Love will be in the air at the Molineux Stadium on Friday night as fans welcome back their beloved, mould-breaking Wolverhampton Wanderers from the Premier League’s inaugural winter break.
Amid a season that has been bereft of quality from five of the established Big Six, Wolves and tomorrow’s opponents, Leicester, are two of the sides to have exceeded expectations.
Both are challenging for European places, with Brendan Rodgers’ team seemingly set for a return to the Champions League, given their 10-point lead on those chasing a top-four spot.
For Wolves, their position – just four points off fifth – is all the more impressive given they have been accommodating commitments in Europe this season; they are through to the Europa League knockout rounds, starting against Espanyol next Thursday.
A seventh-place finish last season, the club’s first back in the Premier League, saw Nuno Espirito Santo’s team enter the Europa League at the qualifying rounds.
So while the current campaign was beginning, Wolves were off to Armenia and Italy in between league games.
Battling on multiple fronts
The early indications were that Wolves, like so many unfamiliar with playing on the continent before them, had allowed European nights to stifle their domestic momentum.
There is an established history of sides unfamiliar with juggling Champions League or Europa League fixtures struggling to cope with the additional games.
In the last seven years, Burnley, Everton, Hull, Swansea, Wigan, and Southampton and West Ham twice, as well as Leicester’s title-winning team, have all struggled domestically while competing in Europe.
It looked set to be a similar fate for Wolves when they failed to win any of their opening six league matches, but they recovered and are now primed for an assault on both the Europa League and the upper echelons of the Premier League table.
So just how have Wolves pulled this off?
The investment in the team was evident even before they ended their six-year absence from the top flight and links to super-agent Jorge Mendes, an adviser to the club’s Chinese owners Fosun, are well established.
The influx of Portuguese talent and strong recruitment has been key to the club’s progress. Equally so, their ability to hold onto the likes of Raul Jimenez and Ruben Neves despite surpassing expectations. No doubt that resolve will be tested once again this summer, particularly given the form of Adama Traore.
Wolves tactical mastermind
As important as the personnel, however, has been the tactics implemented by Espirito Santo, whose rising stock was illustrated earlier this season when he was linked with the Arsenal job.
The Portuguese has been fairly steadfast in his approach, with a clear philosophy and system for his team.
Built on a solid foundation of three centre-backs and two wing-backs, the dynamic midfield duo of Neves and Joao Moutinho sit just in front, with the flair and goals coming from Jimenez, Diogo Jota and Traore up front.
Helpfully, the majority of these players have been with the team since their Championship days, including Neves, Jota, captain Conor Coady and fellow centre-back Willy Boly, as well as Ryan Bennett and Matt Doherty.
Wolves have the quality to play possession-based football but prefer to catch teams on the break and are rarely caught in transition themselves.
It has served them well against the bigger clubs. This season they have done the double over Manchester City and come closer than most teams to beating Liverpool.
Tweaking the system
Espirito Santo was forced into making some slight tweaks to the 5-3-2 formation he used last season following a sluggish start.
It involved some experimentation, bringing the previously benched Traore in at right wing-back, before moving the Spaniard forward and settling on a 3-4-3 system.
The flexibility of such a formation allows Wolves to get numbers forward when in possession but also sit back into a 5-4-1 if necessary by pushing the wingers back.
The shift has allowed Wolves to play with three up front and given extra support to Jimenez, if reducing numbers in central midfield. Leander Dendoncker is the player to have made way to accommodate the extra attacker.
It’s a move that has allowed Traore to flourish and develop a productive partnership with Jimenez.
The 24-year-old is statistically the best dribbler in the league this season with 5.5 per game, and has the joint third most assists with seven, despite being used sparingly early on.
His improvement leads to another point; Espirito Santo has managed to maximise the potential of the players at his disposal.
Not many could have foreseen Traore, who just 12 months ago appeared more likely to injure someone in the crowd than find the back of the net, making such a drastic improvement.
Similarly, he has turned midfielders Romain Saiss and Dendoncker into solid centre-backs, while Coady, Doherty and Diogo Jota, all of whom played in the Championship, have continued to improve and are now established Premier League players.
Tomorrow night they will take on Leicester. Next week – and perhaps next season, too – they will take on Europe.