First Julen Lopetegui came within a whisker of Molineux, before eventually taking over as Spain boss. Then Ruben Neves, FC Porto’s precociously talented midfielder and the youngest ever Champions League captain, joined the revolution. Wolves shocked English football in the latter part of the 2010s, as arguably the most ambitious project ever seen outside the Premier League stepped up a gear.
Fosun International, a Chinese conglomerate, had bought the club in 2016 and soon pursued Lopetegui. After an underwhelming debut season in the Championship, they were eager to speed up the process a little. Wolves’ subsequent relationship with ‘super agent’ Jorge Mendes, who pulls a lot of strings both within the club and football generally, has been a source of discomfort for some who are unhappy with agents achieving higher prominence in the game, but it has also been the driving force in their success to date.
Mendes was behind Neves’ move and he also instigated deals for Diogo Jota, who has made such an impact in his early Liverpool career. However, it was the arrival of Nuno Espírito Santo in May 2017 which truly set the upward trajectory in motion after ill-fated tenures for both Walter Zenga and Paul Lambert the previous season.
To entice such talent to Molineux, both on the pitch and in the dugout, showed the new Wolves set up was bound to succeed. They hadn’t arrived simply to settle in English football’s second division and they all believed in the long-term aims, strengthened further by a smattering of other quality additions. Promotion, the first step on the ladder, was achieved in the first season of Mendes’ Portuguese revolution, but the standard progression of Premier League acclimatisation was not in their plans.
European football was their immediate target, and they backed this up by luring Joao Moutinho and, perhaps most crucially, Raul Jimenez on loan in the summer of 2018. Again, it was a case of players who could clearly operate at a higher level trusting in the project and giving it time. Seventh place in their first season saw them reach the Europa League, and even then, they didn’t succumb to the norm.
Traditionally, if any team outside the usual suspects qualified for Europe, they would be instantly plunged into a relegation battle, crushed under the weight of an incredible number of matches. Wolves were used to such a quick turnaround having recently played in the Championship, and Nuno, who by now had established himself as one of the Premier League’s classiest, most popular and tactically astute managers at Molineux, was making a habit of playing the same team until changes were enforced.
Somehow, they maintained their freshness and secured a second seventh-placed finish last season, while reaching the last eight of the Europa League. Because Arsenal won the FA Cup and failed to finish in the top six, Wolves were robbed off a second continental charge, but clear progress was still evident.
Everything has, more or less, been going to plan for Fosun, Mendes and Nuno over the past three-and-a-half years but this season has seen a bump in the road. COVID-19, as it did so many clubs across the world, impacted their plans for the last summer transfer window but an injury to Jimenez, who has continued to show his quality since making his loan from Benfica permanent, has really thrown them off track. He fractured his skull against Arsenal — an incident which led to a wider debate on head injuries in football — and Wolves have badly missed a focal point in attack. No wins in eight league games over Christmas and New Year forced them to look over their shoulders
There appeared to be a corner turned when a win over Arsenal at home as followed up by a decent performance in a draw with Leicester City. But the spotlight turned on Nuno again with an FA Cup exit to Southampton, their league opponents on Sunday, this week. Relegation may seem closer than the bar they have set over the past two seasons right now, but it is still incredibly unlikely looking at the table, and a cup run would have been an ideal way of injecting positivity into the second half of the campaign.
On the pitch, it is hoped that Jimenez’s recovery will be swift, while the arrival of Willian Jose at Molineux could alleviate some of the pressure in attack. There have been murmurings surrounding Nuno’s future, but nothing in comparison to what Mikel Arteta and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer were subjected to earlier in the season, or even Slaven Bilic prior to his sacking at West Brom. While media scrutiny isn’t as great at Wolves as it is Arsenal or Manchester United, expectations are high at Molineux and there would be a queue to Birmingham forming if the job became available.
Perhaps, then, Wolves have the right approach. They needed trust and belief in their project early on, and Nuno gave it to them, even finishing last season a contender for the manager of the season award. He deserves a similar courtesy now that he is facing a tough moment; there is no guarantee that he is getting that or, if he is, it’ll last much longer. But the former Valencia and Porto coach, who has repaired a damaged reputation in the Black Country after difficulties at both those clubs, has led Wolves’ rise from the front, and he can and will pick things up again in the future.
Realists will say there is only so much a football club can go without the wealth of a country backing them these days. But Wolves story still has a few chapters to tell, and Nuno is the man to guide them. It is refreshing to see, for now at least, he is being given space to breathe at a difficult moment.