Wolverhampton Wanderers were hotly tipped to challenge for a UEFA Europa League place once again in the 2020/21 English Premier League (EPL) season but for one reason or another their season has petered out fast. The Gold and Blacks took to the EPL like ducks to water in their first two years back in the English top-flight, bringing European football back to Molineux for the first time in several decades. The Chinese-owned club has been seen as a progressive force in English football of late but this season has seen the team take one or two steps back.
Wanderers in danger of losing their identity
In fact, it’s looking increasingly likely that Wanderers will be forced to accept a bottom-half finish in the EPL this term. One of the main contributing factors in Wolves’ demise this season has been their transition to a new system and style of play. Boss Nuno Espirito Santo, has sought to veer away from a tried and trusted 3-5-2 formation and commit an extra body in the midfield area in a bid to dominate more of the ball.
In doing so, Wanderers have lost some of that solidity that proved so integral to their recent EPL successes. It has been something of a perfect storm – their backline has been more porous and they’ve been without their talismanic striker Raul Jimenez for three-quarters of the season after suffering a fractured skull injury at Arsenal.
Wolves have long been a team that’s primed to be fitter and stronger than the rest too. Nuno’s coached them that way since securing automatic promotion from the Championship. Their ability to press or break with pace on transitions well and truly caught the eye over the last two seasons but 2020/21 has been a very different story. A wide-ranging study on fixture congestion revealed that although a hectic fixture schedule did not affect the amount of ground covered, it does have an impact on the volume of high-intensity running a player can manage. Given the shortened window to complete the 2020/21 EPL season, it’s clear that Wanderers were one of the most affected by missing out on a full pre-season.
There are many reasons for Wolves fans to be hopeful for the future
With Wanderers clearly at something of a crossroads, Nuno has sought to look to the future in a bid to turn the page on a difficult 2020/21 campaign and develop a new and improved version of his Wolves legacy. Their recent come-from-behind 2-1 victory over Brighton was proof of a bright future ahead for many of Wanderers’ homegrown talent. 21-year-old Morgan Gibbs-White scored his first EPL goal in the dying embers of the game to seal a much-needed three points for Nuno’s youthful-looking side.
In fact, five of Nuno’s starting eleven were under 21, with the overall team boasting an average age of 24 years and 209 days. On-loan Portuguese midfielder Vitinha has made a significant impression in recent weeks, putting in a string of assured and commanding displays at the heart of the Wolves midfield. The Portugal U21 international will have done his prospects of joining Wanderers on a permanent basis this summer the world of good. The club has an option of signing him full-time at the end of the season.
During his post-match press conference Nuno agreed that it was the “right moment” to attempt to blood the next generation of Wolves players, to “build and improve” them for 2021/22 and beyond. Gibbs-White is another who has clearly done his reputation no harm at all of late. He began the 2020/21 campaign on loan with Championship promotion hopefuls Swansea but has returned to Molineux and now has the opportunity to demonstrate his undoubted potential on the biggest stage. 18-year-old Portuguese striker Fabio Silva has also managed four senior goals in the last 12 months, underlining his reputation as one of Europe’s most valuable prospects.
Towering central defender Max Kilman is another intriguing prospect in the Wolves squad of late. The 23-year-old former Futsal star was plucked from non-league obscurity by Wanderers in 2018 and after impressive showings in the U23s and cup competitions, Nuno has opted to give him a chance at centre half in the EPL alongside the ever-dependable captain Conor Coady.
With a sense that the hugely successful 2017-2020 generation of Wolves players has grown somewhat stale, don’t bet against these youngsters staking a claim for a regular starting berth in 2021/22.