The resumption of the Premier League campaign–in particular, Liverpool's title chase and subsequent victory–have been center stage in recent weeks. The less-discussed but equally intriguing attempt to exorcise decades-old demons is taking place in Wolverhampton, where Nuno Espirito Santo's Wanderers are rabidly seeking a route back to Europe’s upper echelon for the first time in 60 years.
On a magnitude not far from the Leicester City of recent years, Wolves have stormed the gates of England’s elite over the past two campaigns and are within shouting distance to qualify for the UEFA Champions League for the first time this season. The coronavirus pandemic paused their push with the team sat sixth, one place off the likely qualifying standard. They've acquitted themselves nicely in their two matches since the season restart, dispatching opponents they were expected to beat and maintaining their position in the table.
It looks as though fifth place will be enough to seal a spot in the continent’s premier competition provided Manchester City’s two-season ban for breaching Financial Fair Play laws withstands an appeal through the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but the road for Wolves won't be easy.
The club may not have the simplest schedule of the Champions League hopefuls, but they've nonetheless done their duty where others could not. Sheffield United—who sported a game in hand whilst being one place behind and level on points with Wolves—have failed to seize their opportunities, losing two and drawing one since their return. Arsenal have similarly dropped two of their three matches, perhaps dooming Mikel Arteta's side to a season without European competition at all.
It may be to Wolves' disadvantage that matches are being played behind closed doors due to coronavirus safety protocols. The result has been to effectively neutralize home advantage–at least through the first few matchdays. Espirito Santo & Co. were already particularly impressive away from home this season, securing just a single point fewer on the road (21) than they had at Molineux (22). The new rules may not impact their performances away from home, but it could serve to level the playing field for any travelling team.
Meanwhile, only Liverpool (zero), Manchester City and Manchester United (both two) have recorded fewer home defeats than the west midlands club, and yet 10 teams have won more matches on their own soil this term. It paints a fuzzy picture for Wolves, but supporters would argue that the club's play will be dictated more than ever by their manager–an element that gives the side a surefire edge.
Espirito Santo is proving his qualities as a top-rank tactician and elicits passion from his players in a way former mentor Jose Mourinho was once known for. He harnesses the strengths of his players regardless of renown, and the same can be said of his ability to work a up home crowd.
The former Porto and Valencia manager—who played under Mourinho at the former—spoke to the Coaches’ Voice about playing “who you have in front of you” earlier this year, and there aren’t many tactical contests in the Premier League he isn’t capable of outmanoeuvring:
If we’re to assume third-place Leicester City are effectively home and dry in finishing at least fifth, that leaves only Chelsea and Manchester United to beat in a chase for the Champions League out of the teams above. That said, even the Foxes' wobbling form of late could leave them open to slipping down.
Wolves have faced the Red Devils four times this season and lost only one of those encounters (a 1-0 replay defeat in the FA Cup), securing draws home and away in the league. The problem now is United have looked as galvanised as ever under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, including a 3-0 thrashing of the aforementioned Sheffield United. To cap it off, their run-in looks quite favourable; five of their remaining fixtures are against bottom-half opposition.
By contrast, only three of Wolves’ remaining matches are against teams in the bottom 10. After taking care of two such opponents in their most recent two matches (West Ham and Bournemouth), they'll face lowly Aston Villa away, Everton at home, and Burnley away. The latter two squads are still within reach of Wolves despite their places in the table, although a separation of seven points will likely be a large enough buffer for the club.
Wolves’ chances of an optimal league finish are improved—as they are for every team still part of a European campaign—by the Europa League and Champions League seasons being delayed until domestic matters are dealt with. Espirito Santo’s side drew 1-1 away to Olympiacos in the first leg of their last-16 matchup in the former having travelled to Greece in March despite protestations due to the pandemic:
The fifth-place finisher in the Premier League has ended with at least 70 points in each of the past three seasons, though the spread among top-half teams means that’s unlikely to be the case in 2020.
Form prior to lockdown illustrated that Wolverhampton were a tough outfit to beat, with the club dropping only three of their 10 league games (two of which were against Liverpool). The team only won that same number of matches in that period, however, and looked weary in home draws against Newcastle and Brighton in the first few months of 2020.
The season hiatus has clearly given tired legs some newfound energy to help them in their push for history. Undeniable though the growth at Molineux has been in recent seasons—going from the Championship, to the Europa League, to potential Champions League debutants in two years under Espirito Santo—it’s difficult to see the club outdoing its current position of sixth this season.
A best-case scenario will likely see the side repeat that fate this season. Sheffield and Arsenal have each hit obstacles along the way—and will likely encounter more given their difficult schedules ahead. Even if Wolves keep pace with Manchester United through to the last matchday, an encounter with an in-form Chelsea looms larger than United's bout with a flagging Leicester.
It was 40 years ago that Wolves last finished among the top six of England’s first tier to qualify for what would be their last European participation for nearly four decades. The modern-day running of the club means they’re now better-placed to sustain a presence in continental competition, but the Champions League looks as though it will remain out of reach for one more season.