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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Wolves are getting better and better and are an outside bet to finish in the top four

Manchester City might be the clear frontrunners in an increasingly processional Premier League title race this season, but the contest to finish in the top four is more difficult to call. If City and Liverpool look all but certain to keep their place in the Champions League for next season, that leaves two spots as the target for six teams.

Many of those teams are members of the usual suspects – Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. West Ham are in the mix, but there is an even more notable name in the Premier League’s top eight plotting a route into the top four and into the Champions League for next season.

Wolves weren’t expected to be in top four contention this season. It was only at the end of the 2020/21 campaign that Nuno Espirito Santo left Molineux. At that point, Wolves looked to be the start of a new cycle. Nuno needed a new challenge and the West Midlands club needed fresh ideas.

They have found this with Bruno Lage, a manager few in English soccer had heard of when he was appointed by Wolves last summer. However, the 45-year-old has quickly made his mark in the Premier League with the Molineux outfit getting better and better over the course of the season so far.

Of all 20 teams in the Premier League, Wolves boast the second-best defensive record, conceding just 16 times in 21 fixtures. Only table-toppers Manchester City have conceded fewer, with Wolves one of the toughest sides in the English top flight to play through with Lage’s coaching credentials underlined by the stricture of his team.

At the other end of the pitch, Wolves have been toothless at times, scoring just 19 times in the league all season long, but signs of progress have been witnessed there recently. Indeed, the fact Wolves have scored eight goals in their last three games in all competitions proves they have it within them to cause opponents problems in the final third.

Lage has instructed his team to get more shots away on goal in recent matches. This was necessary because before the 2-1 win over Brentford only Norwich (10.2 per game) had taken fewer shots than Wolves (10.3 per game) in the league this season. In the likes of Raul Jimenez, Fabio Silva and Daniel Podence, Lage has attacking talent to work with.

He certainly has the midfielders to control games with Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves top level central operators. They are crucial to Lage’s team and offer Wolves plenty on both the attacking and defensive side of the ball. If one of the duo were to leave, with Neves believed to be on the radar of Liverpool and Manchester United, their absence would be felt.

It may be too soon in Wolves’ development under Lage for them to target Champions League qualification, but their growth from the start of the season to now poses the question – how good can they be by the end of the campaign?

“The job comes with two things, it’s consistency, and we spoke at the beginning of the year about personality,” Lage recently explained when asked about rising expectations.

“The personality to play with the ball, to have the consistency in results and performance. In December and January it was very good. Every time with the right mentality because the games are different. The only thing I can promise to the fans is that from now on we need to put these three things into the game – personality, consistency and the right mentality every time. We go game by game. Now on 34 points and we have a break, but we have to come with full energy because February will be very hard.”

Only 20 players have been used by Lage in the Premier League this season and this could lead to some issues with fatigue over the coming weeks and months, but it also underlines how the Portuguese coach knows exactly what he wants from his squad. Wolves play a very distinct style of soccer because their manager has moulded them to do so.

After the end of the Nuno era at Molineux, there was the potential for Wolves to suffer a slide. However, they found a manager who has been able to build on the platform that was left behind for him. Lage might not lead Wolves into the Champions League this season, but their presence in the discussion says a lot about the direction they are heading in.

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