Had Tottenham Hotspur been looking for a new manager 12 months ago rather than now, Nuno Espirito Santo may have been prominent in Daniel Levy’s thinking. Back then the Portuguese was on his way to leading Wolves to a second successive seventh-place finish in the Premier League. One year on and his side look set to finish in the bottom half of the table.
Nuno has done a fantastic job at Molineux. It is true that he received considerable backing in the transfer market, but the Wolves team that won promotion to the top flight in 2017/18 are one of the strongest sides to have come out of the Championship in recent years.
The following season, Wolves did far more than just survive. Finishing seventh brought Europa League qualification, and Nuno led his team to the quarter-finals of that competition in 2019/20 while also securing another top-seven finish.
This season, then, marks the first in which Wolves have taken a backwards step since the former Porto boss took the reins. As such, Nuno is unlikely to succeed Jose Mourinho at Spurs. The fact he signed a new three-year deal earlier this seasons suggests he is settled in the West Midlands anyway.
His focus now will be on making improvements this summer. Wolves were thrashed 4-0 by Burnley on Sunday, arguably their worst result since returning to the Premier League three years ago. They sit 12th in the standings with five games left to play. There will be no European football at Molineux next term.
Wolves, and Nuno, must rediscover the grit and resolve that made them such a difficult team to play against in their first two seasons back at the top table. In 2019/20 they lost only three games by more than a one-goal margin. The equivalent figure this campaign is five, and there are still some tricky matches to come. Moreover, Wolves have already conceded more goals this season than in the entirety of last.
There have been problems at the top end of the pitch too. Only Burnley, Fulham, West Bromwich Albion and Sheffield United have scored fewer goals than Wolves, who have failed to score in a third of their 33 league outings.
The absence through injury of Raul Jimenez for most of the season has certainly not helped. The talismanic Mexican fractured his skull against Arsenal in November. It is still not clear when – or even if – he will be back in the first-team picture. Wolves signed Willian Jose on loan in January and are currently mulling over whether or not to make the deal permanent.
Nuno has always preferred a small squad, so injuries affect Wolves more than most. Absentees at the back forced the Portuguese to switch to a four-man backline earlier in the campaign, a formation he had never before used in English football. He has since reverted back to a three-man defence, but Wolves have remained inconsistent.
Another issue is Nuno’s cautiousness. Wolves are, by design, slow starters. They sit fourth-bottom in the Premier League when only first halves are taken into account.
That strategy can work as long as the defence is able to withstand pressure, but Burnley showed on Sunday how much easier it is to get at their backline this season. Conceding the first goal is often fatal to Wolves’ chances of victory. With an emphasis on the counter-attack, this is not a team built to chase matches. Nuno’s safety-first approach is perhaps another reason why Tottenham will look elsewhere, particularly after their experience with Jose Mourinho.
This could be a big summer for Wolves, with reports suggesting they will need to sell before they can buy. Adama Traore, Pedro Neto and Ruben Neves have all been linked with moves away, and although they are unlikely to lose all three players, Wolves must ensure they adequately replace any players who head through the exit door.
It was always going to be difficult for Nuno to lead Wolves to another top seven again this season. But Fosun International, the club’s ownership group, is ambitious, and treading water in the bottom half of the Premier League will not be acceptable forever.
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