Taking points off Manchester United isn’t quite what it used to be. Still, Wolves’ performance at Old Trafford needs to be noted – especially when you consider they’re the only side to take points off Pep Guardiola’s charges too. Are Nuno Espírito Santo’s squad the best newly-promoted team in the Premier League era?
Formerly a goalkeeper at Porto, the 44-year-old is a Mourinho disciple in only name – Santo encourages footballing ability despite having so-called lesser players and his expansive game is a result of practice and shrewd recruitment. If you’ve ever been to Wolverhampton, you’d know that almost anything exotic would brighten up the place, but this particular buyer was very colourful with his imports.
He spent money. Whether he demanded it or a football club with rare foresight has backed a man blindly because of optimistic bookkeeping and the consolation of parachute payments is anyone’s guess – but it’s the blueprint.
There is plenty to be said for keeping it tight, but you automatically cordon off any young coaches and forego any identity that could bring you to the next level. The best way to avoid that managerial roundabout of Big Sam, Roy Hodgson, Alan Pardew and David Moyes is to simply bypass it and aim for higher ground.
Even if the metrics don’t stack up to say they’re top of the pile, it’s fair to give them the credit they deserve. And while the season is 38 games long and injuries can alter any best-laid philosophy that the São Tomé Santo Claus (that’s my term – get your hands off it) has put in place, the idea is set out for them to be better.
And, hilariously, they are better.
Now, you can point to multiple-season progression like Leicester City winning the Championship and then winning the Premier League a couple of campaigns later, or Manchester City attracting Middle Eastern money a decade on, but in terms of a three-month turnaround, Wolves look the best of the lot.
If you want to factor in footballing aesthetics, you must mention Eddie Howe and his refreshing take on attacking the top tier with a (with all due respect) poor team on paper and a club in their maiden season in the Premier League. But people often forget that they finished 16th in their first year up.
You see – the groundwork for Premier League campaigns doesn’t begin in July. That’s like going on the p*ss at 4am and expecting to be fine by midday. The easy approach to football management in England’s beloved second tier is to play the percentages and hope that one of your top players produces a moment of magic.
That approach didn’t exist in the Black Country in 2017. If they were to be promoted, Espirito Santo wanted his group of players to play to his standard. This approach is the only truly successful methodology long-term. By the time you get to the Premier League and achieve safety, you’ve got to completely reinstall a way of playing that’s foreign to an entire squad should you choose to take a different direction in terms of management.
But if you can withstand the barrage of being kicked in the Championship and lay the groundwork early, that brand of football harvests itself organically at the next level. Recruitment becomes easier, stepping over the sides trapped in consolidation periods becomes easier and potential for further investment becomes more viable.
UEFA Pro Licensed coaches aren’t drilled on how to keep it tight – they’re students of the game and are encouraged by their respective associations to opt for expansive football because it’s in everyone’s benefit.
Consider the age profile of those managers who are frequently recruited to just survive.
It’s not ageism – managers have shelf lives and if you take a punt from early on and it clicks, you’ll reap the rewards.
We saw it with Eddie Howe – and now we’re seeing the next level of production from the biggest breath of fresh air the league has welcomed since Facundo Sava kept an actual mask in his sweatier regions and celebrated with it on his face when he scored.
Wolves are the blueprint, not only for Premier League survival but for exponential growth in England’s top tier.