Wolverhampton’s match against Sheffield Wednesday last week was emblematic of their season so far in many ways. A victory, combined with a key contribution from a Portuguese player, this time Rúben Neves scoring the solitary goal.
Since his arrival at the club in May, Wolves manager Nuno Espírito Santo has leaned heavily on the Portuguese internationals, as well as Willy Boly and Léo Bonatini, whom once plied their trade in the Primeira Liga. In a short time, Espírito Santo has built a winning side, one that has the West Midlands club sitting on top of the English Championship at Christmas.
What have been the key factors to this success story? PortuGOAL takes a closer look at the ongoing Portuguese experiment at Wolverhampton, with help from Thomas Baugh of Wolves Blog.
Hitting the ground running
When Espírito Santo was appointed manager at the English club, fresh off the heels of being let go at FC Porto, he immediately set out to reshape the squad, which despite some heavy investment in recent seasons finished in 15th place the previous season.
He did not look too far for new players, relying on his knowledge of the Portuguese game, signing compatriots Diogo Jota and Rúben Neves from his former club, in addition to French defender Willy Boly. All of which have been excellent. The coach is famously the first ever client of Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes, back in his playing days as a goalkeeper, and their ongoing close relationship has facilitated the player acquisition process.
Jota is the only outfield player on the squad that has started all 22 matches so far. He has notched an impressive nine goals and four assists. And he was named Player of the Month in the English Championship for September. Neves has also been a huge hit, providing a rare guile in midfield that Portugal and Porto supporters are well aware of.
Espírito Santo also added former Benfica and Rio Ave defender Roderick Miranda to shore up the backline. But, perhaps his best deal involves former Estoril striker Léo Bonatini, who arrived on loan from Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia. He leads the club in goals with 12. And less documented is the signing of 18-year-old left-back Rúben Vinagre, on a year-long loan from AS Monaco.
The influx of ex-Primeira Liga players added to the presence of Hélder Costa and Ivan Cavaleiro, both former Benfica academy graduates that were already at the club.
Espírito Santo’s arrival seems to have really sparked Cavaleiro. Once touted for big things, the winger has sporadically impressed at a series of clubs on loan, but had seen his career stalled by injuries in recent years. But, he has been outstanding this season, culminating in him being named Player of the Month for November.
Wolves set the pace early on, winning their first four leagues matches. They went alone on top at the end of October, after a 2-0 win against Norwich City, with goals from Boly and Bonatini. They also held a star-studded Manchester City to a 0-0 draw in a League Cup match over the 90 minutes and extra-time, before losing in a penalty shootout.
While previous Portuguese experiments abroad at different clubs have produced middling results, stuttering from the beginning or falling apart over time, it does look like this Wolves project has the potential to succeed.
To find out more, we asked Wolves Blog Editor-in-Chief Thomas Baugh for his thoughts.
Wolves are currently top of the table in the English Championship and they seem poised to return to top flight for the first time since being relegated in 2012. What have been the key factors behind the club’s success so far this season?
The appointment of Nuno was the critical move. Even before the club had brought in the likes of Rúben Neves, Willy Boly and Diogo Jota, he’d set about adapting the playing style and shaping the team. There was an immediate switch to a 3-4-3 formation with Conor Coady moved from midfield to defence and he’s been one of the outstanding performers. Nuno quickly recognised the other players that were good enough to stay (Romain Saiss, Matt Doherty and Bright Enobakhare being three) and just as importantly, those who were not. Once the squad was trimmed and the talent from Portugal arrived, everything just clicked together. He’s also been able to pick a consistent eleven so far, with only a few occasional changes and that stability has been important.
PortuGOAL readers are very familiar with Nuno Espírito Santo, widely known as just Nuno in Portugal. Has he brought a new approach to the club? Has he brought anything new in terms of tactics? How is he different than Paul Lambert?
Nuno couldn’t be more different to Paul Lambert tactically. Last season Wolves were happy to sit deep and launch fast, direct counterattacks. That approach worked well against better sides (we beat Stoke and Liverpool in the FA Cup and ran Chelsea close) but the team too often fell short against lesser opposition and there was a sense we were wasting talent like Hélder Costa and Ivan Cavaleiro. Nuno’s approach is to dominate possession, move teams around and control the game, while retaining that ability to hurt teams on the counter. He has revolutionised the playing style and most Wolves fans agree this is the best they’ve seen the team play in decades, if not ever.
At times this season, Wolves has resembled more of a Primeira Liga club than and English one on the field. How is this Portuguese project being received among the fan base and the local media? Mostly positive or negative?
Overwhelmingly positive. In fact, I haven’t heard a single negative comment. It obviously helps that the team has been successful, but there’s also a real sense that the coach and all the Portuguese players have embraced the British culture and are enjoying the project. That passion has transferred from the pitch to the fans and everyone is on a real high.
Let’s get to some of the players. Which player, among the Portuguese contingent, has impressed you the most? And why?
It’s hard to pick just one but I’ll go for Ruben Neves. He was our record signing so there was a lot of pressure on him to perform and he’s delivered. His range of passing is outstanding, and he hasn’t been afraid to make tackles or work hard out of possession either. He dictates the tempo of most games and has even chipped in with a few long-range goals. Without him, I’m not sure the team would be as consistently effective. The opposition always target Neves because they recognise that he makes everything tick.
Diogo Jota has had a fantastic start to the season and was named the Player of the Month in September. Are the club confident they can sign him to a permanent deal? What have you been hearing?
I think the club are confident of signing him in January (according to the local press) and I really hope that happens. He’s been outstanding all season. Like Neves, he’s shown an appetite to scrap and fight in the difficult moments and the supporters have really taken to him for that tenacity.
Rúben Neves has been on our radar for a few seasons now, having scored on his professional debut and became the youngest captain in Champions League history for Porto. And he recently scored the winning goal in the match against Sheffield Wednesday? Have you been impressed with him?
He’s been brilliant. His positional play is strong, and you can see he’s always thinking one step ahead, making space to receive the next pass. It’s incredible to think such an intelligent player is still only 20. Even if Wolves are promoted this year, they’ll do well to keep hold of him for too long. I think he’ll end up playing for an elite European club at some point as well as gaining many more caps for the national team.
Ivan Cavaleiro is a player who arrived last season before the recent wave of Portuguese and former Portuguese-based players. After struggling to assert himself in his first season with the club, he has been on fire recently. Why the change?
No player has benefitted more from Nuno’s arrival than Cav. The playing style suits him perfectly and I imagine it also helps being surrounded by Portuguese players and coaching staff. On a simpler level, he’s also in a team with much better players this season so is getting the ball to his feet in areas of the pitch he can do damage. He likes to receive the ball wide and drift inside and the formation allows him to do this consistently. Wolves are now playing to his strengths and he looks really happy.
Our readers do not know much about 18-year-old left-back Rúben Vinagre, who has been playing more recently. Could you enlighten us?
Vinagre hasn’t been able to get ahead of Barry Douglas in the left wingback position, but when he has been given a chance he’s generally impressed. He’s comfortable in possession as you’d expect from a Nuno signing, very quick in both directions and happy to tackle. He played in the League Cup game against Manchester City earlier in the season and acquitted himself very well against the likes of Sterling, Sane and Bernardo Silva. Don’t forget, we’re still the only team in Europe to stop Pep’s team scoring :) He also scored a wonderful solo goal in a 4-0 league win in another rare start (see below). He’s on loan from Monaco and I hope we sign him permanently at some point.
Hélder Costa was the team’s Player of the Season last year. He missed the beginning of the season with an injury and it looks like it’s been a slow road back to form? Do you believe it’s just a matter of adjustment or something else?
He’s definitely not reached anything close to the levels we saw last season, but it’s difficult to know from the outside why that might be the case. It’s been tough for him to get much playing time with Jota, Cavaleiro and Bonatini all playing so well, which might explain why he still looks a bit rusty. I get the sense he might be a bit of a ‘confidence player’ meaning he needs a few good moments to build up self-belief, which I’m sure will come. There’s still the occasional moment of brilliance in his cameo appearances and if he does get it right in the second half of the season he’ll take the team to another level. Either way, he’s a very useful player to have in reserve.
Finally, looking ahead. What do you believe are the clubs goals for the second half of the season?
Finishing in the top two to gain promotion back to the Premier League is the only goal. If things go as well as they have done up to this point and they can win the league then that would be perfect. But with the financial backing of the owners, the club’s relationship with Jorge Mendes and Nuno leading the charge, there’s a real sense that if we can get into the Premier League, we could see the club’s most successful spell for decades. I expect Wolves to bring in a few more players in January, so who knows, we could become even more Portuguese? Based on what I’ve seen so far, nobody will be complaining.
By Rui Miguel Martins
Our thanks to Thomas Baugh and Wolves Blog. To follow the fortunes of the Portuguese contingent at the championship club, connect with them here: