Jose Mourinho was at his mischievous best recently when suggesting that Nuno Espirito Santo’s future lies away from Molineux.
“We are in a generation where sometimes coaches get jobs and nobody knows why,” said Mourinho before Tottenham’s meeting with Wolves last month. “In his case, it is just about his work. In my opinion, and I hope the Wolves fans and board forgive me, I think he has conditions for bigger. I hope one day the bigger comes because he is doing fantastic work.”
Naturally, Mourinho’s praise was laced with a dig at others – take your pick whom he had in mind there – but the primary motivation with those remarks appears to have been to highlight the remarkable job being done by his old Porto goalkeeper. Certainly, it would be no great shock if the biggest clubs are now paying close attention to Nuno’s work.
Having coached in the Champions League with Porto and Valencia, Nuno’s move to the Championship with Wolves in the summer of 2017 was a step down but after meeting expectations in delivering promotion he has since exceeded them in the Premier League.
Seventh on their return to the top flight, Wolves now find themselves in sixth spot and are even chasing a European trophy. Nuno is not just exceeding expectations but defying them.
Consider, for example, that Wolves have played more games than any other team in the Premier League this past season but that they have done so by using the fewest players.
Nuno has named only 19 different starters in the competition and three of those have since left the club because they were not playing enough football. The remaining 16 include Morgan Gibbs-White, one start, and Max Kilman with two. The same players have been asked to go again time and time again, showing little signs of fatigue.
In fact, Wolves are the comeback kings having picked up more points from losing positions than any other team. They came from behind to win 3-2 against Mourinho’s Spurs and two of their three previous Premier League victories have also been by that same score – coming from two down to beat both Manchester City and Southampton.
Perverse as it might seem given their workload, Wolves have conceded the fewest number of goals in the final half-an-hour of matches, while only Liverpool and Manchester City have scored more in that time. Wolves have the best goal difference after the hour mark.
But while this tells us something about their conditioning, the willingness to stick to a game plan, and the players’ knowledge of their roles, it reveals much more about their approach. It is no exaggeration to say that Wolves play the game a little differently to the rest.
“They are one of the toughest opponents,” says Pep Guardiola. “They have a style of playing,” adds Frank Lampard. “It is their own style that they really believe in.”
Jurgen Klopp puts it in the most emphatic terms. “They are so different to everything else you face during a year,” he explains. “How Nuno sets it up is just really good.”
Crucially, Wolves do not expend the energy that others do.
Pressing can seem ubiquitous in the modern Premier League. Wolves do not do it. Only Newcastle have won the ball high up the pitch fewer times this season. Only Newcastle have pressed fewer passing sequences of the opposition. When Wolves have possession, they do try to keep it. But when the opposition have the ball, there is no great hurry to win it back.
Nuno has found a system that allows his players to rest – for want of a better word – in and out of possession. The Premier League tracking data reveals that Wolves’ opponents have covered more ground in 24 of their 29 matches this season by a combined total of more than 100 kilometres. Their opponents have done much more high-intensity work too.
“It is important for our game to have a high workload, to have high-speed running,” said Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhuttl before his team’s defeat to Wolves this year. “There are a lot of metres to do in our game.”
Nuno tries to control things differently. Just because Wolves do not chase around to win the ball back does not mean winning it back is not the idea. Dictating where they win it back is the key. That transition, when the opponent is unbalanced, is central to the plan, something that Nuno explained in a recent round-table interview with reporters.
“You say Wolves is a team of counter-attack. OK, no problem,” said Nuno. “But how do we counter attack? If you want to prepare your counter attack, you have to first prepare where you are going to recover the ball, who is going to recover the ball. You are determining the moment of your counter-attack. But you can unbalance a team without the ball.”
Sometimes the matter of who is recovering the ball is as important as where they are recovering it. Adama Traore, for example, described as unplayable by Klopp, can be deployed in such a way that allows Wolves to counter-attack on their opponents quickly.
Consider the goal against Aston Villa in November. Wolves had 10 men back against six Villa attackers when the tackle went in on the edge of their own box. Traore could have been up the field waiting. Instead, he was hovering nearby ready to pick up the loose ball. Suddenly, Villa were vulnerable, Traore fed Raul Jimenez and the game was over.
According to Opta, there is only one other team with three forwards who recover the ball as often as Wolves. For Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, read Traore, Jimenez and Diogo Jota. Wolves’ front line win it back far deeper, of course, but that does not mean they are not regaining possession in dangerous situations too.
“They are well organised, defend deep and play on the counter-attack,” says Brendan Rodgers. “They defend well and counter-attack really quickly,” echoes Lampard.
Again, it is left to Klopp to explain it in the most evocative fashion. “Each ball you lose is 100 per cent a counter-attack and half a goal.”
Only Leicester and Liverpool have had more fast breaks than Wolves this season. Most memorably, Traore scored two goals on the counter-attack as Manchester City were beaten in front of their own fans earlier this season. But everyone has that plan against Guardiola’s team. The interesting thing about Wolves is that the plan never changes.
Their most recent goal on the counter-attack at Molineux came against the bottom club Norwich in a game where Wolves allowed their opponents 60 per cent of possession but won 3-0. For the final goal, Wolves backed off and backed off before winning it back through Leander Dendoncker. Within seconds they were three against two and in on goal.
The plan worked against Norwich, a team that commits full-backs forward and allows space for opponents to exploit, but it was less successful last time out against Brighton. Perhaps it is in games such as this that Nuno’s methods might come under scrutiny elsewhere.
Brighton came to Molineux as the only team in the Premier League without a win this year and they left with that unwanted record intact after a drab goalless draw. Wolves allowed Brighton to have 57 per cent of the ball, waiting in vain for the game to open up. Instead, Graham Potter’s side passed the ball around at the back, reluctant to commit bodies.
Nuno’s side were applauded off at half-time and full-time. A reflection of his standing at the club. An awareness that one quiet afternoon should not detract from the bigger picture. The Portuguese has taken Wolves on a European adventure and there is the prospect of more to come. Of course, no Wolves supporter has any stylistic complaints whatsoever.
But would that be true of other clubs?
Wolves have won much praise for their football under Nuno. There is quality in midfield, excitement when Traore has the ball at his feet, and entertainment when Jimenez and Jota are able to combine on the counter-attack. But it would be a stretch to call it expansive.
2:59 FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Wolves’ goalless draw with Brighton
This is Nuno’s way and there is little reason for him to deviate from this at Wolves. The clarity of his vision has been fundamental to his success. The players believe that if they execute his ideas to the letter then their goals are achievable.
But it is not too difficult to imagine that a different environment – one where success would mean winning the league rather than a top-half finish – could present problems for him.
To an extent, that was a factor in cutting short his time at Porto. Nuno lost just one league game as manager but nevertheless there was an overwhelming sense that it had run its course. Four consecutive goalless draws had allowed the notion that he was too cautious to take root. An unwillingness to risk defeat in order to win can be costly when chasing a title.
For Wolves supporters, none of that matters.
Indeed, fans will welcome the fact that four of the Premier League’s biggest six clubs have appointed new managers in a little over 12 months without pursuing their manager.