Cast your mind back to 31 May 2018. Wolves have just dismantled the Championship at a rate of knots. Teams were ravaged before our very eyes and there was a sheen and quality that just whispered ‘Premier League’ with every performance. All of this happened upon gaining promotion except we simply didn’t have an in-form striker at the club.
Leo Bonatini was brought in on the eve of the start season but despite a ridiculously strong start to the season he had withered himself away to the point where he was without a goal for 6 months. His velvet touch and link play remained for a while but even that was diminished to the point where Diogo Jota took up the central reins. It was noticeable at times how during the second part of the season we weren’t winning games with flowing football, but efficiency, clinical finishing when the chances did come and just a series of absolute pearlers from Ruben Neves.
The central striker’s role takes on a unique existence in ‘Nuno-ball’ – we play such a particular brand that it deserves it’s own moniker. It takes a particular type of footballer to fulfil the duties to the required standard, a standard which has increased with promotion. I wrote extensively about the impact of Bonatini in the early part of the season. I spoke about his ability to give an attack or a passage of play ‘what it needs’.
The next in line had to have more of everything than Bonatini. That’s a lot more difficult than it sounds. More pace, more strength, better movement, more aerial prowess and just as much technical ability. We live in a footballing world where strikers are becoming second-class citizens, with wide-forwards the nouveau-riche of modern day football. Top-quality centre-forwards are dwindling in number but if there is one thing a Wolves centre-forward could possibly forego in order to cement his place in the team, it was the rarest commodity in football: goals.
Enter Raul Jimenez, a man whose career high league goal tally for a season in Europe was 7, in the Portuguese top-flight for Benfica. This wasn’t the most eye-catching of signings, a man not good enough to start games for a team who routinely dominate matches on a weekly basis. What on earth could he offer a newly-promoted club, in desperate need of a No. 9 with an intense season of football in the offing?
It’s safe to say Jimenez didn’t register on the radar of any Wolves fans pre-season and little was known of his qualities, but a European-wide scouting network and a very clear identity of what is required has led us to a situation where we couldn’t imagine the team without him. The club was consistently berated for its handling of Nouha Dicko last season and again at its seemingly lax approach to signing a striker this summer but they’ve proven once again that if it isn’t the right player, the move will not be made. There are no signings for signing’s sake here.
So what is it that he actually brings to the team? The first thing that struck me was his immense work rate. He has an infectious energy about him which drags the team forward with him. You rarely see him isolated, as much to do with the system as himself, but he’s an intelligent first line of defence. He ranks 5th for most interceptions for strikers in the league and 10th for most tackles per match. He’s also a forward that is consistently involved in the action. It’s rare for central strikers not to have a game where they are kept away from the ball, but Jimenez has impacted every game he has featured in positively. Even when he doesn’t seem particularly well-positioned to get the ball, he works himself into a place where he can which is a dream for teammates – the pass is always on. The other, probably surprising element to his play is his ability to run in behind. One thing Bonatini lacks is the ability to get away from defenders, and while he isn’t lightning quick, Jimenez is happy to run in behind and keep defenders on their toes.
Then we get on to his penalty box prowess. Baring in mind the forwards either side of him – positions so key to our success last season – have not been firing on all cylinders, he carries a consistent threat. Wolves actually seem to be creating more chances, volume-wise, than last season although many are difficult to take. Jimenez may only have scored twice, but he is bringing saves out of keepers, often world class ones in the case of Alex McCarthy and Wayne Hennessey. You can’t ask too much more of him in this regard. Given the players either side of him haven’t hit the target yet, he’s doing a fine job of keeping us going with positive results. Finally, probably the finest aspect of his game, is his general awareness of his teammates. While we all recognised Leo Bonatini’s importance to our fluidity going forward in the Championship, Jimenez has greased the cogs in the machine even further. You get the impression he’s played with his current teammates for years with his coordination and seemingly telepathic relationships, and this has been borne out in his creation of goals and completed passes, stats not taken as gospel for a centre-forward.
The stats back up these claims as well. Jimenez ranks extremely highly on key passes and total passes in comparison to the rest of the league. Only Roberto Firmino plays more passes per 90 minutes and only Firmino and Aguero have played more accurate short passes per 90. He’s out performing the majority in terms of shots on target, ranking 6th in the league. The fact his xG comes in quite low at 0.14 per game suggests that he isn’t getting easy chances though. His headed stats could be better for a tall striker but there’s a dearth of aerial crosses from wide. Instead we’re likelier to see him receive the ball back to goal from a low cross as he did twice against Manchester United and once against Southampton.
Doubts will linger about his ability to last a full season in the position, given how he hasn’t been a first-team regular for a long-time and in a lower intensity league to boot. But Jimenez is one of those rare things at Wolves – a player in his prime. Much is made of the potential of many at the club, but the likes of Rui Patricio, Willy Boly and Jimenez are all operating at a level that could be described as their peak. For Jimenez, this season could be the most high-profile of his career, despite his Champions League experiences with Benfica. What you can see for sure is that he is a matured talent, who seems to have a number of tools in his armoury. This does mean he may not go on to improve a lot as a footballer, but I ask you this – in the current footballing climate, who on earth would you rather have up there?
The price quoted for a permanent transfer is £30 million, a number alien to a club of our stature and it may not seem like the kind of figure you would want to spend on a player who may not reach double figures and whose performance levels are likely to dwindle in the coming years. But for one minute let’s not think about the future, let’s take in the fact that Raul Jimenez is exactly the man we need – right here, right now.
All figures from WhoScored.com