Wolverhampton Wanderers 2018/19 – The Manager

There’s something fitting about his name. Nuno Espirito Santo. You can’t help but say it with an air of spirituality. Nuno Holy Spirit, as it translates. He is a sentient being for sure, and we’re happy to elevate him as such.

You wouldn’t be surprised if you found out that Nuno has spent his summer in a cave somewhere in South East Asia, becoming one with himself and preaching to a group of Nuno-ites, with his wisdom beard, dulcet tones and zen-like authority over most things. He is a captivating soul. So captivating it seems, that he has an entire City at his whim.

I write this from the eye of the storm. My seat is probably 30 yards from where Nuno prowls his technical area – my wife likes to comment on his appearance on a week-to-week basis, to the point where she knows when he’s changed his trainers. There are managers who you simply don’t notice – Kenny Jackett, Paul Lambert. There are managers that you notice for probably the wrong reasons – Mick McCarthy, Dean Saunders, Terry Connor and his clipboard. Then there’s Nuno. He’s not always the most animated. Gesticulation isn’t his game. But you still notice him, and I don’t mean checking if he’s waved at the South Bank when they call his name. Everything he does seems to have some kind of purpose. The outbursts of rage are few and far between, such is the success of the team he’s put together, but when he does flip his lid, you really have to look carefully to see what it is he’s so angry about.

To the untrained eye, things might not even be amiss, but it is the tiniest details that make this team so good. A yard or two to the left or the right and we could be exposed. A pass without the requisite pace on it, the timing of a run, the synergy of the defensive line. These are the kind of things you’ll see Nuno go barmy at. For him, it is all about controlling the controllables and minimising the margin for error.

For all intents and purposes, it’s worked a dream. Hyper-control and hyper-analysis seem to be the modern way and Nuno and his coaching stuff do this as well as anybody. I’ll let everyone else pull out the numbers, but just from a naked eye view, how many times do you see Wolves players isolated in one-on-one situations? How many tap-ins do teams score against us? How many successful through balls are there against Wolves? How are our counter-attacks so efficient? Why on earth has a player of Raul Jimenez’s stock, gone on to be our record Premier League goalscorer in a season? How did Diogo Jota go from Premier League wannabe to Premier League star? The devil is always in the detail.

I’d love to be able to offer some level of insight into the way Wolves manage to do all of this, but the club is a pretty closed shop from this perspective. The best we have are these interviews Nuno did with The Coaches’ Voice, including on a game which didn’t even involve Wolves.

They show you just how intensely wedded to strategy and tactics that Nuno is though. This isn’t a man who leaves things to chance, who sends his players out without a clear idea of exactly what he wants from them.

And yet, this could also be his downfall.

When you drill and drill and drill and coach and coach and coach, leaving little to chance, you’re leaving little room for a player to make their own mind up about things. Once they cross that white line, for all of the work that goes in on the training pitch, it is up to them deliver. Whilst liberating them against the best sides, is Nuno tying one hand behind his players’ backs against the lesser sides? Each time we came up against obdurate opposition, we seemed to lack ideas, fluency, even urgency at times. By the end of the season, you couldn’t point towards it being a coincidence, just as much as it wasn’t a coincidence that the best sides in the league were continually failing to beat us.

It’s a harsh stick to beat Nuno with, perhaps, but it’s just about the only thing keeping him from taking this club into the Top 6. There’s a vulnerability about the elite at the moment, Man City and Liverpool aside. Chelsea, who came closest to the exalted ones, were seconds away from being doubled up by us. Tottenham lost the same number of Premier League games as us last season. Arsenal and Manchester United looked genuinely worse as entities in each of the five games in which we came up against them. It still disappoints me that we didn’t win all five.

It almost feels like we’ve overcome the tallest mountain at a canter, but the slightly shorter one with a few craggy edges and awkward climbs is proving a little more tricky. But it’s not insurmountable. And Nuno has all of the faith in the City of Wolverhampton that he could possibly call on.

It’s a rare thing to be a Wolves fan with an in-demand manager. I, to this day, haven’t seen a Wolves manager poached from his position in the Golden dugout. It could be that this season is the one that establishes Nuno’s reputation amongst the very best coaches in Europe, proof if it was needed that last season wasn’t a flash in the pan and all the evidence a monster of a club needs to make a move for him. There is a diminishing pool of managers that these clubs would be happy to work with, given the way Jose Mourinho has handled himself in recent years and Nuno could be the next cab off the rank. That is just a reality we have to get to grips with, but the club won’t be foolish enough to ignore this. Succession plans will be in place. By no means does this suggest I expect him to move on, or that I am already looking beyond the Holy Spirit era, but football has a habit of slapping you back into place, as we know too well.

For the meantime though, this is a crucial summer. Nuno’s enjoyment of a tight-knit, harmonious squad could be tested, as well as his ability to adapt to different types of games, different styles of play and different tournaments. We’re in for a marathon of a season, a feast of football and more matches than you can shake a stick at – my own ‘workload’ will be increased no doubt – which will whet the appetite of many a fan. The pace of progress has been unrelenting so far and it’s only natural to expect us to slow down at some point. Either way, I can’t wait to see how this plays out.

Nuno Espirito Santo, thank you for once again providing me with the greatest season of my lifetime. We go again, and much sooner than we think…

Gully

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