Three years of growth followed by one of consolidation – now what next for Wolverhampton Wanderers?
It’s been a Jorge Mendes-inspired ride – one that took off quickly, blasting through the glass ceiling of the Championship and through the also-rans in the Premier League.
After an historic, lengthy but ultimately fruitless campaign involving Europe that ended just eight months ago, where do Nuno Espirito Santo and his men find themselves now?
At a crossroads, that’s where.
It’s difficult to see the road ahead, because of the variable obstacles that may or may not stand in the club’s path.
For instance, will on-pitch attacking spearhead Raul Jimenez return as the same man following the horrific head injury suffered four months ago at Arsenal?
Will the club’s owners show the same ambition to spend as they have done in the past 12 months, given the backdrop of the pandemic and the scaling back of Chinese footballing ambitions?
Will Mendes, Wolves’ unofficial director of football, manage to conjure up a couple of worthwhile additions to Nuno’s squad?
Indeed, will the manager continue to show his commitment if the project starts to lose momentum?
Pretty soon, the old gold and black faithful will have a few answers. This summer, in fact.
Given the fact Jimenez was training with his Mexican team-mates prior to Saturday night’s fixture against Wales, there is some good news.
After such a long lay-off and harrowing injury, is it too much to expect that the centre-forward – coveted far and wide before his knock – will pick up where he left off.
Too much time has elapsed and too much sharpness has been lost for him simply to don the shirt and ask people not to notice the difference.
Statistics can lie. Not in this case.
With Jimenez, Wolves picked up 17 points in their 10 opening games. Without him, 18 from 19. One point per game is too close for comfort to the relegation zone, extrapolated across the season.
It was some hole that needed plugging. Willian Jose has added know-how at least, even if the goals haven’t flowed.
The loss of Jimenez, allied to the sales of last term’s second and third-highest goal-getters in Diogo Jota and Matt Doherty would be sufficient to make any manager gulp.
Is Wolves’ squad stronger, or weaker, than it was 12 months ago?
It’s certainly 12 months’ more battle-hardened. Several players are better equipped to deal with life in the top-flight.
But overall? Perhaps not.
Jota’s sale to Liverpool and Doherty’s defection to Spurs – allied to long-term injuries to the likes of Jonny and Willy Boly – have upset a well-oiled machine.
It is to everyone’s credit that they have not yet distracted from the job at hand. The versatility of the likes of Leo Dendoncker and Romain Saiss has been invaluable.
Cracks have started to appear, though.
Joao Moutinho has been a wonderful addition. Yet he turns 35 in September and time waits for no man. Even for someone who finds as much time to spend on the ball as the Portuguese.
Nelson Semedo is in his first season at Molineux. At the present moment, he does not appear to be a significant upgrade on Doherty that his fee would suggest.
And, talking of fees, the £35m outlay on Fabio Silva is staggering. To give it context, the deal is £7m more than the total fee Borussia Dortmund will lay out for Jude Bellingham.
The 17-year-old Bluenose is now playing Champions League football and is highly likely to be part of Gareth Southgate’s squad for the European Championships later this summer.
Silva, having scored two Premier League goals – one a penalty – is worth 25 per cent more? Hmm.
Of the rest, Adama Traore has stood still. Not very often it can be said of the speedster but the same issues remain.
On his day, he is a phenomenal talent. But if Wolves were looking to cash in, it’s difficult to see where he would go – hard to generate £50m for a talent not considered the first-choice at Molineux.
A lot of that is down to the form of Pedro Neto – who likes to operate on the right, cutting in. And very well he has done. Daniel Podence too, showed flashes before a lengthy injury.
Of course, these questions are set against the backdrop of Chinese investment in football drying up. Clubs have folded in the Super League. Inter Milan have seen Suning, their backers, hit money troubles.
Fosun, Wolves’ parent company, are a different kettle of fish.
But the Chinese state will intervene in any business – web-giant Alibaba has been hit after the public flotation of a payments’ subsidiary was cancelled – because of fears over the power the tech companies were wielding.
If it can stop a £34bn offering to the stock market, then ordering Fosun to quit Wolves – or else – would not cause anyone in Beijing a sleepless night.
Football clubs fall permanently into the category of ‘work-in-progress.’
At times since 2017, it has seemed as though Wolves’ rise has been unstoppable.
But for the first time in four years at Molineux, genuine questions really do need to be answered properly if that upwards momentum is to be maintained.
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