Inside the Opposition

Inside the Opposition: Wolves vs. Man City (Predicted XI, Man to Watch, Opposition View)

Six goals less rusty and one game more hungry, Manchester City will look to work their way up the food chain as they aim to go from tearing up the Terriers to winning against Wolves this coming Saturday. Though current league form may deceive, Guardiola will face a surprisingly stern test from Nuno Espírito Santo’s Wolverhampton Wanderers, where a match at the Molineux promises bright stars and attacking football as the Wolves aim to stop City from taking the three points back to Manchester.

Though eight years since their last league meeting, City and Wolves are in fact more recent acquaintances, having met in a memorable Carabao Cup match last year in which Claudio Bravo decided to pull his socks up and go on a run of penalty shootout heroics. However, it bears noting that it was this same Wolverhampton who held City to their first goalless draw of the season last year, all in the midst of the Blues’s astounding eighteen game winning run in the Premier League.

As such, a similar opportunity presents itself as it did with Huddersfield. An underdog team returns to face Manchester City with hopes of upsetting the status quo. Yet unlike the Carabao Cup, where unfamiliar faces came up against unfamiliar foes, Guardiola will have no mercy, and his team will be hungry. Hungry like the wolf. For they know that with a win, they will be able to further banish the ghosts that persist from last season, and march on all the stronger.

PREDICTED STARTING XI

Wolverhampton fans might be enjoying a similar sensation to one that Blues experienced in the summer of 2008. With the investment of Fosun International in August 2016, and the growing involvement of super-agent Jorge Mendes, Wolverhampton is gradually becoming home to an astounding list of high profile names, the most recent of which is Portuguese international goalkeeper Rui Patrício. Having immediately displaced Championship hero John Ruddy, Patrício will surely be forced to display his international standard as he faces City’s front line of global superstars.

Moving into defence is where Wolves will be forced to play their hand tactically. In a similar manner to Guardiola, Espírito Santo found a winning formation to build a mesmerising campaign upon as his team swept the Championship last season. However, the key difference is that this took the form of a 3-4-3, with wing backs broadly providing the width to allow for the wide forwards to play more as inside No. 10s as they overloaded the opposition.

Whilst coming up against an attack-minded side will no doubt excite Pep Guardiola, his Portuguese opposite number will likely be perplexed as if to alter their winning formula. Having fought back to a 2-2 draw with Everton and been remarkably unfortunate to lose against Leicester, Espírito Santo may feel there is enough to suggest that Wolves should continue with their attacking system, especially when it comes equipped with three central defenders in Willy Boly, Conor Coady, and Ryan Bennett, who will keep their spots. The trio have admittedly not looked as assured in the first couple of games as they had in the Championship, yet they each have the ability to rise to the occasion.

Consequently, wing backs Jonny Castro Otto and Matt Doherty will remain as the preferred options in wide positions. Doherty will be hoping not to fall victim to any surprisingly deflections this time out, having scored an own goal against Leicester last Saturday, yet is unlikely to receive a morale boost when faced with the combined might of Benjamin Mendy and whichever of City’s attackers inhabits the left flank at the Molineux. Having wing backs who are inclined to play wide may see Guardiola opt for inverted wingers as he did versus Arsenal, which would provide a test further still for the defence of this attacking Wolves side.

It is in the middle of the park at the Molineux that star quality both old and new is to be found, as the duo of João Moutinho and Ruben Neves showcases both past glories and future promises for the Portuguese national team just as much as it does for Wolverhampton Wanderers. Despite tenuous links of Neves to the Etihad, fans of both clubs will be intrigued to see how the younger Portuguese player fares in a more defensive capacity than he is probably used to, with Wolves likely to have to settle for far less of the ball than usual. Contrastingly however, his ability to shoot from distance and play precise passes may have Blues sparing a thought for the injured Kevin De Bruyne, perhaps in sorrow should Neves perform to the best of his ability. Meanwhile, Moutinho is not the force he once was for Monaco, but he still oozes class, and balances the inexperience of his young compatriot with an astute awareness that is always a threat should mistakes begin to occur.

The forward line for Wolves will likely prove to be a new look trio in more ways than one. Despite having scoring seventeen goals and assisting five more in his initial loan season to Wolverhampton last year, Diogo Jota has not looked the same player since making his move permanent this summer. Whilst still the favoured option on the left flank for Wolves, Jota will be hoping he can rediscover his electric form from the Championship to light up the Molineux once again. Centrally will be Raúl Jiménez, the Benfica loanee proving a bright spark with a goal on his debut against Everton and some good attacking verve at Leicester. Finally, the right wing provides the option for Adama Traore to get his first Premier League start, as since having joined from Middlesborough, the silky Spaniard is yet to muscle his way into the starting line-up despite his enormous size. A dynamic second half at the King Power Stadium did more than enough to assure that he has the ability to alter the run of play, and his impressive dribbling will give even the most impressive full backs genuine cause for concern.

PLAYER TO WATCH

As much as the powers of Jorge Mendes and Nuno Espírito Santo have made the entirety of Wolverhampton Wanderers’s squad ones to watch out for in this new season, there can be only one player who rises above the crop of the rest, and for us that is none other than Ruben Neves. When the Molineux rings out with cries that the young man is apparently better than Zidane, know that there is less jest to it than you’d think — the 21 year old is well on his way to being something very special.

If the scintillating highlight reels of last season did not justify the cause, it took Neves just 44 minutes of Premier League action to announce himself, curling a sumptuous free kick past Everton and England’s Jordan Pickford to bring his side back into the game. The case for Neves’s inclusion here is not merely one privy to his goalscoring ability however, more so the overall quality that he elevates Wolves to. Be it passes, goals, assists, tackles, or leadership, the Portuguese international has it all, which proves a frightening prospect given the fact he is still only 21 years old and without the top-class training that could elevate him to a different rank of player.

Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

Admittedly, the more defensive duties he will likely be tasked with against City will not provide as excellent viewing as 25 yard wonder volleys, yet Neves is a player who has the ability to sustain a team in morale as well as attacking contributions. It will be intriguing to see how the superstar of Wolves adjusts when facing the reigning superstars of the Premier League, but his comments in the Sky Sports Premier League launch show would suggest that he is counting down the days until he can do just that. Having lauded City as “one of the best teams in the world” and one he is excited to face, the clash between the two may in fact show fans what Neves is truly made of.

Writer’s note: A sneaky mention goes out to Adama Traoré, who completely changed the game when he came on against Leicester. Watch out if he gets on the ball — the Spanish winger completed 243 successful dribbles at Middlesborough last season. For perspective, last year saw Eden Hazard and Mohamed Salah combined completed 244. Scary stuff.

OPPOSITION VIEW

In order to get the inside track on Sunday’s match, we spoke to Tim Spiers, the renowned correspondent and responsible for all things in-the-know for Wolverhampton Wanderers in his work for the Express and Star. Let’s hear what he has to say on the challenges of promotion, the reinvention of established English clubs, and a dash of Portuguese promise…

Thanks for talking to us, Tim! What with the whirlwind by which Wolves swept the Championship last season, the atmosphere around the city must have been electric. Do you think Wolves’ hotly anticipated return to the top flight of English football has affected ambitions, or are club and fans determined to reach even higher?

Fosun’s takeover in 2016 was widely welcomed by a fanbase frustrated by years or perceived under-spending from a three-year Premier League spell (2009-2012) that was followed by disastrous successive relegations to League One. Kenny Jackett restored pride with an instant promotion back to the Championship but the club then stalled again and new investment and big ambitions were greeted with open arms.

In 2016/17 there were a plethora of teething problems (two failed managers and a host of poor signings) but Nuno Espirito Santo’s arrival in 2017 saw everything come together very quickly, with his close relationship with super agent Jorge Mendes proving crucial in marrying recruitment with Nuno’s preferred playing style.
Wolves stormed to the title with 99 points and, combined with a massive summer spending spree (by Wolves’ standards) of £67million, suddenly Fosun’s hopes of breaking into English football’s elite within the next 10 years don’t look so outlandish.

Make no mistake, they want to get to the top. They’re a successful global investment company and have the finances to back that up. The aim for this season is to thrive, not just survive.

The squad is young and has room for improvement so expectations have duly soared.

It’s a fascinating period at the club, probably the most exciting time for at least four decades, and there is genuinely belief that Wolves can break into that top six in the coming years.

For now they need to walk before they can run but in the medium to long term the club, on and off the field, have limitless ambitions.

We obviously can’t go long without discussing the curious cases of ownership and agency at Wolverhampton. It’s interesting that in the case of both Wolves and City, old English clubs reinvented under new ownership are deemed to be upsetting the apple cart, despite their footballing heritage. In your opinion, do you feel that the continued rise of both clubs is simply levelling the playing field, or changing it even more?

The days of earning success on a shoestring are long gone, as is the romantic notion of a self-made man running his local club (Sir Jack Hayward being one of the last of that generation). Steve Morgan took over from Sir Jack and, a builder by trade, he tried to construct Wolves from the bottom up with big investment in the training ground (£50m) and stadium (£18m with plans for the rest of the ground that never came to fruition).

Fosun arrived with big pockets and bigger dreams. Wolves have only spent four seasons in top flight since 1984 and the only way for them – and Manchester City – to earn tangible and prolonged success is via the backing of multi-billionaires. Any talk of it being disrespectful in any way to Wolves’ heritage doesn’t carry much weight in an era where the only thing that matters is money. I think any fans’ preference would be for local owners and local investment but it’s just not realistic. Wolves have spent years trying to do it a different way and it hasn’t work. If you can’t beat them, join them.

Would you think those at Wolves look to City as an aspirational model in that sense, or do they classify themselves as something else altogether?

In terms of off-field infrastructure any club in England would probably class City as the template to follow in terms of investment in the training ground, the Academy Stadium, a worldwide scouting network and a fruitful academy.

However Fosun are already an established and globally successful investment firm – this is their first foray into sport but they want to transfer their methodology to Wolves.

Jeff Shi [Wolves’ Executive Chairman] told me in March: “Some fans want to compare us with Manchester City or Chelsea but it’s different. My knowledge of other industries is that you can never copy anyone else to do something good. You can learn from them but eventually you have to absorb all the experience and try to find your own way of doing it – that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Evidently the influence of Jorge Mendes has been massive in terms of transforming the calibre of transfers coming into Wolves. However, now that these players have the exposure of the Premier League though, is there a concern that Wolves could fall victim to a transfer roundabout, or become a halfway house for Mendes’s clients? How might the club hope to combat such an effect?

Opinion of Mendes’ influence at Wolves have been dictated purely by results. He became involved at the club through Fosun’s takeover, which he helped to facilitate, but when he threw Wolves a load of dodgy signings in that first season there were plenty of concerns that he was too influential, especially when that influence helped speed up the departure of Paul Lambert in May 2017 (Lambert’s tenure won’t be viewed kindly in retrospect, but at the time opinion was split as whether to keep in charge).

We ran a poll in the paper at the end of 2016/17 and 69% felt Mendes was too influential… at the end of the title-winning season that number had reduced to 2%. The man known affectionately as ‘Uncle Jorge’ (they even sang his name at times last season) can do no wrong and as stated, his relationship with Nuno (who was Mendes’ first ever client when he was a young goalkeeper) has been pivotal to Wolves’ success.

There are fears though that if/when Nuno moves on to greater things then the whole thing could fall apart, so it’s up to Fosun to plan for the future to replace both him and the likes of Neves and Jota. Speed of growth would negate that – if Wolves build quickly, year on year and get to Europe in the next two seasons, for example, then their head coach and their stars would probably stay for longer. But there’s certainly the issue of what happens when Mendes/Gestifute become less interested in Wolves (we’ve already seen him spread his tentacles to Bolton, Forest and Villa of late). Wolves are already well entrenched in the Mendes merry-go-round and for better or worse that looks like being the case for a while yet.

Regardless of transfer business however, one of the things that has really put Wolves back on the map is the brand of attacking football brought in by manager Nuno Espírito Santo. It’s been noticeable just how well they’ve managed to hold their own against Everton and Leicester so far, despite some rotten luck at the King Power last weekend. Will Nuno look to continue with this approach against more aggressive sides like City, or might he seek to innovate his 3-4-3 set up?

One of Nuno’s many principles is to imprint and impose his philosophy on the opposition and not sacrifice his beliefs for anybody. Last season it was 3-4-3 week after week and to be honest, I thought they’d come unstuck at some point for not having a plan B.

That didn’t prove to the case – they waltzed the league and played the finest football I’ve ever seen at Molineux. However, they’re now a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond and they may have to respect the opposition a little more this season. A couple of the players have already spoken of the difficult in prising apart opposition defences, who are obviously far more organised and savvy than those in the Championship. You’re more likely to see Robert Taylor given a rousing standing ovation from both sets of fans at Molineux on Saturday than you are to hear Nuno shout ‘get it in the mixer lads’ but the head coach may need a plan B up his sleeve this season.

Indeed, City fans will be all too familiar with Wolves after they became the first side to stop Guardiola’s side scoring inside 90 minutes last October. What can fans expect when the two sides face off at the Molineux on Saturday?

I’m interested to see how Wolves approach it. Arguably the only occasion they set up with a staunch defensive line-up last season was for that game at the Etihad (mind you they still created a number of clear-cut chances on the counter attack). Every other time they’ve taken to the field under Nuno they’ve been on the attack from the off – they took the game to Leicester last weekend and could have been 3-0 up inside 20 minutes and Nuno has spoken this week of the first goal being absolutely key (Wolves scored first 33 times last season and won 30 of those games, drawing the other three) after conceding first against both Everton and Leicester.

Fans can expect to see a confident team who won’t fear City and are always comfortable at home. They’ve lost only twice under Nuno and it’s very much been ‘Fortress Molineux’.

Adama Traore impressed off the bench at Leicester last weekend, with the £18m man making his debut from the bench, and he stormed past defenders like an express train. He, along with Neves, Joao Moutinho, Jota and Raul Jimenez (a Mexican international striker on loan from Benfica who has impressed) have the capability to trouble City, but it’s at the other end where I’d been concerned. Wolves kept 24 clean sheets last season but have conceded four goals in two games and look defensively uneasy for the first time under Nuno.

Whatever happens they’ll certainly be easy on the eye – they play it out from back and move it around nicely in midfield with the pace of Jota, Helder Costa and Traore making them explosive up front.

How do you think the final scoreline might look?

I don’t think it will be the massacre some are fearing after City’s demolition of Huddersfield last week. In the past Wolves have upset Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and, yes, City in the Premier League and if they score the first goal, backed by a vociferous crowd, then you never know. However with head ruling heart, I’d have to say City will win 3-1.

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