The date is 20 December 2021. Wolves have navigated 18 Premier League fixtures, near enough half a season and sit in 8th place on 25 points. At their current trajectory that would leave them on 53 points by the end of the campaign. Good enough for a position between 9th and 12th over the course of the past three years of Premier League football. A respectable enough result you would suggest, given the context surrounding the club at the moment. A small squad, significant injury absentees within that squad, basically the same group of players that have been churning out performances over the past 3+ years. An upturn in performance levels relative to the previous season, with only 14 goals conceded. And yet, it’s safe to say that nobody quite knows what to make of this Wolves team as it stands.
Now seems as good a time as any to really position the yardstick around Bruno Lage’s tenure. The Guardian and Express & Star have recently offered their thoughts and as you would expect, they both strike a different tone. This in itself shows you where the team is at this moment in time. As always, context is King.
Bruno, without a hefty transfer budget, with all the talk of ‘sell-to-buy’ and a tightening of pursestrings from Fosun, was never truly in a position to realise his vision of a scintillating hurricane of a team, in homage to what he produced at Benfica. But lest we forget, this is Bruno’s only tenure in charge of a football club as Head Coach before joining us. His best work during that time was to make the most of what he had in situ. So what sense did it make to give a relative novice free reign to spend at will in a sport as random, as prone to fortune as football? We only have to look at the first three fixtures of this season to understand how cruel this game can be.
Therefore, Bruno has had to lean on his coaching craft, endeavour and tactical innovation in order to produce what is now a formidable Premier League side – and it’s worth labouring this point. Wolves have become the toughest team to play against in the entire league aside from Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea. All whilst no additions have been made to the backline, aside from a rethink between the sticks, with Jose Sa providing an excellent platform in a totally different way to Rui Patricio’s approach to keeping clean sheets. He’s arguably had his most competent pure defender unavailable to him. The one centre back that was brought in (knowingly not likely to impact the first team immediately) has been struck down by another long term injury. The best one-v-one defender at the club is currently recovering from a second ACL injury. And still, Bruno has produced a sturdy, more proactive and capable defence, in and out of possession. You wonder how many of his more experienced counterparts would have produced such immediate and effective results in the circumstances. We’re yet to concede a goal from a set piece. I repeat – we have not conceded a single goal from a set piece. That’s absurd, all while leaving players forward at corners too.
At which point we move on to the other element of our side – the attack. The numbers don’t make for great reading, and you don’t need me to spell them out for you here. But this is the part of the pitch where Bruno has a plethora of options, even without the talismanic Pedro Neto. He’s made it clear that he is looking to tailor his attacking approach to the type of game he wants to play and the qualities his forwards demonstrate. Notably, if he wants us to dominate the ball, Adama Traore is usually the man to give way. If we’re looking to counter from a deep position, Traore is an absolute shoo-in it seems. Each of our forwards have shown flashes of quality, but none have looked like nailing a position down, bar Raul Jimenez, who despite being in a class of his own as an individual just isn’t offering the threat to goal we need from him. Bruno has every right to expect more from his forward players and from my vantage point behind the dugout, it was clear to see he’s not happy with them at this moment. The only one who can argue to be producing at this moment in time is Daniel Podence, who was cruelly struck by COVID just as he was coming into a spell of form. That put paid to his involvement versus Norwich which I would suggest was a game tailor-made for him to have an impact.
Mitigating factors are forever going to play a part, especially in what is going to continue to be a heavily disrupted season, but they have to form part of the narrative. I don’t feel as if Bruno is an excuse-maker at this point, but he certainly has a few things he could point to that give him plenty of room for slack. This, coupled with the simple fact it’s incredibly difficult to coach a coherent attack at this level when you don’t have the best attacking players in the league at your disposal (that’s not to say we don’t have talent, but losing a Diogo Jota isn’t a player you can equitably replace immediately).
We are what we are right now – solid and reliable to an extent, always in games and inconsistent with our attacking output. That’s why we’ve won as many games as we’ve lost at this stage in the season. League position is an entirely relative thing, the only impact we can have on other teams picking up points are the 6 available to us against each of the teams we play. With that in mind, a finish between 9th and 12th I’m sure would have been acceptable at the start of the season. To be in a situation where we can see the potential for greater, a well-navigated first half of the season that Bruno can point to as evidence he’s capable at this level and well worth backing in the transfer market and a defensive platform that the majority of the league would envy, I think we can safely say that Bruno’s Half-Term Report would read ‘progressing nicely, plenty more to come’.