Wolves might be about to appoint a former Real Madrid and Spain coach. How times have changed in the Premier League.
In the end, it was a little difficult to see why they didn’t pull the trigger a little earlier. September was a quiet month for Wolves, with just two Premier League matches which ended with a win against Southampton and an obviously expected home defeat against Manchester City. But their return to the Premier League schedule, a 2-0 defeat at West Ham, hinted that nothing had particularly changed in a fortnight.
The West Ham defeat left them third from bottom in the Premier League with just one win from their first eight games. Only fellow Midlands late-risers Nottingham Forest and Leicester City remain below them in the table, and losing this match only heightened the sense that this season is rapidly becoming an attritional one in which any position above 18th in the final league table will have to be considered a success. And the West Ham game was a clear relegation six-pointer. The sacking of Bruno Lage after another stale performance was certainly no great surprise.
At a club which has had few issues with the rigours of the Premier League since returning four years ago, that feeling of slight stagnation always felt likely to curdle further. Wolves have failed to score more than a goal a game for the last two seasons and this season has seen them net just three goals in eight matches.
It’s true to say that football is almost entirely a result-based industry these days, but it remains equally true that when a team is struggling to entertain while picking up results, goodwill will usually be in short supply when the flow of points slows.
And while last season was a little underwhelming, Lage can hardly claim that he wasn’t backed in the transfer market during the summer, with Matheus Nunes arriving from Sporting Clube for £42m, Nathan Collins from Burnley for £20m and Sasa Kalajdzic for £15m.
But when the ball isn’t running your way, it isn’t running your way. Kalajdzic damaged his anterior cruciate ligament against Southampton and is expected to be out for the rest of the season. His stop-gap replacement Diego Costa made his debut from the bench at West Ham, but he’s going to need to hit the ground running if Wolves aren’t to continue to labour near the foot of the table.
But it’s the departure of a player which says something truly telling about how things have been flatlining at Wolves over the last few months. Conor Coady left on loan for Everton at the start of this season after more than 300 games for Wolves, with the suggestion that he couldn’t fit into the four-man defence that Bruno Lage preferred. But reverting to a three-man defence coupled with decent performances from Coady as Everton pulled through their early-season tremors has made letting him go look like a serious error of judgement. Everton are believed to be in something of a hurry to make his signature permanent, which isn’t in the slightest bit surprising.
So while other managerial changes this season may have raised an eyebrow or two, the departure of Lage from Molineux feels somewhat more like the inevitable closure of an admittedly brief chapter. Lage had replaced Nuno Espirito Santo, whose football had occasionally looked a little reductive but who had got them back into the Premier League in the first place and kept them well clear of turbulence.
Time is not on their side. Wolves have a total of six Premier League matches to play in the month of October, and nine matches (including an EFL Cup match against Leeds) before everybody breaks up for the winter World Cup. It’s enough to make you wonder; if the West Ham result was enough to tip Wolves over the edge insofar as Lage was concerned, might it not have made a little more sense to make this change a couple of weeks ago, when there was a little bit of time to play with?
Of course, with Wolves being Wolves, the list of potential replacements has a distinctly Iberian flavour. The influence of Jorge Mendes continues to loom large over the club (both Lage and Santo are clients of his), even though it’s been whispered that the club will be taking a different approach to 15 months ago, when the arrival of Lage seemed like pretty much a done deal as soon as Santo was gone.
At the very top of that list is Julen Lopetegui. He remains best-remembered for his failure to coach the Spain national team at the 2018 World Cup, when he was sacked on the eve of the tournament after Real Madrid announced that he would be their new manager after the tournament. Lopetegui lasted just four months at the Bernabeu before getting sacked, but he was picked up by Sevilla, where he won the Europa League in 2020.
But Lopetegui is in trouble; Sevilla have had a disastrous start to this season. They’re only one point above the relegation places in La Liga and have only taken one point from their first two Champions League matches, with the suggestion that the manager will be replaced by Jorge Sampaoli after their upcoming Champions League match against Borussia Dortmund. Lopetegui’s name was linked with Wolves in 2016, at the time when they ended up going with the somewhat disastrous choice of Walter Zenga. The lure of having a crack in the Premier League may prove too strong for him now.
And the very fact that a former Spain and Real Madrid coach – albeit not a very successful one and, yes, a client of Jorge Mendes – is being linked with a job near the bottom of the Premier League tells a story of how football in England is changing.
There was a time not so long ago when a club in the Premier League relegation places in need of a new manager would inevitably be linked with any one of a number of English ‘firefighters’ (usually a doughty mid-ranking coach with an ‘s’ on the end of their surname, such as Alan Curbishley or Alan Pardew), but times are different now.
Avoiding relegation from the top flight is, of course, as critical as ever, but the manner in which clubs expect to do so certainly seems to have changed. Some of the names from that current generation of firefighter have, of course, been mentioned in dispatches, but it says something for both the unique way in which Wolves are run and the ever-rising profile of the Premier League that the likes of Sean Dyche or Dean Smith are unlikely to get as much of a look-in.
Lopetegui is a Mendes client, and prior to this season his record with Sevilla had been decent. That is enough to make him the odds-on favourite to be the new Wolves manager.
With Wolves’ shortcomings having been evident through a tepid second half to last season and this season having started just as badly, there was no surprise whatsoever to the news that Bruno Lage was being replaced. But the continued involvement of Jorge Mendes at the club does add a little jeopardy to the identity of his replacement.
Lopetegui is certainly high-profile, but it does feel as though the Mendes variable means that – on the surface, at least – unexpected names will be associated with the position whenever it does become available. But with Premier League survival at stake, this is clearly a gamble that the club has to be happy to take. If Lopetegui takes the job and keeps them up, it will be one that will have handsomely paid off.