Can Wolverhampton Wanderers achieve the unthinkable?
When Leicester City won the Premier League in 2016 it was one of the most astonishing events in the history of this tournament and it reminded everyone that victories by the ‘underdog’ of this sort are what make football exciting. Another example of this has been the transformation of Wolverhampton Wanderers during the past two seasons, which has happened under the radar but may yet produce a more long-lasting result than that of Leicester.
Just two seasons ago, Wolves finished 15th in the Championship, having endured an awful season that saw them go through four managers. The club had been taken over by the Fosun investment group based in China and there was real disappointment at how the season played out. Two key factors in the turnaround were the decision by Jeff Shi to take over as chairman and relocate to Wolverhampton, and the appointment of Portuguese manager Nuno Espirito Santo. He was given serious money to spend in the transfer market and set about overhauling the Wolves squad, bringing in midfielder Ruben Neves for a club record fee, goalkeeper John Ruddy and central defender Ryan Bennett among others. Neves , in particular,proved to be an inspired signing and crucial to the more passing, possession-based style that Santo wanted to implement at the club. It was the instant success of this change of style that turned Wolves from bottom-half strugglers to champions, as the team made more than 100 more passes per game in 2017/18 compared with the previous season – with an 81 percent successful completion rate. The service to wide positions from midfield duo Neves and Romain Saiss was at the heart of Wolves success, providing ample scoring opportunities for the club’s strikers. Saiss and Neves topped the charts for passes per game, with 64 and 56 respectively.
Despite this success, many doubted whether it could be replicated in the Premier League, but the well-drilled 3-4-3 formation favoured by Santo has taken them to a comfortable 8th placed position in the table and the quarter finals of the FA Cup so far. The decision to stick with the core of players who had performed so well in winning promotion has proven a sound one with Saiss, Bennett, Neves – as well as the likes Matt Doherty and Conor Coady – all making the step up with ease. The season Wolves are enjoying looks even more impressive when compared with the other two promoted sides, Cardiff and Fulham, who sit in 17th and 19th positions in the table respectively. Other teams promoted in recent seasons, such as Newcastle, are also struggling in the bottom half. Wolves are only one point behind Watford in 7th spot, but after that the gap is 10 points, suggesting that 6th and a Europa League place is the realistic ambition for this season.
Wolves are impressing a lot of people at the moment and the Fosun project for the club is on course, if still in the early stages.