Wolves enjoyed a magnificent return to the top flight when they secured a seventh-placed finish last season. They took four points off Chelsea, Man Utd and Arsenal, beat Tottenham at Wembley, held the mighty Man City to a draw and dumped Liverpool out of the FA Cup. Those superb results came on the back of a scintillating brand of football that won them admirers across the land and totally vindicated the club’s eye-catching transfer strategy.
Nuno Espirito Santo is now tasked with building upon that success, and that means breaking into the Big Six. Can he pull it off, or will Wolves struggle to emulate the superb run of form they enjoyed last season.
The case of Burnley should serve as a cautionary tale. Sean Dyche’s men stunned everyone by finishing seventh in the Premier League in 2017 and that secured them a shot at Europa League glory. Yet they embarked on an ill-fated campaign to reach the group stage, began the season riddled with fatigue and ended up battling relegation for the majority of the campaign before scraping a 15th placed finish.
Wolves are now faced with a similar situation. They vastly exceeded expectations last season, they do not have a huge squad and their Europa League qualification campaign begins soon.
Wolves will face the winner of Crusaders F.C. v B36 Tórshavn in the second qualifying round of the Europa League next week and 2019/20 will therefore prove to be a long old season for Santo’s troops. Yet, Wolves are not Burnley, and there is little evidence to suggest that they will follow a similar trajectory. First off, they are an extremely ambitious club.
Last summer, managing director Laurie Dalrymple was asked if they could beat the drop, and his response was unequivocal. “Our mission is to win the Premier League, not to survive in it,” he declared.
The club’s deep-pocketed owners, Fosun International, set the management a series of ambitious goals. They included a top-10 finish last season, Champions League qualification in the ensuing years and a Premier League title within seven seasons of reaching the top flight. That may have appeared somewhat fanciful, but Dalrymple, Santo and co smashed their target for the first season.
They certainly had a helping hand from Portuguese super-agent, who represents Santo along with such luminaries as Cristiano Ronaldo, James Rodriguez, Ederson, Fabinho, Radamel Falcao and many more superstars. He has a long-standing relationship with Fosun and he helped Wolves sign a raft of Portuguese talent, including Ruben Neves, Rio Patricio, Joao Moutinho, Ivan Cavaleiro, Helder Costa, Diogo Jota, Roderick Miranda and more.
There is a distinct Iberian swagger to this Wolves team, with Spaniard Jonny Otto, Frenchman Willy Boly and Mexico forward Raul Jimenez adding further quality on the ball. Captain Conor Coady is often the sole Englishman in the team, and it will be interesting to see what sort of path the club follows in the transfer market this summer.
So far they have signed Jimenez on a permanent deal, a good move after his dazzling displays at the CONCACAF Gold Cup a general excellence last season. Otherwise it has been pretty quiet thus far, and fans will expect to see activity ramping up in the weeks ahead. It is unrealistic to expect Wolves to sign Mendes’ top clients, as Ronaldo would never head to the West Midlands, Bernardo Silva and Ederson are regulars at champions Man City and Fabinho has established himself as a key pillar within the Liverpool midfield.
But there are a few brilliant players on the books at his Gestifute agency, and it would be amazing if Wolves could sign a couple of them. Real Madrid’s Rodriguez is looking for a new club after his Bayern Munich loan spell came to an end. Angel Di Maria has already won everything in club football and he could be tempted for a new challenge away from PSG. Goncalo Guedes is a big player for Valencia, but he might fancy the Premier League.
Diego Costa is looking for a move after falling out with the Atletico Madrid hierarchy. Nelson Samedo might abandon Barcelona if he is not guaranteed a starting berth. They would all represent extremely ambitious targets for a club of Wolves’ stature, but nobody expected them to sign Moutinho or Patricio, or to capture Neves while playing Championship football.
Mendes’ influence is huge and it will be fascinating to see who he sends to Molineux next. Even if they could sign one or two players from the above list, it would give their chances of breaking into the top six a tremendous boost. They are certainly underdogs, but their rivals are not exactly ship shape right now.
Arsenal is a mess. The Gunners finished sixth last season, ripped apart by Wolves on April 24, and a lack of Champions League football in recent years has ruined their transfer prospects. They were battered by Chelsea in the Europa League final, captain Laurent Koscielny is on strike and there are gaping holes in their squad.
The Blues have been hit with a two-window transfer ban and they are likely to regress next season after selling Eden Hazard, who contributed 16 Premier League goals and 15 assists last season. Man Utd’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had a torrid end to the season and Wolves beat them twice within a fortnight earlier this year.
There is every chance that Santo’s men could usurp one or more of those teams next season, but they need to further bolster their squad before the transfer window slams shut. If they are to compete in Europe and the Premier League, they need to strong players in every position, and that is not the case right now.
Players like Robert Skov, Sardar Azmoun and Edson Alvarez have been linked with moves to the club, and that is hugely encouraging for supporters, as all three are full of promise. Wolves will also pull a few rabbits out of the hat this summer too, and that would inject the squad with fresh dynamism, keep the existing players on their toes and help the team soar to even greater heights in 2019/20.
The competition will be ferocious. Leicester are also ambitious under Brendan Rodgers, and they have already made some impressive forays into the transfer market this summer. Ditto Everton and West Ham, both of whom will fancy their chances of usurping Wolves.
All Santo’s team can do is focus on their own results and they have shown a steadfast commitment to playing their unique brand of football over the past couple of years. They have the players to unlock any defence, and they are solid at the back and well drilled by a strong manager, so they have every chance of enjoying another superb campaign.