To celebrate Nuno Espírito Santo’s 3 year anniversary in charge of Wolves and his continued championing of Portuguese players in England, Próxima Jornada has produced Out of Darkness Cometh Light, which focuses solely on Nuno’s first season in charge (2017/18).
On the 31st of May, 2017, Championship side Wolverhampton Wanderers decided to sack manager Paul Lambert and appoint former FC Porto manager Nuno Espírito Santo. Just 21 days earlier, Wolves played their last game of the 16/17
Championship campaign. A 3-0 defeat at the hands of Sunderland meant Wolves finished in 15th position, 7 points off the relegation zone, 22 points off the playoffs and 36 points off league-winners Newcastle United. The decision to hire Nuno meant he became Wolves’ fourth manager in just 10 months.
1015 days later, with Wolves’ Portuguese revolution in full-swing, the referee’s full-time whistle rang around the Olympic stadium in Piraeus, Wolves had drawn 1-1 with Olympiacos in the first leg of the quarter-final of the Europa League. They did so with 5 Portuguese players in the starting XI and with another 3 Portuguese players taking up a place on the bench. As football begins to resume following the COVID-19 global pandemic, Wolves gear up for their return to football and do so in the knowledge that they are 6th in the Premier League on 43 points, 2 points off 5th, 5 points off 4th and 10 points off 3rd, in the round of 16 of the Europa League and with one of Europe’s best managers at the helm. Aaron Barton for Próxima Jornada looks Nuno’s dream, and how he managed to turn it into a reality.
Pre-Nuno and the Mendes Influence
To analyse Nuno’s dream and the Portuguese revolution, we have to go back even before Nuno’s arrival. A common misconception for those people outside of Wolverhampton is that with with Nuno’s arrival also came Jorge Mendes, but the truth is Mendes was beginning to operate in the West Midlands before Nuno had even been linked with Wolves.
‘Super-agent’ Mendes’ first involvement with Wolves came way back in July 2016 when Chinese conglomerate Fosun International purchased 100% of the club. At the time of the take-over, BBC reported that “Mendes sold a minority share of his agency Gestifute to a subsidiary of Fosun late in 2015 and is expected to play a part in recruitment at Wolves.” How right they were. In the 2016/17 season, the first season under new ownership, Fosun began to flex its financial muscle, signing and loaning a plethora of talent, many being linked to Jorge Mendes and Gestifute such as Ivan Cavaleiro, Hélder Costa, Sílvio and João Teixeira. However, this cash injection didn’t necessarily equal results, Walter Zegna was sacked after 17 games in charge, the next permanent manager was Paul Lambert, who was in charge for a total of 33 games. A 15th placed finish and a group of underperforming players was the result of Wolves’ season. Hélder Costa was the main bright spark in what was otherwise, a flat season. A season that had promised so much but had ultimately failed to deliver.
Meanwhile, in Portugal, a 3-1 defeat on the final day of the Primeira Liga season at the hands of Moreirense proved to be the final straw for the Porto board. In Nuno’s first and only season in charge of the club he represented as a player, they exited the Taça de Portugal in the 4th round, the Taça da Liga in the 3rd round and finished 2nd in the Primeira Liga, 6 points adrift of league winners SL Benfica. A bitterly disappointing campaign for a manager with so much potential.
Nuno Arrives in England
Fast forward 8 days from his FC Porto departure, Nuno is announced as the new Wolves manager, the Sao Tome and Principe native chosen as the man to try to take the club forward and into the Premier League. Owner Jeff Shi spoke highly of Nuno and claimed that this wasn’t a knee-jerk appointment, but that he had known of Nuno’s tactics and philosophy since before Fosun had even taken over wolves. This was a planned appointment, Nuno was targeted as someone Shi and Fosun believed could be the catalyst a dramatic upturn in performance and fortune.
“In a sense, we are very glad to find Nuno with a football philosophy that is similar to ours. He has an impressive track record in the top divisions in Spain and Portugal.” (BBC)
The cogs were in motion and slowly beginning to turn. Not only did Jeff Shi and Fosun have links with Jorge Mendes, but they had also now appointed a manager with his own personal connection with Mendes. Nuno was Jorge Mendes’ very first client when he was starting out as an agent, a far cry from the super-agent we know Mendes as today. The appointment made sense on a practicality level also, Wolves now had a Portuguese manager in place, given that the majority of Mendes’ clients are Portuguese, the club now had someone at the helm who shared their culture and spoke their language. For a professional footballer, coming to a foreign country safe in the knowledge that the manager and assistant manager as well as the backroom staff, are all the same nationality as you and speak your language, must be extremely reassuring.
The first step for Nuno was to navigate the transfer market. Wolves had been busy in the market the season before but this time around the acquisitions had to be right. Wolves had to make sure they built a squad capable of taking them into the Premier League. Wolves utilised both the loan market and permanent signings to build on the foundations in place. Diogo Jota, who had played with Nuno at Porto the season before, came on loan from Atlético Madrid, Wily Boly the imposing central defender was another who played under Nuno the season prior. However, the most eye-catching and perhaps biggest statement of intent from Wolves was the acquisition of FC Porto golden-boy Rúben Neves. Neves, who scored his first Porto goal aged just 17, captained Porto in the Champions League and represented his country at the tender age of just 18 years old had been continually linked with Europe’s elite since his arrival on the European stage. Liverpool, Barcelona and Manchester City, as well as countless others, had been mentioned as potential suitors for Neves. This is why when it was revealed that Neves was moving to Wolves, the immediate thought was that it would be a loan deal that would see him return back to FC Porto and back to Champions League football at the end of the season, however that would not be the case. Wolves purchased Neves outright for a reported Championship and Wolves record fee of £15.3 million. Many writers and fans alike across Europe were puzzled as to why a Premier League quality player would choose to move to the Championship, what Neves and Nuno knew however, is that they wouldn’t be in the Championship for long.
As the season’s final preparations were underway, many were tipping Wolves to gain promotion to the Premier League but there was still a chorus of supporters that were sceptical wolves had spent money the previous window but to no avail. It wasn’t until the season started that it became apparent that Wolves were quite literally, in a league of their own.
The Mission Begins
Nuno implemented a clear tactical shape and style of play, opting to go with a 3-5-3/3-4-3 or 5-4-1. A defensive line made up of 3 central defenders saw Wolves keep 3 clean sheets in their first 4 matches of the season.
Just over a month after the season had started, Wolves had played 12 games across both the Championship and EFL Trophy (League Cup), losing just once. Winning 9 and drawing twice in the process. However, one of the most impressive features of this Wolves side was their continued defensive solidity. Out of these 12 games, Wolves managed to keep NINE clean sheets.
Wolves gained the Championship top spot after a 2-0 victory over Norwich and it was at the top of the table where they stayed for the remainder of the season.
Not only did Nuno’s men have talent, goals and clean sheets in abundance but they also had character and heart. On Matchday 25, Wolves faced off against Bristol City who at the time, were 2nd in the table behind Wolves. Bristol eventually finished 11th in the Championship and Wolves finished 1st but in this match, at this particular point in time, it was two sides in top form facing off.
Bristol City was some way off Wolves at the top but came into the game in great form, they had won 5 and drawn 1 of their previous 6 fixtures. 3 of these wins had been close-fought 2-1 victories as well as a 3-2 victory. This was a side that didn’t give up easily, even when going 1-0 down or when they concede whilst 1-0 up.
It was a cagey affair to begin and after just 14 minutes, Wolves’ Danny Batth was shown a red-card, disaster for Wolves who would have to play the majority of the game with 10 men. Wolves battled well and went in at half-time 0-0. At this point a 0-0 draw, away at 2nd in the table, with 10 men would be considered a very positive result, all things considered. Then just 8 minutes after the restart, Bristol City took the lead through Bobby Reid. The sides were then levelled up after Bristol City’s goalkeeper Frank Fielding was given a straight red card for taking out Doherty outside the box. Wolves were awarded a free-kick Barry Douglas stepped up to smash home, 1-1.
The sides were now back on a level-playing field, both had 1 goal each, both had 10 men. Everything pointed towards both sides taking a point each. Then in the dying seconds of the match, into the fourth minute of added time, Ryan Bennett (who coincidentally was brought on after Wolves’ early red-card) was on hand to head home an excellent Barry Douglas free-kick. Wolves had done it. Nuno’s men won the match 2-1. The two teams then went in completely different directions, Bristol City went on to win just ONE game in 11 and out of the remaining 21 Championship matches, they won just four. Wolves, on the other hand, managed to lose just four out of the remaining 21 Championship matches.
In the end, Wolves won the Championship with 99 points, the club’s highest ever points total in England’s second tier. Nuno had led his side to the Premier League in his first year of asking and did it by winning 30 of the 46 matches, scoring 82 goals in the process and averaging 2.15 goals per game. The Wolves supporters were witnessing a rebirth of their club and in particular, at home.
In the previous season, Wolves were actually better away from Molineux than at home, winning just 8 games, drawing 9 and losing 11 games at home. Away from home, however, Wolves won 8, drawn 6 and lost 9. They were statistically better away also, scoring more goals (29 away/25 home) and conceding less (28 away/29 home).
The 2017/18 season was a stark contrast. Nuno turned Molineux into a fortress. Opponents came to the West Midlands knowing they were in for a match against a side who could attack, defend, fight, show character and above all else, win football matches. Wolves won double the number of home games they won in the previous campaign, drawn 5 and lost just 2 home games all season. The only 2 teams out of the Championship’s 34 sides to beat Wolves at home that season were Nottingham Forest and Cardiff City. Wolves were statistically better at home also, scoring more goals (47 home/35 away) and conceding less (18 home/21 away).
Rúben Neves, the man who grabbed newspaper headlines with his transfer to Wolves backed up his transfer fee and reputation by having an unforgettable season. He was the only non-British player to be named in the Championship team of the season, won Wolves’ Player of the Year award and Players’ Player of the Year award, Wolves’ Goal of the Season award for his strike against Derby County and won the EFL Goal of the Year award for the same goal. Diogo Jota also scooped an award, winning Wolves’ Golden Boot after scoring 18 goals and firing Wolves to success.
Wolves posted a wonderful video of Diogo Jota’s contribution to that season including his goals which can be found here:
However, reaching the Premier League was not the end goal for Nuno’s men, this was just the beginning of Wolves’ rebirth.