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First Team

Hot Off The Press: Wolverhampton Wanderers

The Athletic's Tim Spiers previews tomorrow's trip to Molineux

17 September 2021

Wolves picked up their first win of the season last Saturday, when they beat Watford 2-0 at Vicarage Road, ending a run of three straight league defeats where, by all accounts, they did everything but score. What have you made of what you’ve seen so far?

I have been really impressed actually. People might not really have noticed with Wolves in the relegation zone with no points, but there is such an optimism around the club at the moment. They had a really tough start to the season, as expected – they kicked off against Leicester, Spurs and Man United – but in those games, they had more shots than their opponents, they dominated their opponents for decent spells and, after a really tough season last season, they have been crying out for a bit of attacking, entertaining football. Nuno did what he had to to keep them up; he tried to release the handbrake and he couldn’t really manage it because they were so porous defensively. What Bruno Lage has done with basically a full pre-season is coach this new style pretty seamlessly – and more seamlessly than he thought.

The fans, the players and certainly the ownership have been demanding this attacking football and it has gone really well so far in terms of performances. The results didn’t immediately come, but they were three narrow defeats and there was a feeling that September would be Wolves’ month. They managed to get a win at Watford and, after having more than 70 shots with no goals – I was keeping a tally! – it was hilarious that the first one was an own goal and the second was a one-yard tap-in. With the confidence they will get from that, they will be really optimistic about putting a run together now and I think they think they can build some momentum because, with the attacking players they have got, there was always a feeling that, although Nuno’s football was, generally, winning football, he was keeping them on a leash and so that is why everyone’s excited to see what they can do.

As you mentioned, Bruno Lage took over from Nuno Espirito Santo as head coach in the summer. How has he been received so far?

The club have received him really positively. There was no secret last season that Nuno really struggled during the pandemic as his family were back in Portugal, which was often on the red list. I think he struggled personally to get through and became a bit of an isolated figure. He looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders and that he had lost his spark. The question for Wolves was always going to be whether he could get that spark back after a summer break and I think Spurs have got the Nuno Wolves would have got as well, but it just felt like the end of a cycle and it was time to try someone new. Bruno has come in with a lot of positivity to bounce off the back of what was a negative season last season. It is very easy to compare the two because one manager comes after another, but he is different in a lot of ways. He is a lot more personable, open and friendly – Nuno literally said that he could be the ‘worst person in the world’ when he was in a bad mood and I have seen it first-hand! Not much was known about him at all and I think the wider football nation will take a while to get to know him as he’s quite non-descript.

In terms of management, he has only been a manager for 18 months, but what he has got is this fantastic coaching background. He was at Benfica’s academy for a decade and worked with the vast majority of the generation of Portuguese players who came through at that time, like Bernardo Silva, Joao Cancelo, Renato Sanches and later with Ruben Dias and Joao Felix. His skills as a coach were undeniable and I think that has really helped Wolves at the start of this season in terms of how he has coached them to play this new, intense, attacking, high pressing style, which is the exact opposite of what they have been used to. Despite having mostly the same players, he has coached them really well; the test for him will come when it comes to management later in the season when things are going badly with defeats, suspensions, injuries etc. That will be the test of his leadership, but as far as his coaching goes, everybody is extremely impressed with him and the dedication he has put in.

In the summer, four first team players joined on a permanent basis, with two more arriving on loan. What did you make of their business?

If they had made all of their signings in the last week of the window, I think fans would have felt positively about it, but because they made a few at the start of the summer and then only one more before the end of the deadline, there was real disappointment among the fanbase that they couldn’t add to what they had. Bruno was very public about wanting more players towards the end of the window and, to be honest, they are probably one or two short of a perfect squad, but what manager isn’t, really? The biggest thing was keeping Ruben Neves and Adama Traore, who have both been at the club for a while now. To keep two players of that calibre, when even people inside the club anticipated that one or both would leave this summer, is a real feather in their cap. If you look at their first XI, it is definitely good enough to challenge for Europe, the question is whether the squad is. If they can avoid last season’s injury problems, they should finish minimum 10th.

Which player should Brentford fans be keeping an eye on on Saturday?

You can’t fail to keep an eye on Traore (pictured above). The things he has being doing already this season are actually ridiculous. He is bang in form - and the cynics would suggest that was because Spurs were lurking during the transfer window – and has been phenomenal. He has got a slightly new role in that he is on the left and cutting inside as Bruno plays with inverted wingers, although he can switch, but he has already torn a few full-backs and defensive midfielders to shreds. At his very minimum, he is the best distraction tactic you’ll find in the league because he just attracts two, three, four defenders to him every time he picks that ball up, particularly in deep positions, and just starts running. No one can catch him and no one can shrug him off because he is so strong. I have called him the eighth wonder of the world before and I’m going to stick by that because it’s a privilege to watch him week in, week out. People can talk about end product all they like, but if he was knocking in 10 goals and 10 assists every season, he wouldn’t be at Wolves, so I’m grateful to be able to watch him and he’s certainly one player that gets fans on their feet.

How is Lage likely to set up his side at Molineux?

They have stuck with Nuno’s tried and trusted 3-4-3 for now, with Conor Coady still at the heart of defence. They have had the same team for a couple of games now, so I would anticipate something like this: Sa; Kilman, Coady, Saiss; Semedo, Neves, Moutinho, Marcal; Trincao, Jimenez, Traore.

Wolves have won three of the last four meetings, the last of which came in January 2018. What’s your score prediction?

I think it is going to be a really good, attacking, open game - all of Wolves’ games have been really entertaining so far and I don’t see that stopping. Ivan Toney is bound to score because he nearly joined Wolves on a couple of occasions, but I do think, having got that first win and a couple of goals, they have got the monkey off their back, so I’m going for a 2-1 win for Wolves.


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