Wolverhampton Wanderers proved a lot of critics wrong last season. Despite Nuno Espirito-Santo departing for Tottenham Hotspur, Wolves responded in style, challenging for European football for much of the campaign under Bruno Lage. With one win in their last eight games, though, there is room for improvement.
A combination of complacency, tired legs and a lack of ingenuity going forward saw Wolves miss out on European qualification and only better the previous year’s points tally (45) by six points. An improvement, but one that feels hard to take considering Wolves were comfortably on course to record their highest points total in the Premier League era (59).
The crux of Wolves’ team since their return to the topflight has been the midfield pivot of Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves. But with Moutinho now 35, and Neves heavily linked with a move away, the club are actively looking to replace the pair.
Sporting CP double act Matheus Nunes and Joao Palhinha have both been touted with a move to the Molineux over the past couple of months, and whilst they profile well, a move for either player could prove problematic.
The Brazilian-born Portuguese international is a strong dribbler who presses well and picks up dangerous positions in pockets of space. His stats are, however, erratic and suggest he’s a player who doesn’t quite know how to consistently influence the game in possession. He rarely shoots (0.18 per90) or passes in a progressive manor (2.83 progressive passes per90).
Nunes’ skill lies in taking players on and drawing fouls, a combative midfield option that Wolves have lacked since their promotion in 2018. Sporting are notoriously tough negotiators, though, and are reportedly holding out for close to Nunes’s £52 million release clause. Nearly £17 million more than current record signing Fabio Silva.
Palhinha, on the other hand, is a defensive workhorse whose ability to break up play would add more defensive steal to a Wolves side who tend to concede defence in behind their midfield. Palhinha is not a progressive option, though, and both him and Nunes would struggle to replace Moutinho and Neves’s creativity from deep. But perhaps that’s the point?
To influence the game higher up the pitch and hand creative responsibility over to Wolves’s wide men. In Daniel Podence and Pedro Neto, Wolves possess some of the brightest attacking talent outside of the top six, so it appears to make sense for Lage to try and build his side’s offensive game around them. But as Aston Villa have shown, this change towards a more incisive but precarious style of play is unsustainable for a side looking to push on and dominate.
Wolves aren’t as defensively frail as Villa, but the point still stands possession is key to sustained success – eight of the nine teams who finished above Wolves last season were among the top 10 teams for average possession per90.
Bruno Lage’s side face stiff competition for Palhinha from newly promoted Fulham, and with Nunes’s price tag a potential stumbling block, Wolves may end up looking elsewhere. That said, the profile of midfielder Wolves are looking to target appears to be set in stone.
Only the three relegated sides, Burnley, Watford, and Norwich, scored less goals than Wolves last season, and there seems to have been acceptance that whilst his return to the fold has been nothing short of miraculous, Raul Jimenez is not the player he used to be.
Despite this, his six league goals saw him finish as Wolves’s top scorer last season – a damning statistic that lays bare Wolves’ attacking problems. They need a new man to front their attack, but that doesn’t mean they should necessarily discard the options they already have at their disposal.
Hwang Hee-Chan has proved his worth over the course of the season with six goals and assists, but he’s not an out and out forward. Hee-Chan operates best in the left-hand channel, playing off a more physically robust but predatory strike partner. Jimenez of yesteryear would’ve provided the perfect foil to Hee-Chan, but alas.
Fabio Silva is still too raw to be entrusted with a starting berth, whilst he is also similar in stature to Hee-Chan. Ben Brereton Diaz has been linked. But, whilst the Blackburn Rovers forward hit 22 Championship goals last season, his overall goal scoring record (39 goals in 170 Championship games) suggest it would be a risk to assume he could consistently produce these numbers in the Premier League.
This is a pressing issue, especially with Neto’s recent injury record, but there is a distinct lack of attacking options on the market at the moment. Lage might have to address this problem at a later date.
Wolves are a team on the up, and a summer of smart recruitment could propel them into contention for the European places. Keeping hold of key defensive figures Jose Sa and Rayan Ait-Nouri will be important, but ultimately, it’s going forward where Wolves need to make major improvements. A big summer awaits Lage and co.
By: Sam Tabuteau / @TabuteauS
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Jack Thomas – WWFC / Wolves