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The watcher in the Wolves

Nuno Espírito Santo may have lifted the 2004 Champions League title with Porto, but he spent the final firmly on the bench behind an animated José Mourinho — and, incidentally, next to Benni McCarthy.

This was his perch. In a career that spanned 18 years, the Portuguese made a feeble 199 senior club appearances (for context, David de Gea surpassed 300 long before he turned 27). 

If we’re being cynical, backup goalkeepers, alongside third-string quarterbacks, are about as close as you can get to a free pay cheque in the sports world. For Nuno, however, it was an opportunity that would lay the foundations for a future career, one that has seen him as anything but a peripheral figure.

“This gave me two views, two perspectives,” he wrote in The Coaches’ Voice shortly after Wolverhampton Wanderers won the Championship to secure promotion. “This allows you to see the game, to see space, to see everything. It helped me in the way I understand football now.”

Since arriving in England last year, Nuno has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to read the game situation before kick-off. He possesses incredible dexterity in being able both to set his team out to adapt to the opposition and to maintain its own attacking identity. Too often these are considered polarising ideals in football. 

Arguably not since Blackpool in 2010 have we seen a side come into the Premier League after years of absence and have the confidence not to waiver in their strategy in the face of the big boys. Unlike Ian Holloway’s rash assailants, the evidence suggests Nuno’s shrewd tactics will not be easily knocked back down to the Championship. Wolves sit seventh as we head into the international break and don’t look out of place in their top 10 chair.

It’s his favoured 3-4-3 that has proved to be the nucleus of this early success. Wing backs Jonathan Castro and Matt Doherty are encouraged to get right on the touchline, spreading play as wide as possible. Conor Coady, who sits centre of the same back three that was first choice last season, fulfils the role of playmaker and is able to ping the ball to either side from his own box.

Key to this puzzle are Wolves’ deep-lying playmakers — Rúben Neves and the recent coup of João Moutinho — who are able to cycle the ball by finding a forward pass or stretch the field by collecting possession from one side and laying off a through ball for a zooming wing back on the other.

Up front, Hélder Costa and Diogo Jota create space for Doherty and Castro by regularly cutting inside and drawing away defenders’ attention. They, along with focal point Raúl Jiménez, have enough individual talent to worry the opposition with dribbles that force them out of shape and create gaps.

When Wolves lose the ball, the 3-4-3 fluidly converts to a 5-4-1. The wing backs drop back level with the back three as quickly as possible while the two wide attackers flank the playmakers to create a flat back four in midfield. Nuno then demands a high press to deny the opposition the chance to settle on the ball and exploit their own gaps. 

The defensive shape has proved particularly blunting recently — they’ve conceded only one goal in their last five league games and it came in their first-class draw at Old Trafford.

The deadly efficacy of the blueprint was encapsulated in the sole goal at Crystal Palace last Saturday. Left centre back Willy Boly crunched into the tackle from the flank, won the ball back and spread it to Neves in the middle. Doherty then received it on the right, played it for Raúl Jiménez to hold in the box, before making his regular inside run and belting it near post.

Nuno has not only brought the plan to Molineux, but also the players to implement it. The quality that he has delivered to a club with the stature of Wolves can onlybe described as remarkable. 

Boly, Jota and Neves arrived when Nuno had nothing but Championship football to offer them. Ahead of Premier League football, Moutinho, Jiménez and Castro were shrewdly acquired.Which brings us to the beginning of the story.

In his years of polishing the bench in Spain and Portugal, Nuno was watching, learning and networking. The relationships he made opened the door for him to become a coach in his own right. From there, he’s exponentially expanded his list of connections that are primarily responsible for Wolves being able to secure the talent that they have. 

In a way, Nuno is rewriting the back-up goalkeeper narrative and what we understand it to encapsulate.

How far he can take Wolves?

Champions League is probably a dream too distant this season — but maybe not in the greater context of the project. For now, at least, they’re offering some tasty football for the neutral observer to devour.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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