Premier League 2022-23 preview No 20: Wolves
Guardian writers’ predicted position 13th (NB: this is not necessarily John Brewin’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position 10th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker) 500-1
Wolves enter their fifth successive Premier League season as the division’s enigma. Well-resourced, and continuing to enjoy the benefits of ‘super agent’ Jorge Mendes’ contacts book, the club is attempting to bridge a gap to the top six. That can be a dangerous path to follow. Many a club has considered itself established then slipped down the cracks after failing to make that leap. Tenth place last season was below par, and only two points from the last seven games, goals hard to come by, has put pressure on Bruno Lage to start the new season well or face the consequences.
Such a mid-table position was beyond fans’ dreams during the club’s many years of turmoil but recent success, and a proud history, engenders the expectation that Lage, like predecessor Nuno Espírito Santo, should get more from a talented and not inexpensive squad. There was a staleness in Nuno’s final season, and eventually that came to pass in Lage’s first campaign. After the collection of 40 points from 21 matches in mid-season came that losing, barren run and Lage and his players were barracked by fans over the closing weeks.
Raúl Jiménez scoring just six goals all season and still being joint-top scorer was both a reflection of the difficulty of coming back from the head injury that almost finished his career and the quality of service he received. Finding a solution in the transfer market to those problems represents the club’s best chance of Lage surviving, and the club making that great leap forward.
A glance at Lage’s short career as a head coach produces a pattern of boom and bust. His Benfica team won the 2018-19 Portuguese title with record points and goals, only to fall off a cliff the next season. Wolves replicated that inside his first season. He had been brought in to make the style of play more expansive and attacking than under Nuno. Instead, his best performers were Conor Coady in marshalling the defence, and the goalkeeper José Sá, exemplary all season.
Following Nuno was tough, his predecessor remains a cult hero with fans, and though Lage has more dimensions to his tactical approach than his countryman, he has run up against very similar problems. In May, he explicitly stated the club’s need to refresh the squad, but the summer’s activities do not suggest those in the boardroom completely agree.
Lage was relieved to get through last season with only three centre-backs. Nathan Collins looks an upgrade, after a fine season at Burnley. Despite their relegation, he made himself a cashable asset – and Wolves became the beneficiaries of a club needing to bring in funds. Should his development continue, then Wolves should soon be able to at least double the £20.5m paid, a record for an Irishman. At 6ft 4in, Collins is a tower, but can be a dainty mover on the ball, as evidenced by the glorious solo goal in June that saw him waltz through Ukraine’s defence.
World Cup impact
Within England’s 26-man squad, Coady is likely to be called what Gareth Southgate terms a “good tourist”; his positive vibes helped the Euro 2020 campaign along. Despite that large Portuguese contingent, only Neves and Moutinho were called for the summer’s Nations League, though Sá must have a shout. Hwang Hee-chan is South Korea’s own “Bull”. Wolves’ pre-World Cup assignment is to welcome a raft of Arsenal players bound for Qatar.
Alternative attractions during World Cup
Almost nightly, Wolverhampton hosts Britain’s hardest-working racecourse on the all-weather track while Peaky Blinders Nights will make a welcome return to the Black Country Living Museum in mid-November. And there’s always the ripe air and murals of the famed Molineux subway to breathe in.
Leading the shirt sales
João Moutinho. There was relief among fans when the 35-year-old penned a new deal in early July, just as it seemed he had played his last in old gold. Moutinho is idolised among fans for the cogent, incisive passing that keeps him a cut above even within the heat of a Premier League midfield battle. “He’s five foot seven, he’s football heaven,” as the Molineux anthem rings out. Along with compatriot Rúben Neves, he has come to symbolise the Wolves revolution under their Fosun owners, a high-class continental performer whose presence would have been unimaginable in the club’s previous dog days.
With 3.6m Twitter followers, Raúl Jiménez dwarfs his clubmates, though on Instagram, where he has 2.5m followers, he lags behind Adama Traoré, who has 3.3m clicking in to see pictures of a rippling physique and gaudy fashion statements. Jiménez has a huge following in Mexico, who get to see him as football man and family man alike. Neither the striker’s Twitter nor his Insta now bear much sign of his promise in April 2021, during his long injury layoff, “to take you all through my journey via the #blockchain”.
If Wolves were a Netflix doc …
He made a six-part documentary about himself, so Jorge Mendes is hardly camera-shy. DJ-ing paid his way before super-agency came knocking so perhaps he can kick off his Molineux boardroom set with Jeff Beck’s Hi Ho Silver Lining, the club anthem, and Big Log, the 1980s smoulder from Wolves superfan and vice-president, Led Zep’s Robert Plant.