Is Nuno Espirito Santo’s Greatest Strength Also His Biggest Weakness?

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After brushing past some of the basement dwellers of the Premier League over the first week of post-lockdown football, everything seemed set for Wolves to make a sustained assault on the top four and the riches on offer with that. However, two disparaging defeats in the space of just five days seem to have brought everybody back down to Earth with an abrupt bump.

The major success of the three successive wins achieved by Wolves (and in general through Nuno’s reign) is the defensive solidarity that Wolves have shown, nullifying the opposition to few or no chances and then taking the few opportunities that they have been able to create to settle these matches by the odd goal.

Yet in the last couple of games against better opposition, Nuno’s conservative nature is something that seems to have backfired. A mixture of slow tempo, ponderous passing and numerous uncharacteristic mistakes now have Wolves looking over their shoulder rather than above them in the league table.

Nobody at Wolves is immune to criticism – even Nuno

As much as we’re all happy to call Nuno “The Special One” and rightly laud him for the outstanding work he has done over the past three years, this should not make him exempt from any criticism when it is deserved. Whilst the players have not covered themselves in much glory over the past two matches, it is the over-cautious nature of Nuno and his side that has irked the majority of the fanbase. The decision to replace Adama Traore for Leander Dendoncker against Sheffield United was especially baffling, especially when a win was needed to keep pace with those above. Even more so when talented substitutes such as Ruben Vinagre and Daniel Podence have been surprisingly underused since lockdown.

Every Wolves fan still has painful memories of Wembley last year, and how Wolves’ approach to try and sit on a two-goal lead which ultimately backfired. But it should be remembered that Nuno is not averse to springing an offensive tactic from the offset, such as against Cardiff City at home last season. In that instance, Vinagre and Traore were brought in at wing-back with Morgan Gibbs-White operating as the more advanced midfielder. And it reaped the rewards as Wolves were 2-0 up in the first twenty minutes, with Gibbs-White,  Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota especially combining brilliantly for the opening goal.

As a head coach renowned for making minimal changes from game to game, it would be nice to see Nuno break the mould and try something different. Whether it is to give Gibbs-White a final chance to show that he is ready for Premier League football, or the aforementioned Vinagre, Podence or Pedro Neto (injury permitting) getting some game time, it would be good for Wolves to show an actual impetus from the get-go and force Jordan Pickford into making some saves. If a player such as Jota is dropped it may also fire him up, knowing that he has a fight on his hands in order to get back into the side. The team at the moment feels too predictable, and some players’ position in the starting eleven seems too secure for some of the performances being delivered but that is one of the problems with having a small squad. The unit may gel better and feel more of a team but players pretty much know that their places are safe even if they’ve had a series of bad performances. 

With just over two weeks of the season remaining, Wolves’ fate is still very much in the air, and also very much in their hands too. Whilst a top-four finish now looks a bit too far away now, a top-six finish would still be a fantastic achievement. However, a continuation of such a ‘safety first’ approach and reliance on individual brilliance could end up costing them dearly, come the end of the campaign.

Callum Rose is part of the Talking Wolves editorial team – you can follow him on Twitter here.