How Wolves went from exciting to dull in the space of a year

(Image credit: PA Images)

The second most significant injury of the Premier League season did not stop Wolves that evening. Raul Jimenez fractured his skull but they went on to beat Arsenal in November. 

Their campaign can be split into two parts. Wolves were sixth with Jimenez. They are 15th in the table since then. If it underlines that only Virgil van Dijk has been missed more than Molineux’s favourite Mexican, a mitigating factor should not excuse all Wolves’ failings in a subsequent slide.

Jimenez scored 27 times in Wolves’ marathon 2019/20 season. No one has more than five goals this season. Yet if he was the best all-round No. 9 in the division and Wolves, pound for pound, its greatest overachievers in successive seasons, now they are among the season’s major disappointments. The paradox is that probably their third highest finish of the last four decades will nonetheless represent regression.

If that lends itself to suggestions that Nuno Espirito Santo is suffering because of his own success, Wolves are also struggling because a manager and a regime who had shown a sure touch have erred; in the transfer market and in their tactics. There were hints this would be a season of transition, an attempt to evolve; instead it has simply been one of regression. The emergence of (the sadly now injured) Pedro Neto apart, there has been little cause for optimism and plenty for pessimism.

Wolves are a lesser team without Nuno’s trademark defensive shape. Moving to a back four has simply made them more porous. In midfield, Joao Moutinho’s decline leaves a void and if the Portuguese pairing of the veteran and Ruben Neves suggested they should prosper playing more of a possession game, it has not worked out that way. If the decision to replace Matt Doherty with Nelson Semedo was an attempt to provide a footballing upgrade, Wolves replaced a goalscoring wing-back with one who is less productive. If a bottom-half side has spent £37 million on a right-back, it is generally a sign things have gone badly wrong. Quietly, Semedo is one of the worst signings of the season.

The other flagship buy, Fabio Silva, was thrust into a position of responsibility by Jimenez’s absence, but it felt bizarre that Wolves paid £35 million for a forward with a solitary senior goal. Glimpses of potential have not justified the price; resources have been misallocated. Diogo Jota’s regular goals for Liverpool have a reminder Wolves weakened their squad and, with Adama Traore stuck on three for the season, it feels as though Nuno sold the wrong forward to fund his failed rebuild.

And take out examples of the explosiveness of Traore or the electric bursts of Neto and Wolves are just dull. They average under a goal a game; since Jimenez was hurt, they have been outscored by their neighbours from West Brom. There can be a lack of incision, of intent and of urgency. 

For two seasons, Wolves prevailed while being passive. Now it just feels counter-productive. They have scored first in four of their last 26 league games. Slow starts serve no purpose. They contrived to have the second-worst first-half record last season and recovered regularly; now, however, it feels as if they can just set the tone by beginning badly.

And it raises the question if it is an ending of sorts. Perhaps Jimenez’s return next season will bring a return to the Wolves of old, rendering this season an aberration. But the evidence of the last six months indicates that things are falling apart: in defence, midfield and attack, Wolves are worse than they are. They have lost their way in recruitment. They seem to have a squad in need of surgery and a team in need of a new gameplan. They have a manager who is no longer beyond criticism. For three years, Wolves and Nuno was an improbably brilliant alliance, founder members of the Football League and Jorge Mendes’ first client. Now it is legitimate to wonder where they go from here, and how.

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Richard Jolly

Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.