Once a marriage of convenience, it's now hard to imagine Wolves without Diogo Jota
What actually is Diogo Jota?
If the Premier League was schoolboy football and you were the captain of his side, where would you tell him to play and what would you ask him to do? Maybe you'd just let him roam, trusting him to make a difference somehow. Most likely that would be enough.
The Premier League isn’t schoolboy football. It’s the summit of professional sport and an environment in which everyone’s place is rigidly defined. Jota manages still to exist between the margins, though, and that helps to make him one of the competition’s most watchable players.
Initially he was part of Jorge Mendes’ Gestifute army. Remember those days? Molineux was going to be Mendes’ shop window and somewhere in Wolverhampton - in some Black Country suburb - there was going to be a halfway house full of appreciating talent. In the eye of the cynics, it was some horribly incongruous, mock-Tudor mansion, full of gauche decorations and bunkbeds, and the sound of artillery fire from the latest Call of Duty.
Not quite. Back in September of 2018, The Guardian’s Stuart James interviewed Jota, alongside Ruben Neves. That was a month after Wolves had returned to the Premier League and still, even then, the assumption remained that both players – particularly Neves – were just biding their time, waiting for Uncle Jorge to make a call.
It’s a lovely interview; a really fine piece of work. They spoke about the growing community of Portuguese players in the area and how they socialised with each other’s families. In hindsight, some of that contentment could be seen in the way Wolves played that season. They were comfortable within their identity and performed well above expectations. Neves was outstanding, Jota too. Just like Joao Moutinho, Rui Patricio, and Jonny Otto.
The article’s main themes were sincerity and commitment. Jota came across as the more impassioned of the two, speaking affectingly about his desire to be a success in English football. Eighteen months later, having grown used to his demonstrative traits and spikey competitiveness, that's something the game's public don't need to be told again. It's obviously important to Jota. This is a destination for him, not just a stop on the long road to somewhere else.
Perhaps this is where Wolves’ Portuguese project has been most successful. Talent identification is easy. What’s difficult – and what they have succeeded so overwhelmingly in doing – is finding the right people. That includes the way they perform on the field, of course, but also how invested they seem in the club’s ambition and how the team’s reputation appears to matter to them. There's never any noise from that squad. It doesn't rattle with the sound of ego or discontent, even when things aren't on a smooth upward curve.
That shouldn't be underestimated; it's an incredibly difficult balance to find. This side's progress has been serene, and that's depended on equal parts ability and attitude, but those are complicated ratios which a lot of clubs are flummoxed by.
On Sunday, Wolves beat Tottenham in North London. It was no new landmark, because they beat a far better Spurs side last season at Wembley, and by a wider margin. It was notable for two moments, though. The first was Jota’s goal which, with its clever run and back-post finish, was strangely similar to the first he ever scored for the club, against Hull City in the Championship, all the way back in August 2017.
The second was the run which led to Raul Jimenez’s winning goal. What a brilliant bit of play. There’s no metric which measures the impact of a run and pass like that but, at best estimate, Jota took six Tottenham players out of the game within seconds.
Startling as it was, it was still typical. What’s interesting about Jota is that he doesn’t have any clearly outstanding attributes. He isn’t unusually quick, he doesn’t have an array of skill, and he isn’t physically overwhelming. And yet he's often effective by producing moments which do seem to depend on rare abilities.
That’s what creates this perception of him as a player without proper designation. Instead of performing a specific function within games, he just seems to find a way to be useful or decisive. The trite analogy is to say that he flows into the defensive cracks. But a more detailed appreciation would reference the way he works with Jimenez - who himself isn't appreciated nearly enough as a pivot - and how he moves into the space and positions that the Mexican’s runs and distribution make available. There's a really satisfying symmetry between those two. It's one of those co-dependencies that eventually someone smart will write a mini-thesis about.
Until then, it's worth also dwelling on what a fine job Nuno Espirito Santo has done individually with Jota.
Most players need refinement. Some of them have very obvious strengths that leave little ambiguity over how they should be used. Adama Traore is such an example. Impressive as his evolution has been, this was always what his very best was likely to look like.
Others, like Jota, require more interpretation. His optimal solution was never so obvious. In fact, there is no one answer to that question. His ability is more nebulous and tends to manifest in different ways depending on the opponent. As a result, the impression is of someone most effective when he's being used to explore a team's weakness. A player who can really just serve as an extension of his manager's acumen.
The game which springs immediately to mind is the 4-3 over Leicester City last season. It was his signature Premier League performance. Because of the hat-trick he scored, obviously, but also in the way that he was used. It encapsulated his worth perfectly. Claude Puel’s defence and midfield were in disarray at that time, and were struggling to cope with teams who transitioned quickly up the pitch. Added to which, the channels between their central defenders and full-backs were continually vulnerable.
It was a problem which Wolves targeted with Jota. The goals he scored were, collectively, the pay-off for attacking those issues and the dynamic was of a resource being used to maximum effect.
Just as it was back in April 2019, the night that Wolves dismantled Arsenal. Jota was not at the vanguard of the hosts’ assault, but his raiding presence unsettled a visiting side who had set up to dominate possession, and to play slowly and with control. Jota disrupted that. Just before half-time he got his reward, slaloming through Arsenal's limp tackles to score and put the game beyond doubt.
It was a pathetic goal to concede, but it still represented an alignment of Wolves’ great strength with Arsenal’s clearest weakness. It was Santo’s most thrusting, vertical player of the time, against Unai Emery’s mess of a midfield and his paceless defence.
For Arsenal that evening, see Tottenham last Sunday. Jose Mourinho’s team can’t defend. They have a terminal inability to track runners from midfield and, again, Jota was a big part of creating Wolves’ forward momentum from seemingly neutral situations. The Jimenez goal was the clearest demonstration of that, but it wasn’t the only emblem of his effect.
Often his signatures are more subtle. The goal he scored against Chelsea last season, for instance, depended on him taking advantage of Cesar Azpilicueta briefly turning away from the play to tie his shoe laces. It wasn't the Spaniard's finest Premier League moment, but Jota recognised the opportunity so quickly, waving frantically for a pass as soon as the ball had been snaffled by the Wolves press, that Chelsea's defence never had time to recover. He snuck in at the back-post to steer in that game's winning goal. It was simple, but it was ever so smart.
He is a streaky player, that shouldn’t go unsaid. Prior to the home leg of the Europa League tie against Espanyol, he’d scored five times this season, with all of those goals coming in a four-day block in early December. Since Espanyol, he’s scored six in three games. Without question, his tangible contribution is form dependent, and tends to come in fits and starts.
But what a fascinating footballer. In his range, in his uses, in these individual moments. He's not extravagantly gifted, nor is he blessed with any obvious physical advantages. Nevertheless, he manages to be woven tightly into the fabric of this Wolves team, while at the same time being arguably the most watchable part of it.
It's a relationship in perfect harmony. From being a suspected marriage of convenience, it's now difficult to imagine Wolves and Diogo Jota being apart. It's also telling that were they ever to be so, neither would be quite the same again.
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