In the summer of 2017, the future of Wolverhampton Wanderers took a significant turn for the better. Fosun International were entering their second year of owning the club, after a seriously underwhelming 2016/17 season. An FA Cup run that saw victories away to Premier League sides, Stoke City and Liverpool was as bright as it got for Wolves, who finished 15th in the Championship. It may not have seemed like it at the time, but the season was of great importance to Wolves, providing a vital learning curve to Fosun, proving that promotion to the Premier League was no easy task.
The first major change came in May 2017. Paul Lambert had been relieved of his duties after a limp end to the Championship campaign, leaving a vacancy in what appeared to be a Molineux hot seat. His replacement was a man called Nuno Espirito Santo, a manager with Champions League experience with Valencia and FC Porto, arriving at Wolves to face the mighty Burton Albion. Fans were full of excitement, dreaming of where he could take the club, only if he were given the right backing. It is fair to say he was.
Ruben Neves – a wonderkid from Porto
Ruben Neves. The youngest ever player to captain a side in the Champions League at 18 years and 221 days. Porto’s wonderkid? More like Wolves’ wonderkid. The £15 million transfer sent shockwaves through English football. It marked a new era for Wolves. Previous record signings in Ivan Cavaleiro and Helder Costa were both statements of intent, but not quite to the extent of signing one of Europe’s most sort after players…whilst being a second division side.
Neves made an impact at Molineux straight away, playing in a midfield pairing with Moroccan international, Romain Saiss. The double-pivot complimented both players styles well, with both Neves and Saiss being able to play elegant football, whilst also holding a solid defensive shape, regularly winning the ball and spraying it out wide. This gave a platform to the likes of Diogo Jota, and the aforementioned Costa and Cavaleiro, to isolate opposition full-backs, giving the option to cut inside and get their shots away.
It’s hard to think of Ruben Neves without the obvious springing to mind. The wondergoal. Undoubtedly, the Portuguese maestro certainly provided plenty in his debut year in English football. From his first goal away at Hull City, to the match-winning free-kick at Cardiff City, to the simply outrageous rocket at home to Derby County, he never failed to disappoint.
The constant use of Wolves’ wingers and wingbacks allowed Neves to utilise his world-class shooting abilities. With opposition players heavily focusing on blocking the wide areas, Neves had the freedom to position himself 30 yards out from goal, waiting to pounce on any loose ball out of the penalty area. Even without the chance to take a shot, his positional play left him in a great position to stop the opposition from springing a counterattack.
Neves in the Premier League
In the 2018/19 season, Wolves were involved in what could be argued as the bargain of the window, signing Joao Moutinho for a measly £5 million, from AS Monaco. For Portuguese natives, it was a match made in heaven. The master and the apprentice, plying their trade together in the greatest league in the world. Moutinho’s impact was evident from the off, acting as a metronome in midfield. Wherever the ball went, he went. This energetic style of play meant that Neves’ role had changed slightly, he had become slightly more defensive. Whilst his elder compatriot shifted the ball from left to right in the opposition half, Neves sat five yards deeper, giving himself the opportunity to unleash his deadly cross-field ball, disrupting the shape of opponents.
Halfway through the 2018/19 campaign, Wolves fans saw the introduction of summer signing, Leander Dendoncker, inviting a change of shape for Wolves, the first time Nuno had done so. The versatile Belgian made up a midfield trio with the two Portuguese internationals, again changing the role of Neves. He had dropped even deeper, at times even dropping in alongside Conor Coady in order to find some space. The tireless nature of both Moutinho and Dendoncker meant that Ruben’s job was to recover possession and recycle the ball, as well as protecting the back three. Some would argue that Neves is unable to hurt teams from this position but Nuno seems to think it’s Neves best role.
A perfect example of Neves’ execution of this role was in the 4-3 victory at home to Leicester City. An end-to-end game that was balanced on a knife-edge, Neves provided an assist to teammate, Diogo Jota, with what seems to be a trademark pass. The composure to pick out Jota with a spectacular 60-yard ball, releasing the pressure from Wolves’ defence while also taking the Leicester defence out of the game. This was followed up by a sensational threaded ball to Raul Jimenez, who then set up Jota to score the games winning goal in added time.
The midfield three was a successful system, taking the club to a first FA Cup Semi-Final in 20 years, as well as European Competition for the first time in 40 years. However, a poor start to the 2019/20 Premier League season, as well as the emergence of Adama Traore as one of the league’s best wingers, meant that a switch back to a midfield two was inevitable. Unsurprisingly at the time, Leander Dendoncker was the man to make way, as Nuno returned to the trusted pairing from 12 months previous.
Neves and Dendoncker
The change has been positive for Neves, as it has allowed him to play with more freedom. This season, Wolves most common midfield pairing is that of Ruben Neves and Leander Dendoncker. The duo are playing some of the best football of their respective career’s, with Wolves conceding only 1 league goal when both have started. The transition from a counterattacking side to a possession-based side is an added bonus for Neves, as when it comes to stretching and carving open opponents with the ball, he is one of the best in the league.
A sign of the sheer quality that Ruben Neves possesses is how he is able to adapt to different systems, with the quality of his play remaining at a high standard. It would be a fair judgement that when playing in a midfield three, Neves can become stifled, lacking the room to manoeuvre, causing him to drop deep. However, despite this, he was still a vital part of the Wolves side, with his defensive displays taking centre stage, becoming a rock in front of the back three.
Neves is still only 23 years old. To think he has captained FC Porto in the Champions League, as well as accumulating nearly 150 Wolves appearances, is truly remarkable, with his importance to the side being astonishing. As a vital member of the dressing room, and with his contract running until at least 2023, there is no reason why Ruben Neves can’t reach unthinkable heights with Wolves.