty he’s brought to the club towards the end of last season which has carried over through summer. The Spaniard has consistently cast doubt over his future in the Midlands, all in reference to the club’s issues with FFP which have seriously impacted the ambition of the club.
We saw just last season at Tottenham with Antonio Conte how quickly an unsettled manager can alter the mindset of a group of players. Although Lopetegui now appears to have committed for the 23/24 season, the prospect of his sudden exit still looms and may affect the mentality of the squad.
Wolves clearly had to sell some of their assets to overcome this binding financial fair play issue, but both the volume and quality of the players the club have let go means that you fear for them if adequate replacements are not brought in.
Captain and midfield maestro Ruben Neves joined the Saudi revolution, heading to Al-Hilal for 55 Million Euros. Not only was Neves absolutely key to the club on the pitch but he was also a massive leader off the pitch, particularly important in welcoming in the converter belt of Portuguese talent which has served Wolves so well since their return to the Prem. The Portuguese international will undoubtedly be a huge miss, in fact his departure from Wolves could prove as significant as Declan Rice’s from West Ham – he has been that crucial for them over the years.
The next leader you would look to would probably be Conor Coady but he’s also gone. Coady joins Championship Leicester permanently, having spent last season on loan at Everton. Although it was probably time for Coady to move, clearly not being part of Lopetegui’s plans and now looking less like the player he was in his prime years at the club, the departure of another leader as the team enter a turbulent time is a bold call.
Excellent centre back Nathan Collins has departed too, joining Brentford. Collins started last season very strongly, catching the attention of the neutral but ended the season by being fairly consistently benched. Perhaps in this instance, it’s good for Wolves to cash in on a defender who they don’t feel suits the style of play they’re trying to implement but it does mean that there are just 3 senior centre backs unless Collins is replaced before the start of the season.
Finally, club hero Raul Jimenez made the move to Fulham. Lopetegui didn’t get off to the best of starts with the forward and it seemed that their relationship never fully recovered with Jimenez effectively frozen out. The move means that either Wolves will be dipping into the market or the more likely scenario – that they now feel Fabio Silva is up to standard to lead the line in a top-five European League, something that will need to be proven.
The club is also fending off bids for the likes of Max Kilman from Napoli and Rayan Ait-Nouri from OGC Nice. It’s impossible to imagine them losing two more defenders before the start of the season and if even one of them was allowed to leave Lopetegui would surely again question his future.
The current squad just doesn’t feel up to scratch for guaranteed Premier League survival. It’s true that players like Matheus Nunes and Matheus Cunha definitely have the ability to kick on from their average performances last season, which will likely need to be the case if it’s true that Wolves don’t have money to invest in the squad.
One of the problems last season was some of the characterless performances that tend to be a hallmark of a team lacking in confidence. A bruising 6-0 defeat to a heavily rotated Brighton side springs to mind, along with a 4-2 home defeat to now-relegated Leeds and final-day thumping at the Emirates. The worry is that these performances took place when the squad had a more experienced squad than they do currently, considering Joao Moutinho and Adama Traore have also left the club.
This has been a bleak read so far for Wolves fans but it’s ultimately made up of predictions from patterns that have been seen before from sides that struggle, there is a chance that Wolves will become a more solid, tight-knit group this season. The return of Matt Doherty will massively boost morale around the camp if he can recapture the form from his first spell at the club.
There is also the possibility that Lopetegui continues to fully buy into the project and show the league why he is held in such high regard across Europe. There is no reason that he shouldn’t be able to elevate someone like Fabio Silva into a consistent striker who can lead the line for his team effectively week in, week out.
And just to add to the confusion, it seems that Wolves may still throw around a bit of cash before the start of the season. They have bid north of 20 million euros for Bristol City’s Alex Scott, which suggests that there is some money to play with, even though it may be very modest compared to their free-spending neighbours Villa.
By: Wilf MacDonnell / @WilfMacDonnell
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / DeFodi Images