This preview appears in the August 2021 edition of FourFourTwo.
Bruno Lage had been touted in the press long before Nuno Espirito Santo left Wolves, so it was no great surprise to see him announced as the new man at the helm, after his countryman gave Wanderers four largely memorable campaigns.
Following promotion as second-tier champions, two 7th-place Premier League finishes and runs to the quarter- and semi-finals of the Europa League and FA Cup respectively, last season was a tough watch. Though plenty of clubs would be happy finishing 13th, the many slow starts and lacklustre performances proved hugely frustrating. The club’s exemplary injury record became a distant memory, as an already tired side continued to lose key players throughout the campaign.
Some will be unconvinced by Lage – twice Carlos Carvalhal’s assistant, at Sheffield Wednesday and then Swansea – because he has taken charge of just 76 top-flight matches as a coach. As Benfica boss from January 2019 to June 2020, he promoted youth including Joao Felix and Ruben Dias and clinched the title, evolving the Eagles’ style to an expansive 4-4-2 that afforded one of the two deep-lying midfield positions to a player as mercurial as Adel Taarabt.
However, coaching Portugal’s biggest and richest club is very different to his mission at Wolves, whose ambitious owners Fosun are determined to upset the established elite. Lage’s record in the second half of the 2018/19 campaign was the best ever recorded in Portugal, winning 18 of 19 games to top the Primeira Liga, but such a streak will not be repeated here.
Having had his initial refusal of a work permit overturned, Lage (pronounced with a soft ‘g’) inherits a team accustomed to playing mainly with a back three, and he must decide whether to persist with Nuno’s wing-back policy or mix things up. Wolves are blessed with an abundance of versatile players; they do, however, need fresh blood to restore their former vibrancy and threat. The spine needs addressing, and with funds potentially limited by COVID-19, creative thinking may be the key.
Wolves’ counter-attacking system thrived in their first two Premier League seasons under Nuno, but as he ventured away from that style to become more front-foot, the goals began to fly in at the wrong end. Just two of their 12 victories last term came by more than a single-goal margin, and none more than two. Lage’s job is to find a happy medium.
The five-point plan
1 Stretch the club’s resources
Regularly infiltrating the top six is an enormous task for a side such as Wolves. They have an unofficial partner club in Swiss outfit Grasshoppers, which could prove useful, and Jorge Mendes’ Gestifute connections should be used further as the club look to delve deeper into the Asian and South American player markets.
2 Build a bigger squad
Nuno always wanted a small squad to keep every player involved, but a plethora of under-23 players were needed to fill out the bench towards the end of last season when injuries bit hardest. Technical director Scott Sellars insisted the group will be expanded to cope with top-tier demands, although early moves were thin on the ground. Winger Francisco Trincao has signed on a year-long loan from Barcelona.
Wolves came from behind to check Chelsea’s title aspirations with Pedro Neto scoring an injury-time winner in a 2-1 victory.Report and highlights...⬇December 15, 2020
3 Balance youth and experience
It’s understandable Wolves want to invest in youth rather than buying players with no resale value, especially with Lage’s proven record in developing them. But they do require a few more in their prime who are ready to hit the ground running, rather than jetting in with a potential tag on their luggage. Last season, Wolves gave the Premier League’s highest percentage of minutes to under-21s. That naivety showed.
4 Refresh the defence
On several occasions last season, Wolves fielded two or three centre-backs who are midfielders by trade (Leander Dendoncker, Conor Coady, Romain Saiss). It’s an area of the team that hasn’t had an upgrade since promotion, and options need to arrive with natural defensive nous, especially with rumours surrounding captain Coady's future. Willy Boly’s absence with long COVID proved telling in 2020-21.
5 Inject some goals
Last term, Wolves lost Diogo Jota early and Raul Jimenez (pictured above), 30 goals in the previous two campaigns, played only 10 games before his horrifying injury. Wolves struck 25 times in 28 games after that, with joint top scorers Pedro Neto and Ruben Neves mustering five each – the joint fewest of any team’s top marksmen last season.
FFT verdict: 13th
Jimenez’s return should ensure a greater goal threat, but Lage’s lack of experience is a worry.
Subscribe to FourFourTwo today! Guarantee the finest football stories and interviews dropping on your doorstep first every month.
Get the best features, fun and footballing frolics straight to your inbox every week.
Thank you for signing up to Four Four Two. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.