After a mixed bag of a final pre-season friendly against Celta Vigo at Molineux on Saturday, Wolverhampton Wanderers head into the new season as a work in progress.
Somewhat of an unknown commodity, seemingly caught between the handbrake football of last season and the fast, free-flowing attacking that new manager Bruno Lage clearly wants to see.
Wolves lined up in a familiar-looking 3-4-3 against the Spaniards but it is thought that Lage wants to go into the season with two formations that he can call on regularly. With that in mind, how will Wolves line up against Leicester City on August 14th?
This one seems to be a reasonably safe bet. José Sá was brought into the club almost immediately following Rui Patricio’s move to Jose Mourinho’s Roma. The 28-year-old Portuguese arrives at Molineux following three years as number one for Olympiakos in Athens. Sá ended those three seasons with an average clean sheet rating of 57%, but it is his presence and his work with the ball at his feet that will make him so integral to Lage’s Wolves team this season.
Firstly, this is one area that desperately needs reinforcements. Desperately. Wolves have needed to sign at least one high-level centre back for the last two seasons, and that need hasn’t gone away. Pre-season hamstring injuries to first choice, Willy Boly and new signing Jerson Mosquera have made that need even more pressing. This really has a feeling of needs must about it.
Captain Conor Coady should return to his familiar slot in the middle of the back three, but either side of him there are decisions to be made. Mosquera has played, and impressed, during pre-season, but his hamstring injury has ruled him out for the start of the season.
Futsal’s Max Kilman and referee’s favourite Romain Saïss lined up on either side of Coady against Celta Vigo, but Saïss, in particular looked slightly suspect and was perhaps lucky to receive a yellow card for a shocking tackle in the second half.
Right wing-back seems to be nailed on for Nelson Semedo to push on from his impressive performances towards the end of last season. He missed the friendly with Celta Vigo due to being ‘pinged’ for being in contact with someone who has Covid-19. With him out, Ki-Jana Hoever was impressive, but he will mainly be a backup for the upcoming season. Some fans have, perhaps unfairly, criticised Semedo previously, but his pace and attacking intent will flourish under Lage this season.
At left wing-back, it is a choice between young and exciting, newly permanent signing Rayan Aït-Nouri and the newly fit, and increasingly impressive Fernando Marçal.
Marçal played against Celta Vigo and was one of the team’s best players, so it would seem that he has the shirt for the moment. Another other option here would be for Marçal to slot into the back three, where he was impressive for Olympique Lyonnais in the Champions League. Allowing the pacy Aït-Nouri to push forward from left wing-back.
Barring the dreaded, but heavily rumoured, Ruben Neves transfer. He is surely a guaranteed starter in a midfield two. He was Nuno Espirito Santo’s Vice Captain for the last three seasons and that seems to be continuing under Lage.
His defensive stats have been impressive but look for his progressive stats to improve this season – last year saw him complete 4.65 progressive passes with an impressive 84% pass completion rate. With, theoretically, more forward runners for him to pick out, Wolves fans will be looking for a return to the Neves who dictates play like a Portuguese metronome in the middle of the park.
There’s more uncertainty over who will partner him in midfield. Fans seem hopeful that he will be partnered by a new signing, but if that doesn’t materialise during this week, it seems down to a straight choice between five foot seven of football heaven, João Moutinho, and the widely underrated Leander Dendoncker.
Moutinho and Neves has been Wolves’ go to midfield combo for the last couple of seasons, but Lage’s style of play needs more athleticism, as evidenced in the second half against Celta Vigo, so Dendoncker should be the one to find his name on the team sheet for the season opener.
Three from four in this area. Raúl Jiménez should complete his amazing comeback from a fractured skull, by starting in the middle of a front three. He has looked sharp in pre-season, as if the last eight months haven’t happened. If any Wolves player has needed a rest over the last couple of seasons, it is Jiménez. Obviously, no-one would have wanted it to come in this way, but he may be better than ever after a break from the constant football of his previous never-ending slog.
On one side of him, Francisco Trincão seems to be in favour. An understandably slightly underwhelming pre-season behind him, Lage will be hoping that he can find the Trincão that showed flashes of undeniable talent against Celta Vigo and previously lit up the Estádio Municipal de Braga to earn him a move to the Nou Camp. If he can, Trincão will be a real asset for Wolves this season. With that in mind, Lage will give him plenty of opportunities to play his way in to top form as the season begins.
Over on the other side, Adama Traoré should line up as the left, inverted winger. There has been almost constant speculation about his future throughout the summer, but his performances on the pitch have been impressive. There is some disagreement amongst the fan base as to whether he has the awareness to change his game to suit Lage’s style, but the early signs have been good.
The odd man out is Morgan Gibbs-White, impressive in pre-season, but not quite suited to playing as a wide man, even an inverted one. There’s a chance for him to really press on this season, but he will have to bide his time and take his opportunities from the bench for the time being.
It was obvious from his animated displays on the Molineux touchline that Bruno Lage wants Wolves to play more on the front foot and shift the ball around quickly, particularly in transition.
They may find this tough against an accomplished Leicester side, following on from their Community Shield victory over, an admittedly weakened, Manchester City side, and who’s sights will again be on challenging the top four. Meanwhile, Wolves’ season could go either way. The lack of transfer movement seems to suggest that the first three matches have been almost written off, as fans wait, with bated breath, for everything to click in to place.