Norwich City welcome Wolverhampton Wanderers to Carrow Road this weekend, and Nuno Espirito Santo’s side enjoyed a rich vein of form prior to last weekend’s defeat against Spurs.
To understand what makes them tick, we spoke to The Athletic’s Wolves correspondent, Tim Spiers, who told us all about the secrets to their overwhelming success.
canaries.co.uk: How do you assess the season so far? It looked like things started poorly but have hugely picked up since beating Watford at the end of September.
TS: They had a few problems dealing with the Europa League/Premier League schedule at first because they’ve got quite a small squad, which is their own choice and they prefer to have that. Initially, Nuno Espirito Santo was making quite a few changes between those games. The one thing Wolves had been really good at since he took over was consistency in team selection, and all of a sudden, he was chopping and changing and that was breeding inconsistent results.
Since then, we’ve seen more of a settled team in both competitions, only losing in the Carabao Cup (when he made 11 changes) and the other day against Spurs, when many thought they produced arguably their strongest performance of the season.
Things are going better than well. It’s unbelievable how they’re managing to combine the two competitions. They’re in a great position in the league and the last 32 of the Europa League with a decent draw for the next round. They’ve only played 19 players in the Premier League, so it’s a massive testament to the work the medical team do behind the scenes on recovery and injury prevention. They’re playing better football than last year so it’s going extremely well.
canaries.co.uk: They’re the only team not to have made any substitutions in a Premier League game this season, and they’ve done that twice! Have they rotated much for the Europa League?
TS: A bit. After they lost their first group stage game, they had to get some wins on the board to get through, and it’s a priority this season. They’re taking it much more seriously than we’ve seen clubs do in the past with the tournament. It’s a massive deal for Wolves as it’s their first season in Europe for 39 years.
The fact that their league form has improved, after struggling at the bottom end of the table in September, means there’s no chance of them getting sucked into a relegation battle. The way the top six has gone this year, with Spurs, Man United and Arsenal all struggling at one point or another, there’s a chance for them to gatecrash it, but they probably need a couple of additions in January to bolster the squad.
There have been a few kids on the bench and the fact that hasn’t been utilised at all on a couple of occasions, neither of which they won, shows that they do need a couple of additions. From what I gather, that’s all in place and they’ll be bringing a couple in.
canaries.co.uk: Last January, they tried to sign Tammy Abraham but weren’t able to. What areas do you think they’ll be looking to strengthen in this time around?
TS: They’re really particular about who they bring in. From what I can remember, they’ve never signed a player for the sake of it under these owners. They’re an investment firm and want to get a return on every one they make, so they sign a lot of young players for decent value and that soars.
They’re not going to just bring in a 30-year old for £5million who’s not going to massively improve the team. As for January, they’re a little bit short at centre-half as Willy Boly, who’s arguably their best defender, has been out since October and will be until February with a broken ankle. They’ve had three midfielders by trade at centre-half lately
They need a forward as well. Raul Jimenez and Adama Traore have arguably been in the form of their careers but do need a bit of help from the bench. At the moment, they’re scheduled to play 55 matches this season and that’s without progression in the FA Cup or Europa League, so they could be looking at 60 plus games with a squad of 19 senior members. That’s going to catch up with them at some point. For all the magnificent work they do, I’m not sure that’s possible to go the full season at full pelt without a couple of additions in January.
canaries.co.uk: Traore has been a joy to watch from a neutral perspective this season. The fans must be loving having him at the Molineux Stadium.
TS: He’s worth the price of a season ticket on his own! It’s quite phenomenal how he’s changed. Last season, the pace was there, and he got bums off seats but there was no end product – he had one goal and three assists. He was used as a substitute and didn’t fit into the 3-5-2 formation they were playing.
A switch to 3-4-3 this season has completely transformed him, playing on the right of that front three. Nuno did lots of one-on-one coaching with him over the summer and you can see the results on the pitch.
He actually runs a bit slower than he can sometimes. He worked with the former sprinter Darren Campbell last year, who said that he’s faster than anyone in the Premier League and that he doesn’t need to run at 100 percent to beat people. Him running at 80 percent has given him more control of the ball, which has made him a better player in terms of his crossing, passing, teamwork and defending.
The guy can be a superstar. He’s a unique talent, but there’s a reason why he’s at Wolves, which is because of that lack of end product, but now it’s all coming together with the speed, power and pace, as well as the goals and assists. He could go anywhere in his career, but Wolves are getting the very best out of him.
canaries.co.uk: Sam Byram might have the challenge of playing against him this weekend, and he told us this week that Wolves are well organised, made good signings and the players are well drilled. Is that a fair assessment?
TS: Absolutely, all eyes will be on him because six players have been booked for fouling Traore in the last two matches. 24 players have been booked for it this season in the 26 games he’s played in all competitions. That was a hot topic after the Spurs game because they were ganging up on him and rotating who would foul him so they wouldn’t get anyone sent off!
As for being organised, defensively they’re so hard to break down and beat. They don’t concede many and have one of the best defensive records in the league, as they did last year. They don’t lose many – only three in the league. That comes from the way Nuno trains with them and has set them up for the past three years.
They’ve got three centre-halves week after week, two wing-backs who are both very good defensively, and two midfielders who sit in front of the back three, so it effectively becomes a back seven without the ball. You’ve also got three hard-working players up front who defend from the front. Jimenez is as good as it gets at defending from the front.
The defenders very rarely get isolated in one-on-one situations. When they’ve got the ball, they’ve got the pace up front to hit teams on the break with the wing-backs bombing forward. Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho can push forward and play piercing passes or shoot from range, so they all know their roles inside out.
Anyone who comes into the team knows as well, and that’s where the small squad comes in handy. It’s the same group of players training every single day, so it’s not like they’ve got a 25-man squad with a few hanging around creating a bad smell on the training ground. They all know they’re close to playing and that’s why it works so well.
canaries.co.uk: It’s great work that Nuno’s doing. Do you worry about him leaving Wolves, or is it difficult to find a more attractive proposition anywhere else for him at the moment?
TS: Absolutely. Arsenal are one of the biggest clubs in the world, but the way things are at the moment, he’d be a fool to go there. I don’t worry about him leaving in the short-term. As for his long-term ambitions, we don’t know, but the fact he left a Champions League club in Porto to go to the Championship with Wolves suggests that he buys into the project.
Wolves’ ambitions are as grand as they come. They want to be one of the biggest clubs in the world. In the long-term it would be a concern because without Nuno you wonder where Wolves would be. The owners and the players adore him. For the here and now, a lot of people call him the best manager Wolves have had since the great Stan Cullis in the 50s.
You can’t really argue with that. He took a mid-table Championship team to looking like they belong in the top seven in the Premier League, playing well in Europe and having high hopes of going deep in the competition. His status at Wolves couldn’t be any loftier. He’s a cult hero and a god-like figure to the fans who sing his name every week. There are stickers and posters of him all around Wolverhampton, so he’s the key to it all. I don’t see him going anywhere at the moment.
canaries.co.uk: It’s incredible that they have such high ambitions and are carrying them out, given that less than three years ago, Wolves were on a six-match losing streak and 21st in the Championship. Football fans love to dream and get carried away, but do you feel at Wolves that the owner’s hopes are even higher than the fans?
TS: It’s a good question, because you get owners saying these things and you kind of take it with a pinch of salt, but with Fosun and what they’ve done in the business world, if they can replicate that in the football world they will succeed.
They’re very intelligent in the way they go about it. They want value for money and are looking at the long-term. As far as ambitions go, it’s a dream-world and Wolves fans still have to pinch themselves. Five years ago, they were in League One and three years ago struggling at the bottom of the Championship.
There’s a realisation that Europe will have an impact on the league performance, and the further they go into the competition such as the last 16 or quarter-finals, they might have to sacrifice a bit of the league form.
They probably overachieved slightly finishing seventh last year as the target was comfortable mid-table, so they’re ahead of schedule. Without the Europa League this year, they’d be pushing for top four. They played Leicester on the opening day and there wasn’t anything between the two teams – I don’t see much difference in terms of quality of the teams. It’s got the prospect of being a really special season.
canaries.co.uk: Finally, what are your thoughts on Norwich so far this season?
TS: I thought they’d be doing slightly better than they have, but you’ve got to take the injury record into account. They’ve got some really talented players and I love going to Carrow Road. I think it’s a fantastic stadium and they fill it every week.
Daniel Farke is doing an unbelievable job from where they were a couple of years ago. I hope they can survive and stay up, but it’s probably going to go to the last day.
canaries.co.uk: Against Manchester City!
TS: Ok, the second last day then! Pukki’s an outstanding talent and if he can keep scoring at a regular level then they should stay up, but it’s going to be tight. There’s not much to choose between the teams at the bottom of the table and it’s whoever can be the most consistent, hard to beat, and capable of grinding out draws here and there who will stay up.
As for this Saturday, it’s hard to look past Wolves. The football they’re playing recently isn’t just sitting deep and smashing teams on the break. They’ve really evolved and have become an even more attractive side to watch.
With the changing styles they can produce, they can beat any team in the league, like Manchester City away. They’re very confident. With games against Man City and Liverpool to come in succession after Christmas, this is one they’ll target as one they’re keen to win, so I’ll go 2-1 to Wolves.
You can follow Tim on Twitter @TimSpiers.