Wolves: At a crossroads - where do Nuno Espirito Santo's side go next?

By Simon StoneBBC Sport
Raul Jimenez (right) celebrates with Wolevs team-mates
Signings like that of striker Raul Jimenez (right) have helped establish Wolves back in the Premier League

When Wolves begin their 2020-21 campaign at Sheffield United on Monday, it will mark the start of their third successive season as a Premier League club, equalling their longest stay in the top flight since a five-year stint ended in 1982.

There will be no European football this year; that hope was dashed in August, as first Arsenal beat Chelsea in the FA Cup final, and then Wolves lost to eventual winners Sevilla in the quarter-finals of the Europa League.

However, with a new record signing in £35.6m teenage striker Fabio Silva and a new three-year deal for manager Nuno Espirito Santo, the buoyancy around Molineux remains.

Nevertheless, after successive seventh-placed finishes, their best performance in back-to-back seasons since the 1960s, the club are at a crossroads as they try to work out how - and, more importantly, how long it will take - to climb the next step.

The challenge

Towards the end of February, before the coronavirus pandemic triggered the cessation of football in most counties around the world, BBC Sport was told Wolves were taking stock of the magnitude of their rapid rise from the middle of the Championship and scaling back on previously bold statements about how quickly they could get close to the summit of the English game.

The enormity of the challenge of breaking into England's elite was starting to become apparent - and was only underlined by the final two weeks of the domestic campaign.

When Wolves led 1-0 at Burnley on 15 July after five minutes of injury time, it seemed as if they were about to close to within a point of Leicester and Manchester United in the battle for a Champions League place. There was genuine belief a top-four place could be secured.

Instead, Matt Doherty was harshly ruled to have handled inside the box and Chris Wood's penalty sucked the life out of Wolves' Champions League dream.

Wolves then lost at Chelsea, which allowed Tottenham to finish ahead of them on goal difference. Arsenal's FA Cup success meant that for the fourth season in a row, the entire "big six" had made it into England's seven European slots.

In the past 10 seasons, only four times has one of them missed out on European qualification.

Between them, five of those six elite clubs have won 26 out of the past 30 domestic trophies. It is a measure of their stranglehold on the English game that the annual pre-season Community Shield has featured matches between two of five elite clubs for 21 seasons out of the past 24.

Everyone at Wolves recognises breaking that dominance is not going to be easy.

Wolves' league seasons under Nuno Espirito Santo

The vision

Speaking after the loss to Sevilla in the Europa League quarter-finals on 11 August, Nuno made his feelings clear.

"It is time to reflect and analyse," he said. "The team that started the game is the same as the first game of the season. We made mistakes we cannot repeat. We need more players."

It was a rare public hint of disquiet - and given by 4 September, the only significant bit of transfer business involving Wolves had been the departure of Doherty to Tottenham, alarm bells were starting to ring among some supporters.

Those fears have been answered in the space of five days, with the arrivals of Brazilian left-back Marcal, Portuguese midfielder Vitinha and, most notably, 18-year-old striker Fabio Silva for a club record £35.6m.

In announcing the latter deal, Wolves executive chairman Jeff Shi made two statements of significance.

One was to underline "any deal the club does", purchases and sales, were completed "in order to support Nuno", something he repeated, with different wording, three times in total.

The second was that the signing "demonstrates we will make considerable investment when we feel it is right for the club".

Fabio Silva
The signing of teenager Fabio Silva for £35m breaks Wolves' transfer record

The Fabio deal is an interesting one, with a source inside the club calling it "a no-brainer".

The assessment is this: Wolves have spent big on a player many believe has an enormous future in the game. If that proves to be the case, they will have got in quickly for someone whose value will rise massively.

Should the expectations not be realised in the short term, Fabio's youth means Wolves will find a market for the player and their losses will be minimal.

At the same time, they have also found an answer to the obvious conundrum about what kind of player they could buy who would be content - initially - with being a back-up to Raul Jimenez, whose form for the past two seasons makes him the automatic first-choice striker.

These deals - including the Doherty sale and the continued interest in Arsenal full-back Ainsley Maitland-Niles - are part of a wider strategy to evolve the Wolves squad and stop it from becoming predictable.

"It is evident it is a new cycle and we need to grow some aspects of our game," Nuno said on the eve of the season. "I would like more dominance and more of the ball and more goals scored.

"Compared with our first season, now I think we can sustain our levels of performance more. But we still have ups and downs. We need more consistency."

Shi and Nuno are central components to this strategy but, for the first time since 2016, planning does not include Kevin Thelwell, Wolves' highly-rated sporting director, who left for New York Red Bulls in February.

There has been internal restructuring in the wake of Thelwell's exit but the search for a direct replacement is on hold indefinitely. Shi does not view this as a problem as even with Thelwell, he had the final say on any deal.

It means Wolves are taking a step into the unknown. The template that has served the club so well for the past three years is changing.

The challenge is to make the adjustment, while being able to exert even more pressure on those bigger clubs, yet making sure they are not being overtaken by like-minded rivals such as Everton, whose stadium renovation plans are at a more advanced stage, and have on-field ambitions of their own under Carlo Ancelotti.


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