Wolves: Nuno Santo's big decision captures the rate of change at Molineux

Nuno Santo

It has been a lukewarm start to the season for Wolves.

On the one hand, four wins from nine games and a consequential upper-midtable standing is not to be sniffed at, especially amid the unique circumstances of what is undoubtedly the most bizarre campaign in Premier League history.

On the other, the Molineux side have been luxury to one of the more assailable runs of any Premier League side; Manchester City are the only Big Six team they’ve faced in nine games, while they’ve already played two of the three teams in the relegation zone. 

Overall, results could be better and performances could too. While the Midlands outfit have largely been as defensively resilient as ever in comparison to the rest of the league – only Spurs have conceded less goals so far – a mere nine have gone in at the other end.

There’s always been a pragmatic balance to Nuno Santo’s team, but it’s telling that only West Brom, Sheffield United and Burnley have scored fewer goals than them this season, with the latter club playing one less game.

The Wolves boss has sought to address this in the media, too. Having only broken the deadlock against Southampton on Monday night after overloading his attack with the late introduction of goalscorer Pedro Neto, Nuno was quick to insist goals are coming at Molineux. 

“Scoring a goal is the most difficult part in football. Sometimes it is good, sometimes it’s not so good. All the teams in the Premier League this season are defending very well. I’m positive that will come.”

There might be some legitimacy to the Portuguese’s remarks, but it’s also important not to fall victim to the assumption that Wolves’ struggle for goals has taken place in a vacuum and with a bit of time will find a way of naturally self-correcting itself.

In truth, Nuno made a bold decision on Monday night during a campaign of increasingly bold calls, and the unexpected switch to 4-3-3 in the absence of Conor Coady typified the root cause of Wolves’ stodgy start to the season – quite simply, there’s been too much change in too short a space of time.

Some of that has been dictated. There’s incredibly little Nuno could do about the injury to Jonny, and the search for an adequate replacement on Wolves’ left-hand side has already seen four different players tested there. Romain Saiss, Marcal and Rayan Ait-Nouri all have their shortcomings though, as did the now loaned-out Ruben Vinagre.

Other changes, however, have been by design. Nelson Semedo looks an incredibly shrewd signing, having averaged the fifth-most dribbles per match of any Premier League player, but in selling Matt Doherty, Nuno parted with a defender who knew the system inside out and whose natural skillset is uniquely suited to Wolves’ instrumental wing-back position. His departure was bound to have some impact on the rhythm of the team.

Nelson Semedo battles Oriol Romeu

Perhaps in isolation, even parting with a player as rooted into Wolves’ DNA as Doherty could be taken in its stride. But instead, that has been compounded with Nuno’s omissions of Adama Traore – incredibly perplexing when considering how simply devastating he was for much of last season.

Whether intertwined with his contract situation or not, ultimately those brave selection calls still rest on the manager’s shoulders and the consequence has been an entirely new right-hand side to the one that helped record Wolves’ final victory of last season – the Europa League win over Olympiacos. 

Another bold decision has provided the same effect on the left. While Nuno won’t regret selling a player who’d clearly slipped down in his estimations for £40m, Diogo Jota’s form for Liverpool since departing with eight Liverpool goals already does make one think twice about Wolves selling at this juncture. It’s shifted a lot of responsibility onto 20-year-old Neto, and when in conjunction with Jonny’s injury completely disrupted Wolves’ left flank.

Throw in the increased game-time for youngster Max Kilman, and Wolves’ lineup on Monday night contained just six players that featured in their most used XI for the Premier League last season while Traore’s inclusion was an exception rather than the norm when placed against the rest of his 2020/21 campaign.

Perhaps that’s why Nuno did a first throughout his Wolves reign on Monday night in selecting a back four – the only time he’s done so in 167 matches. With so many significant changes already, and without his on-pitch general in Coady, maybe the Wolves boss felt that his traditional system doesn’t quite suit what he’s now got at Molineux.

Nuno Santo on the touchline

It will be interesting to see if it becomes a long-term weapon in his arsenal over the coming weeks, because like many of Nuno’s big calls this term, the formation switch didn’t quite pay off. Wolves didn’t really get going offensively until after Southampton had opened the scoring, and while they did have more ideas going forward when Traore, Neto, Daniel Podence and Raul Jimenez were all on the pitch, defensively they looked more open and vulnerable than usual. 

But in many ways, the system’s increasing impact over the course of ninety minutes encapsulates how Nuno will hope the big decisions he’s made this term will eventually pan out.

Having only fractionally surpassed the efforts of their returning top flight campaign last season, 

finishing seventh once again, while suffering elimination in the latter knockout stages of a major cup, the Wolves boss clearly felt that it was time for change.

Players like Doherty, Saiss, Jota and even Coady developed in tandem with Wolves’ rise from midtable in the Championship, but it was starting to feel as though glass ceilings were being hit individually and collectively. The gaffer needed ways to punch through and that has required educated risks and controversial decisions, if not alone for the sake of ensuring his side don’t become too predictable for the rest of the Premier League.

Diogo Jota and Conor Coady

Inevitably, that means a period of transition and while the Molineux boss will be hoping results and performances pick up sooner rather than later, ultimately it would be unfair to judge him and this new-look Wolves team right now.

That time is still some way off, and may even require patience until the end of next season to see if the club’s ambitious refresh has moved them up a level, from the Premier League’s best of the rest to paralleling Leicester City as legitimate Champions League contenders.

There are some positive signs. Neto, by in large, has embraced his responsibility with two goals and two assists in the Premier League, Semedo is a different type of player to Doherty but clearly possesses an abundance of natural pedigree, Kilman is a modern style of centre-half who enjoys being on the ball, and the brief reversion to 4-3-3 does at least oblige opponents to think twice when preparing to face Wolves.

It’s just that when all those changes are combined with ones that have been forced upon Nuno, it knocks everything a little off kilt. That’s exactly what Wolves have been so far this season – slightly twisted on their usually rock-solid axis – but the manager will be hoping that, in the long run, the teething problems pay off.

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