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Jose Sa was the best goalkeeper in the Premier League last season, Conor Coady is an ultra-reliable centre-back, Max Kilman is one of the best young defenders in the country and Nathan Collins is an excellent signing, albeit probably at the height of his value. There’s no doubt that Wolves will again look to build their season around a stern defence. Even with a late-season collapse, they still had the meanest defence outside the top four.
Although incoming business has been slow, Wolves have also kept their best two midfielders. No offer has arrived for Ruben Neves that would persuade them to sell and Joao Moutinho (slightly surprisingly) signed a new one-year contract; it seemed that he was waving goodbye at the end of last season. That spine will dissuade any serious doubts about Wolves getting sucked into trouble.
The return of Pedro Neto is a massive boon for Bruno Lage. Neto contributed 11 goals in 31 games in his breakout season in 2020-21, but last year any hope of kicking on was decimated by an injury restricted him to 466 league minutes. Still only 22, the chronic creativity issues of last season will be partly eased by his presence.
There’s also a realistic hope that Raul Jimenez will return to form this season. Jimenez began training again in July last year, but having missed eight months with a career-threatening head injury it understandably took him time to feel comfortable again. Jimenez only scored three Premier League goals before March.
Sa was majestic last season and he may well not regress totally back to the mean. But then Wolves really can’t afford him to. The data calculates that Sa saved Wolves more than nine goals last season according to the number of goals conceded vs the quality of chances that he faced. Wolves’ success last year was founded upon fine margins: they won 15 league games and 11 of those were by a single goal.
For all the positivity of Collins’ arrival, Wolves are low on depth in defence. Ruben Vinagre has been sold, Romain Saiss and Marcal have left on free transfers and Ki-Jana Hoever has been loaned out for the season. The squad list contains nine defenders and Wolves start with a back five. That list of nine includes Tote Gomes and Yerson Mosquera, who share four league appearances for Wolves.
Creativity was such an issue last season that Neto’s return alone cannot transform them entirely. Only Watford and Norwich had fewer shots last season and only two clubs (Norwich and Burnley, this time) had fewer chance-creating actions (passes, dribbles and fouls drawn ). That’s in part down to their miserable chance creation from set pieces, odd given the resources at their disposal. Only Leicester created fewer chances from dead-ball situations than Wolves’ 40.
And then there’s Jimenez. The initial evidence suggests that the Mexican may have changed post-head injury, with fewer headed shots and goals. That’s totally understandable, but it does leave Wolves with something of a predicament. Do you keep servicing Jimenez as was, or alter the style of your attacks? Given that Fabio Silva has left on loan and Hwang Hee-chan only scored five times last season, they need to work it out.
Collins is the only arrival of note, given that Hwang was already on loan. Collins is a central defender who is comfortable passing the ball short into midfield as well as more directly to a striker, but his greatest asset is stepping up out of defence as a ball-carrier.
Morgan Gibbs-White staying put feels like a new signing given his development at Sheffield United last season (there is still interest from several Premier League clubs), but supporters are growing a little itchy about the lack of action. Showing interest in midfielder Palhinha, only to lose out to Fulham, was viewed as a worrying misstep. As yet, the Jorge Mendes pipeline has not been opened this summer (although there is still time to rectify that).
Lage’s position was rock solid after a strong start to last season, impressive given that it was his first season in England and that there were those inside and outside Wolves’s support who suspected that he might be an early casualty. Wolves did finish in the top half in 2021-22 too; it was a successful season as a whole.
But there are concerns about the downturn during the second half of the campaign. From 23 February onwards, Wolves played like relegation contenders – only Southampton, Norwich and Watford took fewer points from that point onwards. And the margins were so fine in Wolves season ( remember the run of results in winter – 1-0, 0-0, 0-0, 0-1, 0-1, 1-0, 0-0, 1-0) that any slight slip in defensive performance could put Lage in big trouble.
I do fear a slight decline as the end to last season dogs them. But still not in trouble. 13th
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