Trevor Steven: Wolves have Nuno Espirito Santo and super-agent Jorge Mendes to thank for their successful return to the Premier League
Wolves are having a tremendous first season back in the Premier League. Currently eighth in the table and, with just 23 games gone, already nearing a points tally that should end any lingering worries about relegation; they have taken the momentum of their promotion campaign and maintained it in the top flight.
Their impressive manager Nuno Espirito Santo is the first of two obvious reasons for their success. The Portuguese former goalkeeper, 44, looked an experimental choice when he got the job in summer 2017 but he quickly showed that he could operate at a high level and he has carried that into the Premier League.
As a neutral, I like Nuno. He speaks well, has warmth, and I like the relationship he seems to have with his players. Running onto the pitch to celebrate Diogo Jota’s late winning goal in Saturday’s 4-3 victory over Leicester with them showed the bond that he has with his team, and that is worth something.
Tactically, he has stuck to a back three and likes to play two up front, which helps Wolves to get upfield when under pressure. They don’t score many goals – just 27, the lowest of any team in the top 12 – but they never get thrashed either. It’s testament to their defence that they have still taken 32 points.
Super-agent Jorge Mendes is the club’s other trump card. His close working relationship with Fosun, the Chinese conglomerate that owns Wolves, has helped attract players from top teams in his native Portugal and Spain. They are not used to losing and have brought a winning mentality with them to Molineux.
Ruben Neves has been the pick of the bunch. The young midfielder, who followed Nuno from Porto in a £16m deal, has taken to the Premier League like a duck to water, not only affecting games with his passing ability but also putting in the hard work that is required to keep a team like Wolves in the division.
Top 10 and an FA Cup run
With 32 points on the board already, they are two wins a couple of draws from the 40-point mark generally seen as ensuring safety from the drop. It’ll be interesting to see how they perform after hitting that target; teams who aren’t necessarily expected to stay up can often switch off once that has been achieved.
Wolves have a great chance to finish in the top 10. They are one place off seventh, which is often enough to qualify for the Europa League, although that can be a mixed bag. Burnley have found it a real slog this year to get anywhere near the consistency that earned them a place in Europe in the first instance.
Ninth or 10th would represent a brilliant season for Wolves, and something to build on next season. There’s no reason why they can’t have a good FA Cup campaign too. They have already taken a huge scalp in Liverpool, and a run deep into the competition could grow the standing of the club even further.
Looking further ahead, I can see them facing a fight to keep Nuno and Neves. I think Nuno would be happy with another season at Wolves, but it is hard to repeat success in the Premier League and it also depends what other opportunities are out there. Tottenham and even Chelsea could be in the market and he will be on shortlists for those type of jobs.
Holding on to Nuno is also the club’s best chance of retaining Neves. If the manager moves then I imagine his first request will be that his new club tries to recruit the playmaker.
Not everyone is comfortable with the apparent closeness between Mendes, who also looks after Jose Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo, and Wolves. Some argue that it isn’t good for the club in the long-term, that it isn’t a recipe for sustainable results. I think that’s a bit of an old-school view.
Sustainable models in football are rare. Almost all clubs have ups and downs. I don’t mind the set-up at Wolves; if it works, it works, and if it didn’t they’d change it. Fans want a good team, wins and enjoyment; they are getting all of that, so who can grumble?