Wolves 19/20 Review: Nuno's team ready for Champions League
We're at the end of our Premier League season reviews with Alex Keble taking a look at how Wolves have enjoyed another great campaign under Nuno Santo...
It was common knowledge back in August that Nuno Esperito Santo wouldn't be able to replicate his 2018/19 strategy of using so few players, wouldn't be able to finish in the top seven again while juggling the Europa League, and wouldn't be able to keep using the same 3-5-2 formation without eventually being found out.
Seven months and 48 matches later, the first team is still cliquey, Nuno is still flummoxing the Premier League with his tactics, and Wolves - with the exact same points tally as this time last year - are closing in on Champions League football.
Nuno and Wolves continue to surpass all expectations.
Season so far
Wolves' Europa League campaign began in July, and by the end of August they had already played eight times competitively - double that of their closest rivals for a top four finish, Manchester United. No wonder they were winless from the first six league games of the season.
But Wolves recovered impressively, thanks in no small part to the maturation of Adama Traore, the standout star adding a maverick quality within the manager's diligently organised system. The Spaniard has excelled alongside Raul Jimenez in a new, wider role on the right.
It is the only major difference from 2018/19. Eight players have taken part in 28 of their 29 league games, and only one member of the squad - Ruben Vinagre - is subbed in for the European games. It is a mystery how the club have kept their players fit and firing, still defensively solid and ruthless on the counter-attack.
Then again, after stabilising through winter Wolves have somewhat slowed down in 2020, recording just one league win in the calendar year before beating Norwich on February 23. A subsequent win over Spurs just before the hiatus has put them back on an upswing.
Wolves' Europa League run is undoubtedly the highlight of the campaign, not least because it confirms the clubs are now among the most interesting and competitive in Europe. Their ability to juggle two competitions, winning tricky away ties and knocking out Espanyol, shows they in no way hit their ceiling last season.
Traore's brilliance from the right stands out the most in terms of individual performances, but the unsung heroes of the season are Willy Boly and Matt Doherty. Both have excelled themselves this year, playing with consistency even during Wolves' more difficult spells.
The standout performance of the campaign was beating Man City 3-2 in late December, probably the best game of the 2019/20 Premier League season. Ederson was sent off after 12 minutes for taking out Diogo Jota, and yet City stormed into a 2-0 lead thanks to a brace from Raheem Sterling. Traore got one back in the second half, before goals in the 82nd and 89th minute completed the turnaround.
Nuno will be disappointed that his new signings haven't impressed. Jesus Vallejo and Patrick Cutrone looked like excellent additions at the time but neither have featured regularly, while Daniel Podence and Pedro Neto have also underwhelmed. On top of that, Morgan Gibbs-White's back injury has seen his progress stall badly.
The only damaging results all season came back-to-back in September, when they lost 3-2 at Everton and 5-2 at home to Chelsea. That latter result was particularly uncharacteristic, with sloppy defending allowing Tammy Abraham to score his only hat-trick of the season.
What they can achieve in 19/20
Given they are the most consistent and disciplined of those battling for fourth, Wolves have a very good chance of qualifying for the Champions League, priced at8.00 with Betfair Exchange, should the Premier League get back underway. The hiatus is likely to have helped those tired legs, too.
The Europa League seems less likely to resume this season, but if it did then Wolves would have to be considered among the favourites. Their 1-1 draw with Olympiacos in Greece puts them in a strong position to reach the quarter-finals, and Inter Milan are the only remaining club that Wolves would worry about. They are priced at7.20 to win the tournament.
What next: Summer transfers & 2020/21
Wolves will need to improve in the transfer market this summer. Champions League football would open the door to a higher tier of Jorge Mendes clients, and should they finish in the top four then don't be surprised if some big names arrive at Molineaux. This is a club with money, ambition, and a very good manager; everything is in place for a push to the next level.
Their biggest problem might be holding onto Nuno, who should be high on the shortlist of any elite club thinking of changing manager this summer.
Few predicted Wolves would be able to make progress in the league and deal with the ludicrous number of Europa League games they have been asked to play.
But Nuno and Wolves continue to surprise us all with intelligent, entertaining football, suggesting they would quite easily make the jump to Champions League standard.